The Great and Terrible F-Word: Exploring society’s disdain for, and desperate need of feminism

On Nov. 12, journalist Katy Steinmetz, a writer for Time magazine, asked the world a simple question in the form of a poll: “What word should be banned in 2015?”

Options included: “bae,” “basic,” “bossy,” “kale,” and “feminist.”

Wait. Is it just me, or is one of these choices not like the others?

With 45% of the vote, largely thanks to a boost in voting from the notoriously irreverent web bulletin ‘4chan’, it appears that “feminist” is on the fast track to becoming the most-hated word in the English language.

Over the past year, feminism has been cast back into the global spotlight, and for a number of conflicting reasons.  According to mainstream media, its so-called revival is thanks to an outpouring of support from celebrities around the world.  At the 2014 Video Music Awards, Beyoncé took to the stage with her song “Flawless,” standing center stage as the word “FEMINIST” lit up the screen behind her in capital pink letters.  Actress and recent college graduate Emma Watson left audiences speechless with a powerful presentation to the United Nations council in September, promoting gender equality through the “HeForShe” initiative. And even more recently, Taylor Swift has announced her support of the cause, claiming that up until now, she hadn’t understood the true meaning of the word.

In this respect, at least, a lot of people are shaping up to be like Taylor Swift.

But even so, the word “feminism” itself has retained an uncomfortably negative connotation in the minds of the majority. For some reason, speaking it aloud still conjures images of petticoats and picket signs, reckoning back to the Elizabeth Cady Stanton days when women were still fighting for the right to vote, let alone earn wages that were equal to those of men.

So what’s the big deal? What is feminism anyway? Let’s spell it out, by definition.

Feminist: (n) a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

Notice that nowhere in this description do you see the phrases “men-hating,” “marriage-loathing,” or “bra-burning radicals.”

That’s because the feminism of today isn’t a savage attempt to wipe men off the face of the Earth; and just so we’re clear, that’s never what the movement was about in the first place. Feminism is about balancing out the divides that have created a significant gap between men in women in our society, giving everyone an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of factors like gender and race.  It’s not about telling women how they should or should not look, dress, date, etc., and it’s certainly not about special treatment.  It’s about securing equal rights – it’s about treating women with respect, not because we’re all fragile fairy princesses that demand to be treated as such, but because we’re human.  This isn’t just a turbulent topic in the world of politics, nor is it one that only affects Americans.  This is an issue that affects all of us, regardless of gender, race, or religion.

I live in a country where women are said to have equal opportunities; and quite frankly, my own situation probably makes it look like I’ve got the upper hand. I won’t deny that I’m an educated, white, and relatively privileged young woman living in suburban America. Comparatively, it seems like I’ve got all I need to have a successful life.  So why do I still feel that I need to make a stand just to be viewed as being equal?

I’ll tell you why.  It’s because I’m a woman.

It’s because I’ve been taught to walk quickly through parking lots at night, looking over my shoulder with nearly every step, clenching my car keys like a weapon. Because Robin Thicke can write a song that glorifies rape culture and have it immortalized as by American culture as “the song of the summer.” Because I’m seventeen years old and my parents are afraid to let me go for a walk in the woods without my brother accompanying me. And because I lost a debate in Washington D.C. during the Close Up Program, not because I hadn’t prepared my argument, but because I was forced to stop and address a group of boys in my audience, who were more interested in my phone number than my opinion on educational reform.

We need feminism because so many women have accepted the fact that they make less than their male counterparts, and have resolved to do very little in terms of finding a solution to a problem that has plagued our society for ages. In 2013, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) filed a report that analyzed the wages of full-time, year-round workers in America.  The results were staggering – the average woman working 40 hours per week made only 78% of the average male income. For women of color, and women over the age of 35, that number is even less. And let’s not forget the fact that while men average a total of 7 hours of household work per week, women are still doubling that amount at 14 hours, on top of jobs that dole out less money for equal work.

