Thursday, July 29, 2010

Changing the Face of Feminism

I have spent the majority of my college years in fairly feminist-friendly environments. I've surrounded myself with optimistic, activist-oriented, awesome friends, and I've had pretty open-minded and liberal coworkers/bosses. Words like "slut" and expressions like "that's so gay" hardly ever enter the vernacular, and no one blinks an eye if I don't shave my legs for days, weeks, months on end (though, I should add, showering is a different story.) While at Kenyon we may complain about the attitude of the student body toward feminism, I've gotta say that all in all, things have only improved since my first year. I'd even go so far as to say (dare I?) that Kenyon is becoming an increasingly feminist campus in a lot of ways, mostly because of the perseverance and dedication of the student body to change the way things work in the 'Bier.

So imagine my surprise (saturated with sarcasm) when I attempt to re-enter the "real world" and am bombarded with the consumer-ready image of the angry feminist. Let's take a look at some of the gems I've been privy to during this summer break:

1) Women's Studies: The Horrors of Feminism Exposed
For those of you who haven't seen this preview until now, I am sorry. I just had to share this because it has it all: lesbianism, man-hating, yoga poses in the forest, faux-philosophical conversation about the sexes, and axe murder. If there is a cliché I left out, it is probably because I couldn't keep track of them all past the first 20 seconds of the trailer. To be honest, I cannot remember a time in which I sat in Crozier in a position other than the lotus pose, and I must not like anyone other than women if I spend that much time in the Women's Center. Go figure.

2) MTV's Disaster Date: Pop Culture Portrays the Feminist

For starters, let's not talk about the fact that I actually suffered through an episode of Disaster Date. To my credit, I was home sick and craving mindless television, but nonetheless I must admit that I was intrigued. The premise of Disaster Date, and pretty much any other hidden-camera reality show, is that someone has secretly put their friend in a potentially humiliating and uncomfortable situation. Contestants are set up on blind dates with actors who exhibit every characteristic and behavior that completely irks them. Take for example Antoine, the man who cannot stand "girls who don't shave their legs," "girls who boss him around," and, most of all, "feminists." That's my kind of man right there.

Long story short (you can check out the episode for yourself if you're so inclined:, the actor goes to extremes to be exactly the type of "womyn" that Antoine cannot stand. She yells at a man who refers to the waitress by pet names, she displays her hairy legs during the meal thereby causing Antoine to gag, and she shows off her new ink: "WOMYN" in large block letters. Thank goodness this is only a prank, and Antoine walks away about $50 richer for suffering through his not-even-an-hour alone with the feminist wacko.

3) The Good Ol' General Public
While this is something I'd better get used to dealing with on a pretty regular basis, I still experience a lot of frustration in terms of my day to day dealings with people. Whether it's the oh-so-witty responses when I reveal that I am a Women's and Gender Studies Major (i.e.: "What are you gonna do with that? Be a lesbian?" Ha! What an EXCELLENT retort!) or the benevolent sexism of people asking me to take care of others or fetch them coffee because I am the only woman in the room, I have had to devote a great deal of effort to internalizing my feelings. Don't get me wrong, I speak up with I need to, but there are times when I have learned that things are best left unsaid.

The worst part of this, though, is that people make jokes about rape or domestic abuse or something else terrible, and they'll do it simply to get a rise out of me. The words "Don't mess with her, she's a feminist" get tossed around from time to time, and people make a big deal out of my beliefs even when I don't say anything about them. I feel like I'm on constant surveillance, that how I react and behave is continuously being monitored. If I slip up, it's a big deal, and if I don't react at all, it's an even bigger deal.

This is nothing earth-shattering or shocking in the least, but it's the sad truth that some people just expect feminists to adhere to the stereotype. It's sad to me that even in 2010, people think that simply the fact that they might "like cars and beer" (thank you, Lady Gaga quotation from long ago) or might shave their legs instantly means that they have been disqualified from participating in feminism. When will there be a day when feminism really is perceived as being for everybody? What will it take for society to depict feminists of all genders, ethnicites, sexes, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and ages? Why is our go-to image still a loud, angry college or middle-aged white woman with hairy legs?

We've tried the "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" campaign. We've been open about our views with people who know us for more than just our political agendas. We've hosted and planned events and programs targeted at wider populations with the hope that someday, we might capture the attention of someone who would have never attended something branded with the label of "feminism." But how can we start to change the image that has been ascribed to us? It's easy to cling to the label "feminist" because if offers a sense of solidarity and strength, but how can we step away from it for long enough to reclaim it and change its meaning? What is the most effective way to show people that we are more than what the word deems us to be?

The rest of the world is not necessarily like our cozy little haven of Crozier or Kenyon. While not always hostile or intentionally negative toward the cause, people beyond the movement do not necessarily want to hear what it's all about. Keeping that in mind, I think that the reclamation should begin in a place of comfort and solidarity, and that we should work together to create a new vision for today's modern feminist.

1 comment:

  1. This summer one of my smart, well-informed, interesting co-workers touched my arm and commented that I have very little hair "for a feminist." I don't have much to say about this, because you've articulated it all so well. Just sharing.