Feminism is the real F-word these days. Despite an rise in journalism about gender equality, feminism and television, film and other culture pertaining to these issues, to personally identify as a feminist still seems problematic and difficult for many women as well as men. There are many myths surrounding the idea of feminism and what it really means, but when we open our eyes to the true meaning of feminism and what it means to both men and women, we can begin to work toward a more equal and productive society that benefits everyone.
Put simply, feminism is the belief that equality should exist between the genders. Feminism celebrates the inherent differences between men and women as well as questioning the needless inequalities between them, such as pay gaps, slut-shaming of women, sexualised bodies in advertising and lack of female representation in a variety of sectors, such as technology, science, education and the arts. Feminism asks why there are barely any female CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies. It asks why you need a woman in a bikini to advertise the latest chocolate bar. It is furious that rapists and other sexual criminals are not brought to justice properly in this country. It wonders why some people feel the need to steal photos of women in bikinis and underwear and paste them all over the internet. Feminism wants the world to be equal, so that we can build a better future based around people being judged for their hard work and ability, not their gender.
Simply put, there is a feminism for everyone. White, middle-class feminism is of course the most obviously publicised feminism, but there are writings on black feminism, Latin feminism, disabled feminism, trans feminism, conservative feminism, radical feminism, socialist feminism, male feminism etc. The internet is a brilliant resource for searching writings out because people are writing and blogging about women’s issues from countless perspectives daily.
The most common myth is the most pervasive. Feminism is not centred around a culture of despising men. Misandry, the correct term for a hatred of men, is certainly a facet of a certain type of feminism, but the key of understanding feminism is realising that it means different things to different people. Feminism is an overarching term that encompasses many different experiences and thoughts. For example, radical feminists, including noted feminist academic Germaine Greer, feel that transgender women do not have a place in feminist discourse, stating in the manifesto for the RadFem 2012 conference (which has since been cancelled amid much controversy) that attendance should be restricted to “women born women and living as women”.
While these women self-identify as feminists, as I do myself, I feel their views on transgender individuals and gender as a whole are archaic and anti-feminist. My personal brand of feminism believes that we must all, women and men, work together toward a more equal future that benefits all of us. I also disagree with the ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches, which are designed to protest the prevalance of rape and sexual assault and a society that makes it very difficult for women to feel safe walking home alone at night. While I am very much in favour of marches like these, men are excluded from these official marches, to create a safe marching space for women. The mistake these feminists make is ignoring the fact that men can and will be feminist allies on issues such as these. In addition, by ignoring a male voice against rape and sexual assault, feminists run the risk of ignoring the very real and stigmatised issue of male rape.
The problem with the correct understanding of feminism is that it is often seen by many people as an academic theory that is centred around the furthering of white, middle-class women, excluding problems faced by women of colour, disabled women and other marginalised groups. These issues have been raised in recent online critiques of mainstream feminist journalist Caitlin Moran, who when questioned if she had asked HBO’s Girls writer Lena Dunham about the lack of women of colour in her programme, replied (via Twitter, of course) “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it”. The truth is that we cannot look towards one person for feminist rhetoric. Yes, Moran did herself no favours in excluding women of colour in such a dismissive way, but she speaks to a very personal type of narrative. Hers is a personal feminism, built around her own experience as a white cisgender woman in the United Kingdom. Her feminism is not applicable to everyone and nor should it be.
Feminism does not need to be an academic construct that fits into all perspectives and versions of womanhood. While my studying of academic feminism helped me enormously in realising my own beliefs, feminism is as political as it is academic. When you’re campaigning to close the gender pay gap, no one will care if you’ve read Simone de Beauvoir and knowledge of Julia Kristeva isn’t essential for being outraged at the way in which sexual criminals are sentenced in this country.
Academia can be intimidating when you feel like feminism belongs only to those who are able to read and understand difficult texts pertaining to it. The truth is that there are several accessible books about feminism and gender issues that will allow anyone to learn more about feminism. I highly recommend Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics and Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein. Bornstein writes excellently on gender and trans issues, hooks is an incredible writer about black feminism (see also: Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism) and Valenti is great for an introduction into general feminist issues from a white perspective. She has also written recently about feminism and parenthood, after the birth of her first child. These books are for men and women alike and offer great perspective into the different facets that feminism can offer.
Next time you walk through the concourse and see a poster for “Stockbrokers and Secretaries” night, or a woman in a bikini advertising the “Porn Debate”, question it. Why do these posters have a place in a centre of education? Why are naked women necessary to promote clubs and societies? Little things like this add up to a feminist consciousness. Caitlin Moran notes in How to be a Woman “I have one rule of thumb that allows me to judge […] whether some sexist bullshit is afoot […] are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time? Are the men told not to do this, as it’s ‘letting our side down?’” Obviously, this is not applicable in every single case, but it highlights feminism’s true cause: equality. I don’t wish to be better than men, I just wish to live in a world where men and women co-exist and work together without being limited by their gender.
Bridget Fitzsimons is a graduate of UCD’s MA in Film Studies and Editor Emeritus of Volume XVII of the University Observer. You can follow her on Twitter @BridgetFitz.