We are all bad feminists, and that's ok
Until recently, pop music has not had a very comfortable relationship with feminism and few public ambassadors are willing to say "I am a feminist". Many have preferred to side-step the label and its connotations, favouring the saccharine-coated tones of the 1990s "girl power" mantra, which is seen as less combatant. We are living in the era of the "pop culture think-piece". With every music video release, public incident, performance and Instagram post, artists find that public intellectuals and journalists are poised and ready to dissect every aspect of their lives, work and ethos.
The past few weeks have seen robust discussions about "celebrity feminism", debating Nicki Minaj's Anaconda video, Taylor Swift "coming out" as a feminist in The Guardian, and Beyoncé performing while silhouetted by the word "feminist" at the MTV Video Music Awards. What has been remarkable about these public dissections of feminism is both their prolific and pervasive existence and how often feminism is policed as their writers debate whether certain artists can be labelled "feminist".
This spills over into our lives as well, as certain kinds of feminism are deemed more laudable and credible than others. Ironically, the movement that fights against prescribed roles for women has found itself fraught with internal dissent about prescribed roles and behaviours for feminists, in which different kinds of feminism seem pitted against each other in some kind of duel. The policing of feminism and its boundaries often goes hand-in-hand with policing of women's bodies and choices, which is cloaked in respectability politics. Certain kinds of behaviour are "permitted" and endorsed, as if there is some conservative global consensus on what kind of person can self-identify as feminist. Many of the instances in which women's feminism are called into question confront what is perceived as a tenuous line between the male gaze and owning your sexuality, problematically not permitting women to own their bodies and their sexuality.
There is value in public figures claiming feminism, which has been seen as a dirty word and carelessly ill-defined as man-hating activism, perpetuated by bitter, unattractive women. This mis-education of the masses has seen many women run away from the label. Swift's statement about her personal evolution echoes this: "What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means."
In her Ted talk, "We Should All be Feminists", an excerpt of which can be found on Beyoncé's Flawless record, Chimamanda Adichie offers a simple definition of feminism: "Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes." Adichie's point is that if you believe this statement, you are feminist. Part of the careless definitions of feminism in the public space is the belief that feminists need to live according to a strict code, and if you do not, you're either a bad feminist or not a feminist at all.
Academic and writer Roxanne Gay has embraced the term 'bad feminist' and its contradictions, opening up the definition to include women who, for example, like the colour pink, wear heels and short skirts, love romantic comedies and want to get married or be sexy, all in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that many see this as diametrically opposed to the typical idea of what a feminist looks like. She writes: "When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume, even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core… I am mortified by my music choices." This points out the fact that, as feminists, we are often attempting to reconcile our contradictions. "Bad feminist" is a positive label, eschewing the idea that feminism requires the rigid consistency of an automaton, devoid of the colour and context of human life.
Feminists and their interpretation of feminism are diverse and varied. Attempts to limit and hijack the definition run counter to the fact that feminism has never been ahistorical, moving and shifting with time and as gains were made in the movement. Feminism does not belong to the academy, or to anyone else. Women should be allowed to figure out their relationship to it without the threat of being policed or disqualified from membership to an elite club of 'Mean Girlsesque' feminists who live by a strict code of rules that govern their behaviour. We can't have a codified list of credentials you need to attain to label yourself a feminist, and we need to acknowledge that human beings are unavoidably complex, multifaceted individuals. We are all bad feminists in some ways, and that's ok. Rather than attacking our differences, we should engage them in meaningful critique because there is a productive tension in doing this.
We don't all have to agree on everything, as long as we agree on and work towards the fundamentals expressed in Adichie's definition. Feminists are split on multiple issues from the use of the word 'bitch' to the slut walk protests and Minaj's Anaconda video. This disagreement is ok, valid and important as we work out what it means to be a contemporary feminist. Dissent within our ranks does not mean that we should be asking people to hand in their feminist cards. Rather, we need robust debate, and we need to call each other out on certain issues, engage each other on our diversions and ask questions - but not to pathologically police a woman's right to call herself a feminist because she does not fit in with our ideas.
However, we can't be feminists in name only. As Jessica Valenti argues: "It takes more than identifying as a feminist to understand feminism." It is about understanding structural inequality and patriarchy, and crucially that, to quote Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin, "all oppression is connected" - which requires an understanding of the way race, class, gender, sexuality and other forms of oppression are not separate, but interact in important ways. It requires that we check our privilege and are conscious of our blind spots. In her critique of Beyoncé's performance at the MTV awards, Elisabeth Donnely argues: "Celebrity feminism is certainly no substitute from the actual, on-the-ground activist work that we could stand to do in the light of institutional and societal inequalities regarding race, class and gender that lead to tragedies such as Mike Brown's death in Ferguson." Moreover, we need to open up our definition of activism to allow space for the kind of work done by celebrities, our everyday actions of confronting inequality and public activist acts.
To paraphrase Autostraddle writer Carmen Rios, somebody else's personal politics and beliefs are "not about your comfort zone". It is both counterproductive and contradictory to want more women (or people in general) to identify as feminists and then police the gates. There is an internecine violence to feminism when we do this. We all have certain brands of feminism that we practice as just as the personal is political, and the political is personal. Personal politics is not an uncomplicated zone and we all live out our paradoxes and contradictions daily as we occupy grey areas of messy contradictions. Variation in our expressions of feminism, and the bad feminism of our contradictions, does not preclude certain people from self-identifying as feminists. We should not be policing people's "authenticity"'. To quote Adichie: "Whoever says they're feminist is bloody feminist."
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler