Image: Lena Dunham. Image Source.
Maybe it’s because of Beyoncé, or maybe it’s because women are actual people who deserve respect, but feminism has become a popular topic in mainstream media in the last couple of years after decades on the fringes. An increasing number of both women and men are discussing feminism in public and high profile forums, meaning that the f-word is shedding its radical associations as more and more people agree that women are significantly disadvantaged and deserve to be treated equally.
Of course, there’s still that one dude on the train that tells you to smile, and the jerks from your high school that share sexist Facebook posts, but feminists are no longer just seen as bra burning rebels (even if we wish we were.) And that’s mostly great. But one of the consequences of this new, shiny, approachable brand of feminism is that almost every woman in the public eye, and many that aren’t, are repeatedly asked whether or not they are feminists (See Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, Oprah, Sheryl Sandberg…) This is usually treated by the media as a chance to create a controversial headline, whatever the answer, rather than an opportunity for any kind of constructive engagement with feminist philosophy.
In fact, feminist philosophy is based on the idea that women aren’t the problem, the patriarchy is. So why aren’t we asking those that benefit from patriarchal power whether or not they intend to do anything about it?
Instead, in public and private women are required to defend their feminism or stated lack thereof, because internalised misogyny can mean that women are less likely to identify with a movement that will inevitably result in criticism. While it is almost unbelievable that equality is still a concept that’s need of defending in modern society, the burden is also unfairly on women to educate those with male privilege about the consequences of the patriarchy.
Sometimes men are asked questions about feminism by the media, but the topic is usually treated with some subtle differences. Even Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently declared himself a feminist, but fellow cabinet ministers Julie Bishop and Michaela Cash have previously refused to do so. It seems that it is now politically beneficial, at least for men, to identify with feminism. In my opinion, this discrepancy may have something to do with the fact that men are praised for simply saying the word feminist, while women are often interrogated. In reality, saying the words is not enough. We can’t just ask men if they are feminists, we have to also expect them to act in a way that is consistent with the fight for gender equality.
As a society, we need to hold men accountable for their behaviour as well as their rhetoric, even if it means that they might have to change their priorities. Feminism is a complex social movement that requires active engagement, not just catchy slogans. There are many positive actions that men and those with privilege can make to put their feminism into practise. Recent examples include the growing number of men boycotting all male panels to encourage diversity and Justin Trudeau’s gender parity Canadian parliament. These actions can make an important statement about who deserves power, respect and public space in our society.
Another constructive way to engage with feminism and other social justice issues on a more complex level is to ‘call in’ rather than call out. This concept first gained popularity thanks to Ngọc Loan Trần; educating rather than criticising those with good intentions about offensive or oppressive things they may do and say. In this situation, the philosophy of ‘calling in’ could be applied by discussing how, and why, those with privilege can better contribute to feminism, rather than simply asking if someone is a feminist or not. Men could even call each other into the feminist movement. There are of course situations where calling out is absolutely necessary, but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be room for a more nuanced discourse around feminism between both men and women.
The strengths and weaknesses of feminism will always need to be discussed, interrogated and constantly improved upon. As feminism moves into the mainstream however, these discussions can be expanded to include everyone from your best friend to your dad to your friend’s cousin’s housemate. Feminism should be inclusive because women cannot change hundreds of years of social conditioning alone. Activist, author and feminist pioneer bell hooks said it best by saying it most simply: “Feminism is for everybody.”
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