(cover image taken from here)
the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.
I begin this humble rumination by clarifying that by no means would any fervent feminist consider my views appropriate for an enlightened woman, nor would I ever have the audacity to call myself one. I am far from what anyone would consider an ardent advocate of the feminist movement. In fact, I am that girl that the women rights’ groups scoff at. I am the girl who loves shopping, who cares about looking pretty, who whines about “being fat”. I have no qualms about the fact that, by virtue of my gender, guys seem to feel obliged to sometimes hold open doors, or that male classmates offer to carry more stacks of notes than me when a few of us go to bring them up from the printing shop to class (though I usually do try to hold my own). Unlike the typical power woman, I have no interest in being a prolific career woman who dedicates her life to her job – I want to settle down someday, I want to have children.
In other words, by the same logic that led feminists to give Michelle Obama the exact label, I’m probably a “feminist’s worst nightmare”.
In itself, the dictionary gives “feminism” a deceptively simple definition: that of believing in equality. It might then be tempting to dispel all this heated debate on what exactly makes a feminist by dumbing it down to “I believe in equality, therefore I am a feminist”. But if it is really so simple, why is it that amongst society, or even “feminists” themselves, no one seems to have a universally agreed definition of what it is? What exactly does “equality” even mean? While on the surface level, “equality” might seem to a reference to more tangible aspects such as equal legal rights as men, how would one quantify, say, educational and employment opportunities given? And what about those who consider feminism to mean taking it one step further – those who define gender equality as destroying the notion of difference altogether, eliminating all social norms and ultimately resulting in a completely gender-neutral society? The problem with feminism boils down to the heterogenous nature of its interpretation – on one hand we have the bra-burning lesbian caricature, but on the other, self-proclaimed “liberal” feminists, like the women’s studies major who works porn on the side.
More often than not, the negative impressions people – including myself – have of feminism is to do with the more zealous. Radical feminism at its core can often be so intent on sanitizing every aspect to do with “gender norms” or a patriarchal society, so much that what one might perceives as chivalry is deemed by other “sexist”. Every action even remotely gender-associated – such as a “ladies first” gesture or a waiter choosing to serve a girl before a guy – must be viciously admonished in an attempt to strive towards the society where the construct of gender is completely eliminated.
But the part I resent most is that, because of such extremist mindsets, even by my own sex, I have been chided for “not being feminist enough”: as if just because I don’t insist on principle to reject hypothetical compliments about my outfit; just because I don’t rebuff the idea of chivalry, or get irrationally outraged at every male wisecrack about mood swings or suggestions that I don’t know anything about football (I do); just because of my supposed “weakness” to adhere to these arguably petty self-written regulations of the cause, I am ignorant of the problems of women and therefore any opinion I have doesn’t count.
Extreme feminists often feel as if women have an imaginary duty to actively undermine gender norms – that if you don’t like that angry cartoon on Facebook then somehow you are less of a person. They assume that anyone who doesn’t share their opinions on gender being a social construct has been brainwashed by the patriarchy. In fact, some feminists argue that my choice to be feminine is a false one – that insidious social forces have been at work shaping my mind since the day I was born, from the cartoons I grew up with to the toys I played with. But that misses the point. Every single choice we make in society is shaped by countervailing forces. We don’t criticize a Muslim woman for choosing to wear the hijab, right? Her upbringing doesn’t make her choices any less valid. What would one be like, in a hypothetical society without norms and our upbringing uncoloured by our parents’ worldviews? But how would anyone prove what exactly is a product of our interaction with society and what would be an individual’s natural inclination? In the words of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”:
There is no such thing as a good influence…. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view …to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions.
Society no doubt plays some part in influencing us, but as Wilde’s Henry Wotton opines, being exposed to any person’s opinion subliminally changes who we are. But it would be unfair if every women has to be used as battering rams for social change, forced to undermine gender stereotypes against their own “will” – because let’s face it, is there really any way to quantify what our inherent preferences would be in a theoretical alternate universe?
My point is this: It seems almost ridiculous that to be part of this movement to help our own gender, we have to actively undermine all gender stereotypes, applicable to us or not. Margaret Thatcher is said to have intentionally lowered the pitch of her voice to a deep-toned, more masculine voice to cater to the inherent human link of deeper tones with leadership potential. Yes, Margaret Thatcher is always held as a shining example as a woman who has broken out of the glass ceiling – but to me this is the ultimate example of patriarchy: that to succeed in life, a woman has to become like a man. By relinquishing our own individual traits and associating gender progressiveness with rejecting all “feminine” traits that one might have, whether we want to or not, aren’t we in a way losing the war? Not every woman should have to care about her appearance, but if she chooses to do so, why should she be judged for it?
Does it not defeat purpose of helping women, if some have to pretend to be somebody they are not?
A stereotype is a “a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group”. Many of the innate stereotypes and assumptions people have about groups of people, such as women, are based on observations extrapolated to hasty generalisations. What might be an indispensable portion of one’s identity as a woman may not even matter to another, so if one woman decides that being a mother and cooking for her child is what matters to her, who is anyone else to judge?
The original, dictionary definition of “feminism” is about “equality of the sexes”. I believe that equality is having a choice to do whatever we want to do in life, regardless of gender. The increasing number of extremists that we seem to meet in RI (re: gender-related posts on RJ Confessions) and society as a whole lead many like myself to identify as “non-feminist” – “non” meaning while we believe in equality, but by virtue of the fact we fit into the barbie-loving, compliment-accepting stereotype that third definition feminists frown upon, we cannot possibly self-identify as a member of the cause. And often the stringency of the feminist movement creates an unnecessary stigma associated with the cause of equality, forging ambivalence to a subject that would and should otherwise mean much more.
So does it really matter if one is considered “feminist enough”? Even if it means erroneous assumptions about my competence or intelligence, I choose to embrace who I am. Women can prove our ability without rejecting our own interpretation of our identity. The whole point of feminism is to allow women the freedom of rights and freedom of choice. Feminism, femininity, female – they all come from the same root word, and they should hardly be incompatible. It seems almost silly to let the same movement that aims to help us divide us. Maybe at the end of the day, we just ought to stop taking inaccessible self-imposed labels so seriously.
(Edit: 5 May 2014) An author’s note: Do take a look at a logical and most admirable response to my piece here. The problem though, is that the outspoken minority I refer to have the loudest voices as compared to rational activists like the author, many of which would have launched into a violent and/or sarcastically condescending response (as I’ve unfortunately experienced) – kind of the whole point of the above grievances.