Labels only go so far: How feminism can be counterproductive

Zara DeGroot

Zara DeGroot
Zara DeGroot

Last spring I wrote a long-form column on the topic of feminism, discussing my thoughts and musings about the movement. The column went into detail of the movement’s origins, the motivation behind the start of it and what the word “feminism” means to me. Though that column expressed my view of feminism at that point in time, my opinion on the subject has continued to change and broaden. But hey, that’s what education is about, right? Gaining knowledge and altering one’s perspective.

The topic of feminism is at the forefront of our culture, and everyone seems to be talking about it. Whether feminist messages are being demonstrated through movies and television shows, modern writing or simply everyday discussion, the discourse around women’s rights is mainstream and constantly being explored and challenged.

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I’m all for women’s social equality. As a woman myself, I see the need for change when it comes to the overall respect and dignity women receive from the media and from society. Over-sexualization and derogatory names perpetuate a socially-constructed female objectification that is far from healthy, and that’s just part of it. Though we have made progress, more can be done.

That being said, the idea of feminism being the answer to these issues remains unclear.

Last semester, out of an eagerness to learn more about feminism, I took a women’s studies course. But to my surprise, it was this class that make me realize I don’t consider myself as much of a feminist as I thought. Though educational and quite informative, the course exposed me to the inner workings of feminism, the politics behind it and all that it entails. And, trust me, it entails a lot. It was also here that the “man-hating” feminist stereotype starting making sense to me. To me, it seemed to be a negative way to spread awareness about a positive movement.

There is value in learning about the past and trying to understand what has happened along the way that has brought us to where we are now, especially regarding women’s rights. But rather than spending hours talking about the wrong-doings of the patriarchy and the need to dismantle it, we can be using our voices to empower and inspire.

There seems to be two sides of the feminism discussion — either you’re for it or you’re against it. But I believe there are larger conversations within this realm that people are avoiding or failing to recognize — and they need to be addressed. Feminism is not a black or white issue. There are expansive gray areas that people seem intimidated to enter into, but maybe addressing the gray is where change will be seen.

The issues that the feminist movement fight for are issues that everyone should be fighting for because they affect the entire society. Yet, when attached to the label “feminist,” these universal issues are readily discredited and brushed aside too easily by too many, which is unfortunate because these topics like equal pay for equal work, health rights and sexual assault — to name a few — are critical to the lives to many. 

In my opinion, these problems should be fought for by everyone who has the hopes for a better tomorrow. No one deserves to be mistreated, abused or taken advantage of — no matter what their gender is. That’s called human decency. There doesn’t always have to be a subgroup for every issue or an exclusive label for every cause you care about. Too often, this label-induced exclusivity hinders the issues that are being fought for.

Another problem within feminism is its limited scope. The majority of modern feminists — or at least the outspoken ones — are white, privileged, affluent women. There are subgroups of feminism working toward the advancement of women of color, but the umbrella term of feminism doesn’t extend much further. Without the inclusion of all women, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, etc., the point of feminism is completely lost.

By definition, I am a feminist. And I believe that everyone who has a compassionate heart and the desire to do good in the world is too, whether they choose to identify with the term or not. However, I don’t affiliate myself with the negativity and the cynicism that wrongfully comes from many modern-day feminists. I get “feminism,” but not so much “feminists.”

The term “feminist” is a label, and just because you coin that for yourself does not mean you are inherently after what feminism is about. You can live out feminism, having an equal respect for women and men, without announcing to everyone that you are a feminist. Just like high-waisted shorts and a flannel don’t automatically make you a hipster, a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” sticker and the correct terminology don’t officially make you a feminist. When the label and the goal don’t match up, the outcome will not be coherent.

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Believe it or not, I have talked with people who agree with me on this. None of these people are Taylor Swift, however, she shared her similar feminist understandings in an interview with The Guardian in 2014.

“What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men,” Swift said. “And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means. For so long, it’s been made to seem like something where you’d picket against the opposite sex, whereas it’s not about that at all.”

Exclusive labels only go so far. Calling yourself a feminist is one thing, taking action against issues you believe to be unjust is another.

And in the words of Taylor Swift, you can “take a feminist stance without actually saying so.”

Collegian columnist Zara DeGroot can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @zar_degroot.