Ted Eytan/Flickr
Politics /14 Aug 2019
08.14.19

The Problem with American Feminism

My decision to become a feminist set me on a bold new path in life. The moment I elevated the rights and dignity of the individual over the oppressive dictates of my childhood Christian theology, I liberated myself from the shackles of my mind. As one question led to another, I tumbled down the very “slippery slope” that fundamentalists warn each other about. Rejection of gender roles quickly led to an acceptance of same-sex relationships, and a beat after that, the long-overdue admission that I wasn’t even straight myself.

It took only months before I began sliding from moderate conservatism into full-out progressivism, as my curiosity drew me to explore all sorts of ideas I’d always seen as false. I participated in marches. I spoke out on social media. I wrote on my blog. I read Everyday Feminism. I came out as bisexual. I needed feminism. It empowered me to reject harmful, restrictive theology, and to affirm and accept my own sexuality.

But after about a year of being swept up in progressive, feminist culture, I started to feel a disconnect. It wasn’t that I thought feminism was bad or wrong, but I began to suspect that something was missing, or perhaps just slightly off, about the way feminism existed in the United States.

Maybe the problem wasn’t feminism itself. Maybe it had something to do with me. All I knew was I couldn’t relate to the culture of pussy hats, the Women’s March, #BelieveWomen, the creeping influence of Marxist ideology, outright rejection of pro-life women, online vitriol, and the overblown sensitivity to what I saw as minor offenses. I saw all these things and thought, “This isn’t me.”

I just wanted to live my life. I just wanted to direct blockbuster movies without feeling like it was a sin. I wanted to date and marry who I was actually attracted to, and not feel obligated to “submit” to them, no matter what their gender was. I wanted to stand on my own two feet, as an individual and an adult, and not be reliant on a man. And I wanted other girls and women to be able to pursue their dreams and passions, and have their independence, too.

Women’s March in Washington. (Ted Eytan/Flickr)

The word “feminism” seemed to mean more than this or even something different from this—with a whole host of assumptions and associations that did not reflect my mindset at all. I wasn’t sure anymore if the label was fitting. One thing that confused me was how freely feminists threw around the word “oppression.” Technically, it was true that women experienced occasional oppression in America—only in the sense that some people might be “cruel” or “unjust” to women.

oppression: 1. the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. 2. an act or instance of oppressing or subjecting to cruel or unjust impositions or restraints.

But the word also had a strong connotation of subjection, overpowering authority, and restraint. Such a term seemed like an overstatement—or at very least, it was overused—in explaining the experience of women in the United States. It didn’t match the reality I saw around me. Perhaps something like oppression existed in certain religious pockets of society, but even that was an oppression of the mind. All it took was a change of thinking for me to be free of that.

Were women widely oppressed here, once, and not long ago? Most certainly. Were women still oppressed in other parts of the world? Absolutely. But I could drive a car, vote, get an education, enter any career field I wanted, and (arguably) get paid the same as a man. Would there be challenges? Yes. Were there some sexists out there who wanted me to stay at home, to be quiet, to not make any waves? Unfortunately, yes, but they had no power over me.

The entertainment industry, for example, still had plenty of sexism, both on the screen and behind the scenes. There were investors and producers in Hollywood who believed women like me couldn’t direct action-adventure movies, and it had nothing to do with religious dogma. Pursuing my dreams wouldn’t be easy. But to me, that wasn’t quite the same as saying I was “oppressed.”

Perhaps, on the surface, my point of disagreement was just over semantics. But the way feminists commonly talked about oppression, as it there was this heavyweight pressing all women down, was not empowering at all. Instead, it was somewhat demotivating. It’d be different if such a model of our society were true. But in fact, there was nothing holding me back from pursuing any dream. With enough persistence, skill, and luck, I could make it in the United States.

The dissonance I felt with mainstream, American feminism only widened.

In the summer of 2017, I was disturbed by the way mainstream feminism reacted to a memo by James Damore, the Google employee who was fired for suggesting that the gender parity in tech and leadership was due to women’s preferences and interests, rather than sexist bias. Despite the general scientific validity of his points, feminists and progressives accused Damore of being a dangerous misogynist, guilty of spreading horrible lies and false stereotypes about women.

James Damore, former Google engineer. (Jason Henry/New York Times)

If you actually listen to interviews with the man, you’ll find he is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and anything but sexist. If you actually read his memo, you’ll find that most of the accusations against him were nothing but libel. I heard my own friends say things to the effect of, “Science isn’t really objective, anyway. Who cares what science says?”

