Feminism’s PR Problem and How Feminism 101 Can Help

Before I start, I want to make something clear: I am not saying that Feminism 101 is the solution to all women’s problems, because it’s not. Rather, talking about the super basic tenets of feminism and social justice can be a way to win supporters who might otherwise be hostile to our cause. Sadly, even Feminism 101 is too radical for some people, but others can be swayed, and then they’ll be in a better position to accept that they still have more to learn. Slow and steady wins the race! (But don’t worry; we can still yell at the complete assholes, because nothing we say is going to change their minds anyway and lord knows they deserve it. We just need to do a better job of choosing our targets.)

Screencap of the autofill results of a Google search for "Feminists are," which gave the options of stupid, ugly, annoying, or sexist
Actual search results.

First, we have to acknowledge that feminism has a PR problem. People hold all kinds of misguided ideas about what feminism entails, and so long as they see us as an enemy, they’ll keep fighting against us on principle, even if embracing our positions would benefit them too. A quick glance at Women Against Feminism shows that the same ideas keep popping up over and over.

  • Feminists hate men, but I love my boyfriend/husband.
  • Feminists are all lesbians, but I’m straight.
  • Feminists are all ugly and want me to look butch, but I like to wear makeup and high heels and pretty dresses.
  • Feminists want me to be like a man, but I like being a woman (even if I’m not like other girls).
  • Feminists don’t want me to think for myself, but I’m perfectly capable of doing so.
  • Feminists all think they’re victims, but I’m doing just fine.
  • Feminists hate sex, but I love it.
  • Feminists are sluts, but I believe in monogamy.
  • Feminists think all compliments are harassment, but I love it when men call me beautiful.
  • Feminists hate kids, but I love mine.
  • Feminists want everyone to get abortions, but I wouldn’t do that.
  • Feminists won’t let me be a stay-at-home mom.
  • Feminists won’t let me follow the teachings of my religion.
  • Feminists won’t let me change my name when I get married.
  • Feminists won’t let me shave my legs or wear a bra.
  • Feminists won’t let me make a sandwich for my husband, but I love to cook.

I could do this all day, and this is just what other women think about us. Anti-feminist men and Men’s Rights Activists hate us even more because they think that we won’t stop until we’ve destroyed life as they know it. You could make a similar list of absurd beliefs about PoC, the LGBTQ* community, or any other marginalized group. And honestly, a lot of people will never change their minds, especially if they’ve gotten to the paranoid stage of grasping at conspiracy theories. We can scream at them all we want, and while it might be cathartic as all hell, it won’t change anything for the positive.

And the annoying thing is, there are social justice extremists whose beliefs are so far out there that they can give a skewed view of our beliefs to people who don’t know any better (or who really want to believe we’re out to get them). Poke around the darker corners of Tumblr and you’ll find people whose activism is so narrowly defined that they actually do fit our worst stereotypes. A fairly common theme on Women Against Feminism is “I expressed a POV based on my experience, and one [so-called] feminist yelled at me, so fuck all y’all.” It sucks that people can take one bad experience and write off an entire movement, but unfortunately that’s human nature. It also sucks that sometimes people get written off as not worth talking to when they say something out of ignorance instead of malice, especially if they could easily learn from their mistake. There’s no such thing as a perfect feminist, and none of us were born quoting critical theory. Lord knows I thought some dumb shit when I was younger, and I’m still learning. Some of the most awesome feminists I know grew up in environments that were hostile to feminism, but eventually something or someone made them re-examine their prejudices. Should all of us be written off because of our backgrounds? Of course not.

We have to focus some of our energy on people who haven’t quite made up their minds yet, because like my friends, they have the potential to be awesome. If we can sway them toward feminism, it’ll be much easier to succeed in our overall goals. Fighting extremism with extremism rarely works, because when people think both sides are ridiculous, they’re going to stop listening and just look out for themselves. Unfortunately, that means a hell of a lot of people in relative positions of power won’t see any reason to help anyone who isn’t just like them and will eventually start to feel threatened. The rest of us will be stuck fighting over an ever-diminishing pile of scraps, and the power structure will never change.

