Can being slutty disrupt the sexual status quo? What does it mean to be a female writer? In conjunction with our Girls Rule issue, some of our favourite writers, activists and artists will be musing on these questions for Girl Guides, a series of how-tos and thinkpieces on the state of modern womanhood. Here, tender journal editor and poet Sophie Collins shows how easy it is to get labelled a bad feminist.
I am one of many people very excited for Roxane Gay’s forthcoming collection of essays, Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014). Gay’s writing is hugely inspiring for its sharpness, ambivalence and humour, and her 2012 essay from which the book takes its title has been endlessly useful to me in overcoming the idea of feminism as prescriptive – an idea that most – if not all – of us have, at some point, bought into and continue to do. Even when, as Gay says, we know better.
By identifying as feminists, we are judged and judge ourselves, which is absolutely a good thing, but not when we are measured against a set of unachievable feminist ideals that leave us feeling invariably "not as committed as [we] need to be" – a tension that is reinforced by the countless ways we’re called out for being bad feminists. Here are some of the main charges I’ve received (from myself as much as anyone else), or have heard leveled against other feminists...
"But you enjoy [insert problematic media here]!"
Porn, literature, fashion magazines, music, television, film. Being a bad feminist is all about inconsistency, so you should really feel free to pick and choose here. If you take it upon yourself to write a feminist critique of a piece of literature, there is absolutely no way anyone is going to let you get away with watching reality TV or enjoying rap (!).
You might think you’re able to do so without necessarily endorsing their more problematic elements by acknowledging these outright. You may even feel that not every activity you engage with needs to be in the name of feminism. However, picking your battles will make you a bad feminist in almost anyone’s eyes, and, thankfully, there will always be armies of explainers chomping at the bit to save you from what you like.
"But you won’t explain it to me."
Feminists should be aware that for many their views sound like they’re founded on pure make-believe, and the price that comes with the label is a consistent will, nay need, to educate others – especially those who are cynical and/or haven’t shown any previous interest. It may be "exhausting and diversionary being expected to hash out the basics" on demand, but the dedicated feminist should have a "sales pitch for liberation from structural disadvantage and systemic violence" ready to go.
Refusal to answer the most basic of questions at great length, with a few facts (because statistics or it didn’t happen) and some very personal history (because if it didn’t happen to you or to someone you know, it didn’t happen, and sometimes even then it didn’t happen), until the asker is up to speed (if not in agreement) with your views, is a rite of passage for any bad feminist.
"But you should at least know what you think!"
Admissions of uncertainty on any matter are the touchstones of bad feminism. No hesitation, repetition or deviation; feminists should have firm opinions and be able to back them up at a moment’s notice (see above).
"But you’re just a Tumblr/Twitter feminist."
Social media is by no means a utopian democratisation of voices, but what you thought was perhaps a valid alternative to the white and middle-class homogeneity of mainstream media outlets is actually entirely frivolous! Everyone knows Tumblr and Twitter feminists are on the 2013 feminist-meme bandwagon and their interest in politics is totally superficial. If you come to, learn about and discuss feminism online on social media you are simply not taking it seriously enough. Expressing sincere opinion on either of these platforms is a surefire way to undermine yourself and your views.
"But your concerns seem trivial to me."
Feminist concerns must be officially sanctioned in terms of mortal relevance, meaning that your meditation on catcalling is unimportant in the scheme of things and you should be focusing on the more serious issues. The idea that these seemingly less relevant preoccupations are directly connected to other forms of social injustice is fanciful – at best.
"But you shave/use make-up/diet/wear pink."
If you’re a real feminist, why would you be interested in making yourself conventionally attractive? Why would you want a boyfriend/partner/husband? Do you like girls too? Why (not)? Do you have issues with sex? Don’t be cagey, explain it to me.
"But that’s not what you said before!"
If you’ve ever said something that’s out of step with the views you currently hold, having changed your mind or altogether reversed your opinion after doing some research and educating yourself, you’re well on your way to being a bad feminist via inconsistency.
Sarcasm aside, the only damaging approach to feminism is one that disregards the "complexities of human experience or individuality" – and that includes the stonewalling of important discussion and critique via wholly unhelpful terms (like "misogofeminists"), which contributes to an unhealthy culture of refusal to examine our views and what informs them. Already, there are way too many articles decrying feminism for its witch-hunt militancy and purported epidemic of infighting, but failing entirely to highlight the changes the movement has affected, its support network, and the vital feeling of personal empowerment that comes at the moment of consciously self-identifying as a feminist.
Although the intellectual mobility afforded by the internet has gone a long way in shaping the views of recent generations, the differences highlighted between feminisms are not necessarily generational, but ideological. Feminists do not share in some kind of collective consciousness, nor do they expect each other to embody the outmoded stereotype — "militant, perfect in their politics and person, man hating, humorless" — that, as Gay says, rightly belongs to myth.
So despite widespread misperceptions of feminism, I will never denounce the term or its ongoing necessity. As Gay puts it, "I’m full of contradictions [but] I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all."
Follow Sophie Collins on Twitter here @hatefuldaughter