Is this what it means to be a feminist? Ignoring evidence if it doesn’t fit your preconceived narrative of victimhood and oppression? This mindset from my peers bore an unsettling resemblance to the fundamentalism of my youth—the evangelicals who ignored the evidence for climate change or evolution because it didn’t match their worldview.

I was disturbed, too, by the way the feminist community ousted Laci Green, an online sex educator who committed the egregious sin of talking to and being friends with anti-feminists. She was willing to talk with people who saw the world differently than she did. And this was…bad, somehow? Laci was also vilified for using words in unapproved ways, and for questioning the idea that speech could be equivalent to violence.

Is this what it means to be a feminist? Residing in an intellectual echo chamber, with little room for self-reflection, criticism, or growth? What, exactly, was happening to feminist culture? Or had it been this way all along?

This places us at the end of my story, and at my current conundrum. What does it mean to be a feminist, anyway? Does the term really describe me? The popular definition goes something like this:

feminist: someone who believes in the equality of the sexes.

Technically, that’s only partially true. Feminism is a specific, historical movement of female empowerment and liberation, not just a set of beliefs — or at least, it should be.

Would you consider yourself an abolitionist if you believed slavery was wrong but were not actively working to combat slavery in the world today? Would you consider yourself a conservationist if you believed we should protect wildlife and the environment, but were not actively doing anything for the cause yourself? By the same line of thinking, does it make sense to call yourself a feminist if you believe in the equality of the sexes, but are not actively working to liberate women from oppressive power structures?

Feminism in the United States has become a trendy, even profitable subculture of hashtags, celebrity endorsements, and slogans on a multitude of products like T-shirts, pillows, and mugs. A young woman in my country today can go to school to become a doctor or scientist while wearing a “Fuck the Patriarchy” hoodie. Meanwhile, in many other places of the world:

  • Women can be executed for having lesbian sex
  • Women can be arrested for dressing the wrong way in public
  • Girls can’t go to school, or risk being raped if they do
  • Girls fall behind in school because they don’t have practical ways to deal with their monthly periods
  • Girls are sold into sexual slavery
  • Girls are married off while they’re still children
  • Women cannot leave the house without their husband’s permission
  • Women risk violence, divorce, or social exclusion if they try to vote
  • Women can be gang-raped to pay for a man’s crime

What if American feminists spent less money on “I’m a Feminist” throw pillows and more money on helping vulnerable girls get an education? What if American feminists spent less time and energy engaging in Internet arguments or writing think pieces about man-spreading, and instead poured support into women’s liberation movements around the globe? What if American feminists prioritized solving the major problems facing women and girls in the world today, and after that, addressed truly minor concerns like mansplaining and microaggression? Imagine what could be accomplished?

Of course, you shouldn’t impress yourself onto another culture without their consent. It’s rather colonialist to barge in and say, “Hi, women of foreign culture! We are here to liberate you!” Feminist movements always need to start from within a culture. But in the cases where women are indeed oppressed, local feminist movements are already afoot, and the help is wanted, shouldn’t stand in solidarity with those women be a true feminist’s priority?

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that things are perfect for women and girls in the United States. We still have a lot of work to do. But I don’t believe we’ll ever reach a utopic future where things are “perfect” for women and girls. There will always be cases of sexism and rape, just as there will always be cases of murder, violence, and prejudice, so long as humans are humans. Anyone who wants to improve society knows that you’re fighting to bring those instances as close to zero as possible. But you’ll burn yourself out if you convince yourself it’s possible to actually reach zero. That isn’t a realistic goal. At what point, then, does the label of “feminist” become unnecessary? When has feminism, as a movement, done its job?

I believe every culture will, at some point in its history, need a movement like feminism when it’s finally ready to fling off the bonds of patriarchy. But I also believe that every culture will reach a point, after feminism has done its core, transforming work, where the movement becomes redundant, unnecessary, and unhelpful. I wonder if the United States is approaching that time now, or if we’ve already reached it. The number of women I know who say “Yes, I believe in the equality of the sexes, but no, I’m not a feminist” has me wondering if we indeed have crossed that threshold.

There are many women in America today who feel strongly connected with the term “feminist.” But there are just as many strong, independent, enlightened women who do not. What does this mean? Perhaps it means that America is ready to move not away from feminism but beyond it. That is an exciting thought to consider. A number of celebrities are ditching the term “feminist,” calling it “old-fashioned,” and using the word “humanist” instead. I don’t know what comes after feminism. But whatever lies in our future, I believe it will be beautiful to behold. And I intend to embrace it.

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