Jessica’s post about Beyoncé’s weirdness about the word “feminism” sparked a lot of interesting debate. In her interview with Harper’s Bazaar U.K., Queen B expressed a dislike of “defining it” (“it” being feminism), and then turned around and said that if we’re going to put a word on it, it should be a catchy new one, like “bootylicious.”
As catchy a word as “bootylicious” is, I’m having trouble understanding why anyone who believes men, women, and trans people should have equal rights under the law and in society would not call herself a feminist. Because “feminism” has a definition, and it is this:
1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
2: organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.
For someone to say that they believe in these things, and then turn around and say “but I’m not a feminist,” seems about as absurd as someone who eats pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner refusing to turn around and identify as someone who likes pasta. What is it with this bizarre discomfort with “labels”? Every word in the English language is a “label” for something. That’s how we communicate with each other and form rational thoughts. I can see why people might want to resist labeling something that they consider fluid or ambiguous, like their gender or sexuality. But it’s not like you can sort of believe that women and men are equal. Either you do, or you don’t. (I realize these ideas’ application might not always be very clear cut; more on that later.)
Jessica noted, quite correctly, that B’s desire not to be labeled a feminist might come from a place of fear of what the word has been twisted around by various opponents of feminism to mean. Feminists hate men! Feminists don’t shave their legs! Feminists hate make-up and want to teach little boys that they’re inferior to little girls! But these are ridiculous straw-man (woman?) arguments that have been spread by people who want to hurt our cause, like Rush Limbaugh (originator of the loathsome term “feminazi”). No matter what we call it, people are going to find a way to make “feminism,” “bootylicious-ism,” or what have you, mean something negative, something it doesn’t actually mean. By abandoning the word, we are letting opponents dictate the terms of our fight, and that sounds like a bad strategy to me.
You might be wondering right now why it matters to me what people decide to call “it.” It matters because when fighting for a group’s interests, say women’s (although feminism helps men as well), it helps to have some kind of organized movement. Our opponents certainly do. How do you think women got the right to vote? They didn’t sit around talking about their esoteric weirdness about labels, they fucking had meetings and organized. The obstacles we’re up against right now are too great to fuck around with. Our right to control what happens to our own bodies, our right not to be discriminated against at work, and our right to bring our rapists to justice are just a few real, concrete issues that we’re currently dealing with. An organized strategy is essential to winning these battles.
Then there is the argument that feminism has become tainted from within. For many people, the fact that various (in my opinion misguided) branches of the feminist movement oppose women’s right to, say, engage in sex work, makes them not want to come under the same umbrella. I understand this objection, I really do. I have spent quite a bit of time arguing with feminists who, whether due to naivete, neurosis, or simple difference of philosophy, believe that there’s no way an adult woman could make a fully consensual choice to, say, work in a BDSM dungeon or be a housewife. This can be frustrating. But I don’t think it’s a reason to say “fuck you guys, I’m going home.” I think that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Intra-movement debate can be healthy. If everyone who disagreed with Andrea Dworkin had just up and left the feminist movement, it wouldn’t have morphed into the (largely) sex-positive movement it is today. Feminism has grown and improved because people stuck around and debated. Us third-wavers still have a lot of goals in common with older generations of feminists, and from a practical point of view, it behooves us to stay united in trying to accomplish said goals while we’re still debating about the other stuff. Is it a perfect solution? Hell no. Do I wish everyone could agree on everything? Of course. But in the end, I think the value of a united front is too great to give up because you disagree with other feminists on some things. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best thing we’ve come up with so far.
But if you think you have a better idea about how to accomplish our goals, I think a lot of feminists would be sincerely interested to hear it. No matter what you call yourself.