We need feminism because high-school aged girls should be worried more about making plans for the future, and less about whether or not something as simple as turning down a date will be a dangerous endeavor. Let us not forget Maren Sanchez, the 16-year-old Connecticut girl who was stabbed to death in the stairwell of her high school after rejecting a prom proposal. Let’s always bear in mind incidents like the one that occurred in California last May, when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who had vowed to massacre members of a UC Santa Barbra sorority for “not being attracted to him,” carried out his plans, leaving six dead and thirteen wounded.

Instead of addressing issues like the oversexualization of women, public schools across America are spending their time enforcing bans on yoga pants and skinny jeans, which many administrators have claimed to be “too distracting” in a learning environment, forcing boys to “focus on something other than schoolwork.”

Let me tell you something, speaking as a woman. When the vast majority of us walk out the door in leggings, we’re not trying to make a bold fashion statement, and we’re not desperately vying for the attention of men. We’re wearing leggings because they’re comfortable. Simple. Easy to wear with a just about anything and able to be tucked into boots when it’s cold. Did I mention comfortable?

When you take a girl out of class or send her home because her pants don’t fit to your liking, you’re not instilling in her a profound new moral code. You’re essentially sending the message that keeping boys’ eyes off her in the classroom is more important than her education. Why should we be made to feel guilty for the immature actions of a handful of guys? Why are girls so often held accountable for guys’ lack of self-control?

There’s no denying that we continue to live and work within a culture that is dismissive, even indifferent, when it comes to subjects that concern the wellbeing of women. Former Ravens running back Ray Rice is soon due back on the field (once he can find a new team), despite video evidence that he beat his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator, which has since sparked a much-needed conversation about the treatment of domestic violence cases in the NFL.  Instead of serving time in prison for assault, however, Rice has avoided the major repercussions of the legal system, facing the bare minimum of justice and ultimately making it more about football that domestic violence.

It doesn’t do anything to ease the situation when we realize that prominent sports figures such as Rice are the role models that today’s youth are looking up to. It’s scary enough to think that we’re living in a world in which 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. The more we neglect to address the issue and its effects on millions of women in America, the more we make it seem that behavior such as Rice’s is tolerated.

“Boys will be boys” is not a valid excuse, and it never has been. If we live in a country that is supposedly renowned for its blind justice, it’s about time that we stop playing male privilege as an automatically-granted get-out-of jail-free-card. No, she’s not inviting your comments by simply walking down the street alone – no matter what she’s wearing or how much makeup she has on.

In a recent PSA by anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback, creative marketer Rob Bliss recorded ten hours’ worth of footage detailing what it’s like to be a woman walking alone in the streets of New York City. The results? 108 different instances of unsolicited comments and catcalls. One-hundred-and-eight. And before you ask – she was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers.

Instances such as these certainly aren’t limited to New York, and they aren’t the type to distinguish between color, race, or religion. When girls become so accustomed to street harassment that they begin considering it just another part of being a female, we ought to realize that our country has a problem.

We cannot say that feminism has run its course simply because after decades of injustice, women were granted the right to vote. As long as the wage gap exists, as long as domestic abuse is allowed to run unchecked, and Steubenville-type cases play out in our high schools, feminism remains an idea that is not only relevant, but essential to achieving our country’s long-sought-after ambitions of justice and equality.

When people ask me, “Why do we still need feminism?,” I’ve come to prefer a simple reply – one that was coined by Avengers director Joss Whedon when he was asked why he continues to write strong female characters, despite living in a male-dominated world.

“Because you’re still asking me that question.”

3 thoughts on “The Great and Terrible F-Word: Exploring society’s disdain for, and desperate need of feminism

  1. Lauren, Thank you for putting it so well. As a McNick grad of almost 47 years ago this June, I had always thought that by this point in history we would be well beyond our need to be reminded of the humanity we share with every man, woman and child on this earth. May God who has begun good work in you bring it to fulfillment.

  2. Excellent, excellent article. It is important that people understand what being a feminist truly means and I am glad the movement has such young McNick ambassadors sharing the message. As another proud Ohio U alum, I wish you the best of luck at the best undergrad in the country.

  3. Reblogged this on jillian bloemer and commented:
    Incredibly insightful and powerful article from a journalism student at my alma mater. Ima proud McNick Journalism Alum, today. Wishing the author luck next fall at my other alma mater, The E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. #YesAllWomen

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