As a feminist on the Internet, I come across an amusing — and sometimes scary — array of incorrect opinions about me. I must not know myself very well, because apparently I hate men, but also want a man and can’t get one, want special privileges, which I’m also told I already have, and will never be smart or successful in my life. Well, I may not have my Oscar/Tony/Emmy/Nobel/whatever on my shelf or a ring on my finger yet, but I feel pretty good about my life, which includes a committed relationship with a man(!) and no special privileges (except some perks of my job for a major university). It baffles me that people are still so antagonistic towards feminism, clinging to the more archaic notions of the movement that were dark spots in its history. Just like Star Wars movies, we can overcome those ill-conceived moments. Right?
Actually, I’ve learned a lot in my 15+ years as a feminist. I first became a feminist in my mid-teens, when I read an article about FGM in Seventeen magazine, which mentioned the Feminist Majority Foundation. I started learning about how women’s bodies were regulated, violated, or mutilated, whether by unnatural media portrayals, restrictions on abortion or birth control, or literal cutting into the genitals. My feminism began as a heightened awareness of gender inequality, of objectification of girls and women, of unfair treatment of women around the world. Once you see it, it’s hard to un-see it. Definitely makes it hard to enjoy some movies and music. But I was simplistic and judgmental in my feminism. My mother was a second-wave feminist who disapproved of sex workers, models, and toplessness. My grandmother was a first-wave feminist who thought that the right to vote solved all the problems. Not having much other guidance, I turned my attention to what I thought was a problem. Certainly my teen girl brat hormone-driven jealousy was a fact. Not being a girl who liked dresses and makeup, I saw my crush start dating (or whatever you call it at that age) a girl who wore tons of makeup, who had a reputation for kissing a lot of boys. I learned later that she had severe acne and caked on the foundation to cover it up. I called her a slut, quite unfairly.
In a college course I took through dual enrollment (I know, we feminists are so dumb), we were learning about paternity testing. The professor asked for a scenario in which paternity testing might be needed. Ever the Hermione, I raised my hand and gave the least academic answer I’ve ever given in my life: “The mother’s a slut.” And she gave me the most withering look I’ve ever received from a professor. I know, I’m ashamed. And I thought of that one day in my mid-twenties, when I crashed at a friend’s house and had confusing sex with him the following morning, then met up with the person I’d been casually dating, then had my ex, who I’d been missing terribly, surprise me that night wanting to get back together. Three sexual encounters in one very emotional day. Had I become pregnant, I would have been in that hypothetical situation the professor described. Was I a slut? What does that even mean in that context? No one was hurt.
In that same dual enrollment program, I talked to so many people about my newfound interest in feminism. One day, I had a long conversation with my classmates about cheerleaders and how their outfits unnecessarily objectified them. One fellow student, a former cheerleader, was offended. I explained, to no avail, that I was talking about the design and marketing of cheerleading and its costumes, not demeaning her for her activity. She hated me after that. Looking back now as a burlesque dancer, I understand. I made her out to be an ignorant victim of objectification instead of a person with agency. My question should have been, Why did cheerleaders shift from being primarily men to primarily women in skimpy costumes? not Why would anyone be a cheerleader when they are nothing but objectified?
The most sobering part of that program was that my crush got wind of my “feminist trip” (his words) and decided I was not worth his time. It was then that I realized I’d be in a for a rough life. It seemed unfair; I just wanted these atrocities against women to stop. Did that mean I couldn’t get the guy I wanted?
