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Taking Back the F Word

Opinion | November 17, 2010

By Natalie Selzer

Listing  Feminist  Philosophy amongst the courses that I’m taking this semester has garnered more than a few interesting — and upsetting — responses from male friends and acquaintances who have asked about my academic schedule. The one that topped the list, I think, was the guy who thought about it for a second before saying that he “lived with one of those,” as though a woman in college today that considered herself a feminist was some foreign, unexpected, unnamable phenomenon. Other responses have mostly been ‘good-natured’ variations on the feminism as the butt of a joke theme, followed by the assertion that they are, of course, just kidding around with me. The biggest problem: These responses aren’t from assholes. Far from it. They are from good guys that I wouldn’t think to pair with the words sexist or misogynist. They are from guys that, I think, respect me. So if they are good guys, why should I care?  I care because I can’t write them off as douchebags whose opinion doesn’t matter to me. I care because the underlying message, intended or not, is that to be a feminist is to be strange or to be a joke. I care because I had to qualify the statement that they respect me with the words “I think.”

In their defense, the meaning of the word feminist got lost somewhere along the way between the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and the world of 2010 that we live in today. And then again, the word feminist never really meant any single thing—it has ranged from a focus on equal job and education opportunities all the way to radical lesbian separatist movements. But the term, in its simplest form, has been appropriated and polluted to the point that college-aged women of today have very little interest in associating themselves with the word, and men are not sure what holding feminist beliefs even means exactly. Where being a feminist should mean a firm belief that systematic social, economic, and political inequalities should not exist between men and women, it has come to be, for many, a caricature of angry, inflammatory women insisting on their own oppression where they appear to enjoy fairly equal rights. Or, if you are like Rush Limbaugh, you might be under the impression that “feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” I’ll just point out that if a woman looked half as unattractive as Rush Limbaugh, the media would never have let us hear one peep from her. And yet Limbaugh never seems to be shut up.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is twofold. First, I want to emphasize that feminism does not have to mean an attack on the individual—its main goal is to criticize the social system that continues, today, to shape us into strictly defined feminine and masculine molds, where compulsory femininity (which morphs somewhat over time and space but can be understood almost always to include service to the masculine) is valued less than masculinity. To pick up on the stereotyped roles available to us: Qualities like nurturant, docile and communal, though usually expected from a woman, are always regarded as having less value than qualities like authoritative, strong and independent, which are expected from men. Just think about how you felt when reading those separate lists of words, what kind of images they evoked. Women are required to fit a certain niche and are then devalued for holding the qualities associated with it. And then again, if they demonstrate masculine qualities, they are also ridiculed, but for being argumentative, bossy, angry, selfish, or a flat out bitch.

Again, I do not, by any means, want to attack the men that I mentioned earlier who made offhand remarks or jokes about my Feminist Philosophy class; I want to attack the social environment that shaped their responses, and the idea that somehow the idea of feminist is not entirely pressing or relevant. Because though the responses themselves are not very important, they do reveal a sort of disregard for the ideas behind feminism. Which leads to my second point, and that is that the system that inflicts harmful and hurtful inequality between men and women absolutely exists here on campus, and in places that are, apparently, not immediately obvious to everyone. To be a feminist is to shed light on these inequalities and to, hopefully, combat them.

The sexism that I see rearing its head on the Tufts campus takes an almost exclusively social form, showing up in the interworking of personal interactions. We all are lucky enough to live in an environment where the injustices done to women are not, by and large, institutionalized; women have an equal chance of being admitted to college; they have the right to vote, learn, own property, hold a job, and all those other things that we take for granted living in the country that we do. But in focusing only on the abolition of institutional injustices (which have been incredibly hard won), we ignore the sexist expectations and actions in our everyday lives that have an enormous impact on how we treat and perceive one another.

Tufts women go to class, jobs, and extracurricular activities and expect to be treated with respect, to have their ideas and contributions taken seriously. And really, I think that they are. Yet the weekend rolls around, and everything is thrown out the window; we find ourselves dealing with a whole new set of social norms that are supposed to define our social lives and relationships. Systematically and without fail, within sexual relationships and in the things women hear from friends and the media, they are told that their most valuable characteristic is their physical appearance and their desirability to men. Sure, other qualities like intelligence or kindness or any other personality trait someone might prefer are good and sought-after, but when it really comes down to it, what is implied in so many varying ways is that sexual desirability and availability, as defined by men, is the single most important thing for a woman to possess. You can’t tell me that so many women fret over clothes, make-up, sexy underwear, and well-waxed pubic hair because they are intrinsically narcissistic or vain—they fret because the jokes and the feedback create doubt about whether they will, in the end, be considered valuable if they don’t put on the perfect, pretty face. And the thing is this: I’m not saying that all men value looks above everything else and disregard personality and intelligence. What I am trying to say is that the system around us, repeatedly and systematically, tries to tell us that they do.

The classic party theme that must always end in a clever pun on the word ‘ho’ is just another obvious example. Sure, I’m ruining the silly fun by saying anything. I’m being too politically correct, too uptight. The problem with these arguments, though, is that my frustration or my anger is being silenced, it isn’t allowed. I can object to the fact that these party themes imply that you are only welcome or fun if you expose yourself and make yourself sexually available to the men who—surprise!—can wear whatever the fuck they want without thinking twice about it. But my objection in many, many circles would be met with a glib ‘joke’ or a rolling of the eyes. But not a counterargument. The objection would not be engaged but ignored. Sex, sexiness, and tossing aside inhibitions are all wonderful; I don’t mean to say that they aren’t. I mean only to say that this type of situation, this informal yet socially coercive sexual service does not constitute the positive aspects of sex, sexiness and tossing aside inhibitions.

In the end, I just want to say that we are not living in a world where feminism is superfluous. We do not live in a world of sexual equality, especially in the most intimate of relations. We live in a world where sexism is very much alive, and yet people think the best way to deal with it is to shrug it off and make a joke. But in doing so, the systematic inequality is subtly reinforced. Feminism is silly, and so your frustrations are silly. Well, I want the word Feminist back.