Confessions of a Good “Bad Feminist”

By Anonymous
Illustrations by Stellar Leuna

For many women, acting on feminist ideology can be daunting, as it comes into such sharp conflict with patriarchal definitions of how women should behave. This young feminist reflects on the challenges of navigating these two competing sets of expectations.

We all have an idea of what a ”real” feminist is, and might just have a lot in common with them. I can be a perfect feminist 70% of the time — be independent, dress like A Boss, undermine stereotypical notions of beauty, and generally Flip Patriarchy the Bird. But the other 30% of the time, I just want to dance in the sluttiest dress I can find on my own private Channing Tatum cross Christian Gray, who Makes Decisions and Pays For Things. I am a good bad feminist, and I bet you are too.

The battle starts when I wake up looking like shit. The dilemma: do I put on makeup and transform myself into a “presentable woman”? Or do I fuck the patriarchy at nine AM and go to work looking like a “real woman”? I mean, my mascara wand is the barrel of the makeup industry gun that rains bullets of insecurity on unsuspecting teenagers. But there’s a sexy barista next door.

It’s been one year since I wore makeup regularly or shaved my underarms. If I had two words to describe how I feel, it’d be ‘proud’ and ‘hideous’. Intellectually, I’m satisfied that I’ve rejected an oppressive beauty ideal that’s wasted my time and money since the age of thirteen. But knowing these beauty standards are artificial and oppressive doesn’t make me feel any less ugly. Occasionally, I give myself a “day off” where I wear pretty clothes and makeup. It’s depressing how much more attractive and confident I feel. But this only strengthens my conviction that I should, in an act of defiance, stay as ugly as possible, as often as possible.

At 23, I can usually get away with this experiment without people deeming me undesirable or unprofessional. A considerable proportion of women simply can’t choose a life without grooming, because the penalties under a patriarchal system are too great. But because I am young, I am let off as being ‘a bit hippie’ rather than ‘letting myself go’.

But grooming decisions are just one place where desires conflict with feminist principles. Being a woman means living with the weight of gender stereotypes, but with the added burden of knowing about gender stereotypes and believing you shouldn’t buy into them. If you succeed, society gives you the thumbs down. If you don’t, you’ve “failed” as a feminist. In a world where we are all enlightened about gender inequality but haven’t managed to fix it yet, you really can’t win.

Cognitive dissonance is the state of holding two conflicting desires or beliefs simultaneously, and psychology confirms that we find it extremely distressing. In addition to feelings of guilt and shame, there’s the unanswerable question that accompanies every decision: do I want this because I’ve been socially conditioned to want it? Or do I actually, intrinsically, want a Brazilian wax/to be a trophy wife/to pole dance? Internal conflicts eat away at your confidence, confuse you, and exhaust you.

Last year, my friend and I ran out of money while travelling. Finding a sugar daddy online became a running joke. I was stunned to receive a message from her while writing this article saying that she’d followed through. A man she met online pays her, with a flat rate per date, to be his girlfriend. If someone asked me why I didn’t follow through on the joke too, I’d probably answer that it’s demeaning to be subservient to a man. But, truth be told, the reason I wouldn’t do it is purely stigma. I thought I’d be appalled listening to her new routine, but I was mostly envious, that she gets to make a living by having sex instead of working in an office. This friend also identifies strongly as a feminist and feels conflicted as a result. She loves her work, but concedes, “Big Picture-wise, it probably hurts feminism.”

My internal conflicts play out in even the most basic areas of my sexuality. On an intellectual level, I genuinely believe men should break down macho stereotypes, and I appreciate the feminist concern that porn normalises sex where women are mere accessories to male pleasure. And the anti-porn feminists are probably right: porn probably is affecting men’s expectations of how women should look and act in bed. But where does that leave women who enjoy this kind of sex? What if you’re all across the feminist critique of porn still enjoy spanking and submission by a guy who looks like they belong in a UFC championship? You feel confused, ashamed, and complicit in your own degradation, that’s what.

My sexual preferences have definitely changed since we reached the seedy zenith of internet porn. I am left with the destabilising question of whether porn cultivated these desires in me, or whether they were always there and porn just helped me find them. It might not sound like a big deal, but it’s distressing when you don’t know if you have ownership over your thoughts, feelings and desires. It’s unnerving to think of my sexuality being manipulated and controlled by an external, inimical source.

The dissonance in me came to a head in early a recent relationship when I realised that my boyfriend liked it when I was in pain. He never hurt me badly, but he’d take play-fighting a little too far and wouldn’t stop when I asked. I felt like a pussy for complaining because it was just a slap on the thigh. So I kept quiet. Then I’d wonder: if he didn’t listen to me on this small scale, would he listen if it were more than a playful punch on the arm? But at the same time it excited me.

When I talk to friends about this, I’m often asked why there’s a problem, if I’m “into it”. But for a lot of women it’s not as simple as being “into it”. What if they feel exhilarated by an ostensibly degrading sex act, but also feel ashamed and gross. As my friend put it, “I resent that most men expect women to like being objectified because that’s what they’re used to seeing in porn. But I fucking enjoy it.”

There’s a second reason why it’s a cop out to say that everything’s hunky dory if the woman is “into it”. Sure, I might be feeling fucking excellent during degrading sex, but is my fucking excellent really all that matters? Am I free to do whatever I personally find excellent or are my cheap thrills letting down the sisterhood?

Different feminists give different answers to this question. Radical, 1970s-style feminists argue that each woman should consider the consequences of their actions for all women, while contemporary feminism is more focussed on individual choice. Contemporary feminists say it’s ok to fuck up, that there’s no such thing as a ‘bad feminist’ and you can’t ‘let the sisterhood down’. You’re no less of a feminist if you wear lipstick and have a sugar daddy. But this doesn’t make me feel any less guilty about makeup or enjoying it when my boyfriend slapped me, as I think about women trapped in abusive relationships. Ironically, feminist guilt can be just as damaging as whatever old-fashioned sexists can dish out.

Cartoon by Stellar Leuna

There is still a latent sexism amongst men who see themselves as ‘concerned feminists’ under the influence of second-wave feminism. A contemporary feminist approach would require these men to break down the Madonna/whore dichotomy, to do away with the division between “good” and “bad” girls which would otherwise allow them to go on disrespecting the latter. It’s not that difficult for any men, feminist or otherwise, to respect an intelligent female friend. It’s more radical when they hold an equal degree of respect for the women they watch in porn clips. I’m waiting for the day that men start respecting even those women who actively “don’t respect themselves”.

Maybe that’s when I’ll stop feeling so conflicted. Essentially, the problem is the disjunction between our sophisticated awareness of gender stereotypes and the depressing lack of real-world progress. In an ideal world, gendered expectations would disappear, and I could go about my business barefaced and hairy without feeling ugly. But that’s unlikely. A more viable (and perhaps more radical) option is that we get to a stage where I command the same respect on my knees as I do in the office. Perhaps the strongest protest we women can stage is straddling that line between “good” and “bad” girl — between “good” and “bad” feminist. I dream of a time when there are no situations where I feel like a ‘bad feminist’, because there are no domains where women aren’t respected, slutty or otherwise.

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