Thankfully, that ended up not happening. For someone who supposedly hates men, I sure did spend a lot of time with, and sleep with, a lot of men. My entire friend group in college was men. We played video games and Dungeons and Dragons and other cornerstones of geek culture; my participation in this subculture opened my eyes to a lot of what we feminists called casual sexism — unfair behavior in competition, “sex taxes” on products, mansplaining, etc. No, it’s not as traumatic as rape or FGM or the countless violent horrors bestowed upon women worldwide, but it changes your entire experience of the dailies of life: what you do for leisure, how you go about your job, and so on. Imagine mechanics trying to sell unnecessary upgrades and repairs to you because they assume you don’t know about cars. Imagine the reason given that you lost, or are going to lose, the game tournament not because you’re not skilled, or out of practice, but simply that you’re a woman: a gamer girl, not a gamer. Impaired by less adequate hand-eye coordination. Imagine all the female characters in your favorite movie, TV show, or game, being subject to rape, or in their underwear part or all of the story, or literally not having as many skills or upgrades available to them. It doesn’t ruin your life, but it’s a worldview hard to ignore.
I internalized a lot of these biases at first. I’ve been going to Dragon*Con in Atlanta since 2008. I used to roll my eyes at the scantily clad women there, judging them for “selling out” to the male gaze. The leader of my group in my first excursion to Dragon*Con was a game store owner who was morbidly obese, regularly made sexist comments, and was generally an unpleasant person. My friend told me that (we’ll call him) John plied women at the con with drinks and convinced them to have sex with him. I was appalled, wondering how easily some women gave it away to someone so repulsive. Only years later did I realize that John was raping these women, and his friend portrayed it as their alcohol-driven attraction rather than John getting women into a state where they legally could not consent. (No, John did not drink during these encounters, so STFU with that right now.)
It took me years to shed a lot of the internalized misogyny. I met polyamorous people, I met trans people, I met smart, accomplished, and married feminist people. I realized that my high horse was made of hot air.
What bothers me most about anti-feminist people, though, is that they assume I’m easily offended. Firstly, because these are the same people screaming about a female-led Ghostbusters. You don’t see me, a feminist, screaming about the latest superhero movie or sitcom that has a male lead. I’m a playwright myself, and I have created male lead characters(!). (Although I do tire of some feminists insisting that rape should never be portrayed in pop culture, while wondering why we don’t talk about it. But that’s a separate discussion.) Anyway, anti-feminists, both men and women, say I shouldn’t worry about, say, sexism in geek culture, because they are girls in Africa having their clitorises cut off. Yeah, I know. The thing is, misogyny tends to support itself. FGM in Africa does not impact me directly (and it’s also not always part of a tyrannical regime that white people need to save, FYI). But institutionalized sexism does affect me. Why would I appropriate an African situation to mine to make myself feel better about what I’ve experienced? Seems drastic, especially for things that are more annoying than life-threatening. Am I offended when a mechanic insults my intelligence? No, because I can communicate clearly about what my car needs, pay for it, and GTFO. Am I offended when some guy insists on helping me carry the 20 pounds of cat litter to my car? No, but I’m going to be pissed when he rushes at me to “help” and ends up hitting me in the face (true story, thanks for the bruised lip, bro).
What is offensive is when someone uses my gender as a reason to hurt me — or deny me help. This hurt me when I, as a survivor of intimate partner abuse, sought help. It’s good to hear that “women tend to be emotional and can overreact to things not meant to cause harm” after my ex beat, raped, stole from, and blackmailed me. It’s good to have his claims of “I was having a hard time” and “I didn’t mean to” taken seriously, while my complaints of abuse and violence were not. You see male privilege quite clearly when someone with a history of run-ins with the law who regularly exhibited erratic, violent behavior was taken more seriously than his girlfriend, who had never even been arrested, who had a stable job, who acted, what’s the word, sane. So when anti-feminists accuse feminists of “playing the victim,” I always remind them playing is fun — what I, and other survivors of abuse, went through is not. Why would I play a victim? I am one, but it does not define me.
Ultimately, feminism has empowered me, even though it hurts my enjoyment of pop culture sometimes. It’s a small price to pay for the lessons I’ve learned. I look upon the world with a skeptical eye, without the assumption that the woman “did something to cause it,” with an appreciation for people’s variety of experience and upbringing. It makes me a better advocate for abuse survivors and a better champion of society’s underprivileged. And, contrary to what the Internet says, a better girlfriend, wife, sister, daughter, mother.
A version was originally published on The Whole World Blind.