BROWN: Feminism is for everyone

The core principles of the feminist movement are almost universally agreeable

In a recent editorial for this paper, Nazar Aljassar made the case that the pervasive negative stigma surrounding feminism can be attributed to both unfortunate stereotypes and the movement’s inherent elitism. I am not writing here to respond to Aljassar’s argument, but rather to some of its assumptions as well as the discussion his article has generated. Feminism is not the elitist, reverse-sexist movement it is almost always made out to be, and is actually a much larger movement than the layperson would believe in — in fact, you are almost certainly a feminist. And we need to take the term back to its original meaning.

Aljassar does reject the extreme rhetoric surrounding the most hateful prejudices against feminism favored by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. And he does give a more correct definition of feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” as written by the author bell hooks. But in his argument he still operates under the assumption that the small, vocal populations of self-proclaimed feminists who do not fit extreme stereotypes, and who are indoctrinated with “elitism and intellectualism” define the movement. This is false.

I understand how Aljassar fell into this thinking; it is ingrained into our culture. As a man, I instinctively balk at being labeled a feminist and I can’t fully explain why. Even though I come from a family and community full of impressive women, who I know are as capable and as respectable as men, I still dislike the term on a gut level. This speaks to the effectiveness of the extreme rhetoric of the Rush Limbaughs of the world, but also to the more subtle resistance of the patriarchal establishment. I dislike the term feminist — however subconsciously — because on some level, as a man, I enjoy benefits our society bestows on men that are denied to women. I dislike the term because some privileged part of me does not like feminist ideas that challenge the systems that keep these benefits in place.

Examples of this subtle patriarchy we all buy into on some level are everywhere. An easy one to cite is our society’s obsession with a certain idea of female beauty. Not only do entire industries thrive making products catering to this ideal, but a woman’s adherence to it is too often the single most important thing she can do for her career. In a recent Italian study, researchers sent out thousands of identical resumes with only the names, addresses, and photos changed. Women rated as attractive had a 54 percent call-back rate, close to men rated as attractive at 47 percent. But the importance of female attractiveness really came into play for those rated as unattractive: “unattractive” men were called back 26 percent of the time, but women only 7 percent. This study speaks to the broader tendency in our culture to judge a man on his actions and a woman on superficial aspects of her appearance.

And this is just one of many ways women are held to different expectations, producing double standards that almost universally privilege men. As a man, I don’t have to worry about being labeled as cold or bitchy for being motivated and pursuing my goals. I don’t have to worry about being labeled a slut if I sleep around. I don’t have to worry about being sexually assaulted at a party if I dress a certain way. And I don’t have to worry about being labeled a “Femi-Nazi” for acknowledging all of the above to be true.

I don’t think anyone will disagree that no one should have to worry about the issues listed above, and women seeking jobs shouldn’t be judged by their adherence to a certain standard of beauty. I see examples of men and women challenging these expectations every day, from the men of the group One in Four, who educate other men about sexual assault and how it can be prevented to the staff of the University of Virginia Women’s Center, whose programs both support women suffering from issues such as negative body image and domestic violence and celebrate the achievements of women in our community. These are feminists, and if you agree with what they stand for, then so are you. If we can all accept this identity — stigma and all — then the discussion can begin to move beyond whether feminism is elitist and intellectual and move on to how our society should acknowledge the real differences between men and women without confining individuals to restrictive roles or celebrating one set of gifts over another. That is a difficult and confusing conversation, but unlike the name-calling and stereotyping we often engage in now, it is a productive one.

Forrest Brown is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

Published January 30, 2014 in Opinion

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