Thursday, January 15, 2015

What is feminism and why should we care?

I'm a nerd and words are really important to me. Also, I'm a feminist. The words "feminist" and "feminism" have been really misunderstood, and because I am who I am, I feel that it is partly my responsibility to explain what they mean to me. I also think I should explain why it matters to me that other people understand these terms. This is more than a grammatical issue; it has to do with how we think about people and the labels that we use. So often I hear or read "feminist" as an insult lately. It gets used as a label for people, usually women, who are perceived as somehow going too far in their search for women's rights. Unfortunately, this is an incredibly narrow definition, and both men and women mistakenly use it to label those women whom they perceive as radically beyond acceptable bounds. This is not how I use the term feminist, and I am doing my best to share the broader, more accurate definition.
In the most basic terms, a feminist is a person (male or female) who believes that women are people. Merriam-Webster defines feminism this way:

noun \ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm\

: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities
: organized activity in support of women's rights and interests
Now, that doesn't seem too complicated, so how did feminism turn into a derogatory label? I think it has something to do with the idea that if women gain rights, it will somehow undermine men's rights. Let me just say that a true feminist believes in human rights, not just women's rights. If we look at that definition again, we see that feminists (myself included) believe that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. We don't believe that women should have more rights than men or that they are entitled to some kind of compensation to make up for the lack of good treatment towards women in general throughout history. No. Let's start from right now and move forward, treating everyone like human beings. Yeah, there have been serious problems in the past and they haven't all gone away, but women and men can work together to resolve those problems and look towards the future. Acknowledging that those problems exist is a great start. We don't have to change the world overnight, but starting with our own sphere of influence is enough. That's part of why I write this blog.
So, we've established that feminism is the basic belief that women and men are all people and deserve to be treated as human beings. Why should it matter whether people understand this definition? Because the term feminist is being used to discriminate against people, and even people who I consider feminists tend to reject the term as a self-description because of cultural stigmas that it carries with it. Several feminists have received death threats in the past year. Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent feminist gamer who has spoken out about the portrayal of women in video games, received a specific death threat combined with a shooting threat directed specifically against feminist on USU's campus when she was scheduled to give a speech there. She is not the only one. Even words can be violent and the internet unfortunately provides a medium for violent messages to be directed against multiple people who point out the problems that do exist. Harassment happens, and it should stop. It is the responsibility of the harassers to stop it, and we don't yet live in a society that holds harassers responsible for their actions.
Even well-meaning individuals are stuck in their own patterns of thinking. For example, after a class where we watched a film from 1957 in which we discussed the gender politics (a woman was told she was not a woman because she didn't dress or act like one should and was forced to put on a dress and behave properly), I overheard a comment from a classmate: "I thought she was hot before she wore the dress, but not afterwards." Now, I think this man was trying to be sympathetic. He has made other comments to lead me to believe that he shares feminist ideals to some degree. I only mention this comment as an example of how people with good intentions don't realize that they're still trapped in an ideology influenced by sexism. Namely, complimenting the character's appearance, even while she was dressed the way she chose, still treats her as an object of a gaze, not as a subject with complete personhood. Women are so often treated as objects to be looked at and admired, by both men and women. Men also find themselves objectified, and when that happens, it shouldn't, either. Like I said, men and women should both be treated as people, not objects. This is why we still have to have harassment policies at Comic Cons, and why we need to do a better job of enforcing them.
Feminism matters because we're all people. We all deserve to be seen as people, not objects. This applies to men as much as to women. Men are subject to stereotypes and jokes, too. Like the idea that husbands somehow have to be "trained" in order to act civilized, or that a man only buys flowers for his wife if he did something wrong. Sound familiar? This is part of our ideology. That's why the jokes are funny. Except they really aren't. They're no funnier than the jokes about the women always being late because they had to put their makeup on or the idea that women don't know how to fix a car. Blonde jokes. Co-ed jokes. Thankfully those last jokes have mostly died out, but the ideas still float around. We have a long way to go, and feminism matters because these patterns of thinking still exist. They won't disappear completely until we all recognize that they do exist and that they are a problem. I think it is very possible to reach a point where we see each other as people and act accordingly; it will take a lot of work, but it needs to happen. Let's start now.