The thing is, current feminists alone cannot solve all the problems that face us. There aren’t enough of us, and we don’t hold enough positions of power. (Which isn’t to say we all need to aspire to hold those positions ourselves in order to be good feminists; because that’s impossible for a whole host of reasons ranging from personal preference to systemic inequalities.) For lack of a better word, we need allies who will help us fight our battles.

We have to find ways to reach people who’ve never had to think about others’ issues. We need to make men care about women’s issues, to make white people care about racial inequality, to make straight and cisgender people care about LGBTQ* rights. Some of us have to suck it up and come get our folks. If we can do that by pointing out that they benefit too (which has the benefit of being true!), it’s better than ignoring the problem and letting them keep working against us. If that means playing the “What if it was your mom/sister/wife/daughter?” card, which I hate, I’ll play it. It drives me up the wall that so many guys want a cookie for embracing feminism only after they have daughters, but it really is better than if they still didn’t figure it out and raised their daughters to think they’re inferior because they’re girls.

What we have to keep in mind is that different approaches work for different groups. If you’re talking to a friend one-on-one, it’s easier to see where they’re coming from and have nuanced discussions of complicated issues. If your audience is millions of people, you’re going to have to keep it pretty simple. It’s damned difficult to present complex ideas to large groups and have them all walk away transformed. Of course Emma Watson’s feminism isn’t the answer to all of our problems, because no one person can have the right answer for everyone. But it isn’t destroying our movement, either. Hell, we don’t even know if her speech to the UN accurately reflects her feminism; she may have had to tone it down to reach as many people as possible. And you know what, it sucks that the world is in such a state that even a kindergarten-level explanation of feminism is alternately lauded as earth-shattering and met with threats of retaliation (and even though the person who said they’d release nude photos was a troll, it was all too plausible and it was still a shitty thing to put her through). It fucking sucks that people haven’t figured all this out yet. But the reality is that they haven’t, and we can’t give up.

I don’t for a second mean we should sing “Kumbaya” and call it a day when we get people to acknowledge that hey, women are people too! It’s a good start, but it isn’t nearly enough. The hardest part is figuring out how to move past 101 without skipping straight to PhD-level discourse. After all, we don’t teach kids to count on their fingers and then yell at them for not understanding calculus, and it can be even harder to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of social conditioning. But just like we don’t stop and say that counting to five is all anyone ever needs to know, we still have more work to do after people grasp the basics. Intersectionality is tricker than math, of course, because everyone’s coming at it with a different set of experiences and no one-size-fits-all approach will reach everyone. Some people already have a grasp on anti-racism, but struggle with LGBTQ* issues; others have fought for gay rights but haven’t thought much about how systemic inequalities affect women of color; still others have never heard of ableism or other oppressions. These issues all have a fair amount in common despite their disparate histories, but it’s impossible to cover every nuance of the kyriarchy in a single speech. Fortunately, their commonalities mean that the more people learn, the easier it should be for them to build on their new knowledge and become better social justice advocates. We just have to give them the building blocks to start that process, and that means we can’t slam everyone who’s in a position to get the ball rolling.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

4 thoughts on “Feminism’s PR Problem and How Feminism 101 Can Help”

  1. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to point out how feminism benefits men to get them on our side. But we don’t live in that world, and many people don’t consider problems until they see how it affects them/their loved ones. So we have to meet them in the middle to get them on board. It’s unfortunate, and exhausting at times, but sometimes it’s necessary.

  2. When yet another female celebrity (Meghan Trainor) came out saying that she’s not a feminist, I had a discussion in the comments section of another site (because I’m a glutton for punishment) where I made a statement that women who condemn feminism should relinquish their right to vote, quit their job, and turn in their college degree. Apparently it went over several heads and the point of that statement was lost. I can’t help but wonder how many women just don’t realize how they’ve benefited from feminism. Feminists do not want to take away any of your choices. They are fighting for you to HAVE them.

  3. This was an incredible read. I’ve found it strange how much criticism Emma Watson and others have received for their “basic” feminism. One part of it is that people seem to forget how important the foundations of ideas are. The other is that, well, I find it kind of … snobbish? (It’s after midnight – I maintain my right to awkward phrasing.) So many people don’t have the privilege of basic education let alone the opportunity to partake in conversations that belong in even more educated realms. Foundations matter – they should be celebrated not criticised.

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