“You Can’t Sit with Us”: On the Perils of Mean-Girl Feminism

[Originally written in August 2014.]

It feels like a particularly exciting time to be following lady news, if only for the sheer volume of discussion taking place. As August came to a close, the world’s biggest pop star flaunted her allegiance to feminism in front of ten million viewers, just days before the nation’s first affirmed consent law passed in California. Meanwhile, nuanced insights into online privacy and sexism in politics and rape-preventing nail polish have elevated the discourse to an extent I honestly couldn’t have imagined a few years ago.

Amid all these positive vibes, it’s tempting to dismiss the Women Against Feminism as a bunch of reactionary kooks. A Tumblr launched in July 2013, W.A.F. is more about crowdsourcing personal manifestos than adhering to any cohesive philosophy. Often, all the featured women have in common are their handwritten signs and a general feeling of alienation from the feminist community, though it’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of them are quite young. Extremist (“I don’t need feminism because it has caused Western women to be the most spoiled, selfish, bratty, egotistical, brainwashed, slutty bunch of females”), trollish (I don’t need feminism because I don’t hate men”), and simply befuddling (“I don’t need feminism because catcalling isn’t rape”) claims coexist with more thoughtful ones:

“I don’t need feminism because being a woman isn’t a disadvantage.” “I don’t need feminism because I don’t feel oppressed.” “I don’t need feminism because I want to be judged by my abilities instead of my gender.”

These ideas may be naive and privileged, but they’re not stupid. Which is why the reactions to them — including Twitter parodies riddled with misspellings and blog posts that counter sweeping generalizations about feminists with sweeping generalizations about anyone who would dare disavow feminism — bum me out so much. As awfully gendered as the word catty is, it seems like a fitting way to describe a site that compares sentient female humans to confused felines. You could even argue that, by refusing to engage with the Women Against Feminism on any kind of sincere level, such responses justify the need for a Women Against Feminism forum (see: Lewis’s Law).

This type of trashing isn’t anything new: most recently, it’s found expression in the mockery of individual celebrities who shy away from the feminist label. Like Queen Bey herself, Taylor Swift had voiced confusion about feminism before ultimately embracing it last month. While a few of Swift’s earliest songs contain problematic associations between sexual innocence and female virtue, I was always optimistic about her feminist future, largely because — as a songwriter — she’s naturally inclined toward self-reflection. The nastiness directed at her by some women’s media outlets felt unwarranted enough to be memorable, even a couple years down the road.

Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart wrote of Swift back in 2012: “For Taylor, fifteen means falling for a boy and dreaming of marrying him. My fifteen was more like: Flirt with this one, make out with that one, try a cigarette, get drunk, lie to your parents, read some Anais Nin, wish you lived in France, attempt to adopt Shakespearean euphemisms for sex into casual conversation (“beast with two backs” was very popular in my circle Freshman year), etc.”

There’s something pretty destructive about painting feminism as a club that only people who were cool teenagers get to join. Doing so disregards the richness and complexity of our personal histories. After all, there’s a huge difference between condemning slut-shaming and denying a 22 year-old girl’s right to experience intellectual development — to define who she is and what she believes — at her own pace; the latter contributes to anti-feminist movements by perpetuating the idea that feminism is an exclusionary and particular beast, created for someone else instead of you.

When I look back on my early twenties, I remember having convictions about what it meant to be a strong woman, but I’m not sure I would have fully owned the f-word had anyone cared to shove a microphone in my face. For all my fervent love of Shakespearean euphemisms, I wanted to enjoy his plays without subjecting them to the “20th-century sausage grinder,” as our college’s most celebrated English professor charmingly called the department’s required gender theory class. Feminism seemed useful for disenfranchised women and irrelevant to me personally, because I was sheltered enough to believe I could bypass discrimination with a little bit of ’tude and a lot of long hours.

Like superheroes, feminists have origin stories — they just tend to unfold much more slowly. A mentor at my first job helped me understand the practical applications of feminism, which resonated way more than the sociopolitical ones I’d encountered in school. Soon I began to notice a million tiny injustices: bosses who assumed my male coworkers with exactly the same job title were more analytical than I was, dude friends who relied on their younger sisters to buy their parents’ birthday presents and send the bill, and so many brilliant women in my life who constantly criticized themselves, as if negating their own value before someone else could do it. At a certain point I decided enough was enough.

To have your eyes opened to misogyny is to enter a state of perpetual pissed-offedness, because it’s kind of fucking everywhere. Catch me on a bad day and I might even resemble the angry, humorless Feminazi of men’s rights lore. I am enraged when I think about my young nieces coming of age a culture that passively condones street harassment, and that can make it hard to laugh about anything, and when I share these thoughts with men, plenty of them (yes, I know, hashtag NOT ALL OF THEM) really are ignorant assholes. I get so much empowerment from feminism, as well as a wonderful sense of belonging, but I’d be lying if I said I never yearned for a simpler time when I could go shopping without a “Mermaids Don’t Do Homework” crop top ruining my day. Maybe that’s why I can sympathize with younger women’s desires to hold onto the notion that they are exceptional — that they can overcome any obstacle by sheer force of will — for as long as they possibly can.

I’m not saying language isn’t important. Both women and men need to publicly align themselves with feminism so that the word loses its stigma, but let’s not confuse self-identification with real personal growth. The corollary to “You’re a backwards Victorian if you don’t identify with feminism” is “You’re a progressive ally if you do,” making it too easy for people to pay lip service to wage equality and then quietly roll their eyes when feminists bring up subtler forms of discrimination, as if they don’t realize that our society compensates women less because we actually think they are worth less. And when we talk about feminism as “just” being a matter of equality — a common rebuttal to young women who misunderstand the word — we undermine our own case by glossing over the rigorous, uphill nature of the battle we’re fighting.

Our ideas about ourselves may never line up with who we are at a given moment. No one is born knowing how to ask for a raise or jumpstart a car or avoid the charms of cute, emotionally manipulative guys; our best-laid plans for growing into a fearless, independent female can fall apart when we’re faced with a scary situation, or an exceptionally big spider. The much lauded arrival of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist this summer speaks to the fact that most of us regularly feel like we’re either failing feminism or it’s failing us. More than anything, then, I see feminism as a shared commitment to examining our own biases and at least talking about this stuff regularly… which, in a sense, is exactly what the Women Against Feminism are trying to do.

They’ve wandered over to this strange corner of the Internet looking for someone who will listen to them, a courtesy that (whether or not they recognize it) they’re so often denied as a direct result of their gender. Even when we vehemently disagree with their views, we owe them the dignity of evaluating their arguments on an individual basis, because — whatever else we stand for as feminists — one of our common causes has got to be the right of young women to be heard. It’s hard enough being a teenage or twentysomething girl without the people who are supposed to be your advocates reducing you to a punchline, so let’s save the snarky takedowns for Cee-Lo and George Will and the Princeton Mom and all those Republican congressmen that have had it coming for literal decades.

I’m willing to bet some of these women will come around on their own terms and their own timetable; I’m equally sure that a lot of them won’t. But if we don’t trust in the power of conversation to improve things and inspire new generations — if we’re so cynical that we can’t even believe young minds are capable of changing — then feminism becomes nothing more than an echo chamber for the already initiated. And I know we’re better than that.

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