The Power of a Label

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The word “feminist” has received a lot of attention this year on social media and news media outlets. Left and right, celebrities are coming out of the woodwork to declare themselves feminists. Take, for instance, Beyoncé, who flashed the word “Feminist” in lights behind her during her Video Music Awards performance earlier this year. Or Emma Watson, who gave a speech on feminism for everyone at the U.N. this fall.

According to Time magazine, this attention to feminism is obnoxious, and warranted the inclusion of ‘feminist’ on their 2015 list of words to banish, alongside ‘bae,’ ‘turnt,’ and ‘literally.’ According to the poll, the reasoning behind including feminist on the list was that the label had been thrown around, and celebrities were declaring their position on the issue like “politician[s] declaring a party.”

After readers, bloggers, and celebrities expressed their disgust at the inclusion of feminist, Time editor Nancy Gibbs wrote a brief apology included at the top of the poll, stating that it was a mistake to include the word, and that the ‘nuance’ of their intention to spark a debate on the usage of the word had been missed.

Essayist Roxane Gay’s editorial in the Washington Post about Time‘s “oopsie” says just what I think. She wonders why too many celebrities declaring themselves feminists could be a bad thing, and argues that Time should have included words that address more important issues, such as “feminazi,” “bitch,” or “slut.” She also writes that although each celebrity cannot be the face and figure of feminism alone, they can ‘make some noise’ and help make positive and visible strides toward gender equality.

In a guest editorial blog for the LA Times, Susan Rohwer echoes these sentiments. “By lumping the word with flash-in-the-pan terms like ‘literally’ and  ‘influencer,'” she writes, “Time is playing into the misguided idea that feminism is a fleeting fad, rather than a long-standing social movement.”

The word ‘feminist’ has been a touchy subject, long before this Time poll, however. Since the free-love revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, feminism has evoked images of angry women burning bras and rioting against men. Part of the challenge today is to tear down that idea and help society see feminism for what it truly is: true equality for all genders.

Time argues that celebrities are detracting from the ‘real issue’ by throwing the label around. I disagree. Each time a celebrity declares him- or herself a feminist, there is a buzz all over social media. The discussion does not typically center on whether said celebrity is a true feminist or not. The discussion tends to center on the content of the celebrity’s declaration and the issues raised. Issues like equal pay, justice for rape and sexual assault victims, an end to victim-blaming and catcalling, and the freedom for women and men to be who they truly are, not confined by gender lines. These are the issues that need to be discussed.

Although, as Gay mentions, not every celebrity can embody feminism completely and speak for every feminist, the fact that celebrities are public figures with outlets to reach millions of people is a positive thing. The important part about the discussion surrounding feminism is that we have it. We can screw up, get things wrong, and change our minds, but we have to keep talking about equal rights for women, men, and LGBTQ folks.

It’s been said before, but now’s the time to shout it from the rooftops: feminism is for everyone. Man, woman, trans, queer, straight, gay, all ethnicities and races… everyone! A society is harmed when only a part of its population receives the rights and freedoms that should be afforded to all people. Patriarchy is a disease that creeps in and damages all parts of society: the economy, culture, interpersonal relationships, education, and so forth.

Laci Green recently posted an excellent video on how feminism is for men, too. Because of gender stereotypes, men are taught to be unemotional, strong, ‘masculine’, and rule over women. This hurts men. People express gender in infinite ways and forms, and when a person is taught that they can be one way and one way only, they can never reach their potential and fall to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

We will be a stronger society when we break down patriarchy and sexism and embrace feminism. We could have a society where women experience physical autonomy and safety, where they’re judged on their professional and intellectual ideas rather than their outfit and bra size, and where their opinions and ideas are afforded the same importance as men’s.

The hope that we could live in a society like that someday soon is why it is so important to keep talking about feminism, to keep redefining the word into something meaningful, and to keep listening to each other. Sometimes new words and ideas are scary, and, like Time has done, we try to pass them off as a mere label or fad. But feminism is crucial for a functioning society, and it is worth fighting for. You might feel uncomfortable each time a celebrity expresses their feminist viewpoints, but take a beat to think about what they’re really saying.

Are they saying they hate men and that all men should be kept underground for breeding purposes only? No.

Are they saying that women and men should receive equal and fair treatment? Yes. Is that a positive thing? Yes.

I am glad Time realized their mistake and apologized, but their mistake was a window into common misconceptions and ideas about feminism. And the only way we’re going to overcome these virulent ideas is to keep talking.

So, what do you think?

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2 thoughts on “The Power of a Label

  1. Great article! The minute I saw that feminism was included on that list, I was fuming! You’re right – it’s so important that we keep talking about these issues so that people understand that feminism is nothing more than women looking to be treated the same as men. Personally, I think they should have made more of an apology – do you know if they kept the word on the list after the backlash?

    Also, I don’t know if you’ve read anything about the fact that many of the words on the list are strongly associated with either women/girls or people of color? I saw an article on that and found it to be a very interesting point!..I would share if I had saved it!

    • Unbelievably, when I wrote this, the article still had feminist on the list. Whether you could actually vote on it or not I don’t know. That article sounds interesting! It’s true, people typically react negatively to words that make them feel defensive or uncomfortable. Rather than trying to understand, they campaign against it. Thanks!

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