OPINION: Feminism, bra burning & hating men
My friend Mvelase often makes an incredibly relevant comment when someone enters a discussion or opines on the internet without any regard for facts or research on a matter: "Google is full and free". It means that there is no excuse for ignorance or a lack of knowledge when you have a wealth of information at your fingertips - when simple googling would disprove, shift or broaden your knowledge, thoughts and opinions. He is quick to use it on himself, too, introspecting when he falls into a similar trap, reflecting a commitment to doing better, thinking harder and doing the research.
I was reminded of this phrase when I read a recent piece on feminism that drew on tired, problematic tropes, repeating the idea that feminism can be defined as angry 'bra-burning' and 'man hating' and containing the idea that women in powerful positions are naturally feminists. I found myself questioning how, in 2015, with so many resources at our disposal which would disprove these claims, they still persist. As my eyes flicked upwards to the by-line, Deborah Cox's 1998 hit played on a loop in my head, as I wondered: "How did you get here? Nobody's supposed to be here".
But it is easy to map how these associations still have sway and relevance, because they keep being unquestioningly repeated in daily conversations, comments and discourse - despite evidence to the contrary.
At a recent event I attended, a comedian on stage made reference to 'angry feminists' and stated that 'men get beaten up too', as if feminism is solely focused on one gender at the expense of others. He hid behind the repeated statement "I might be wrong, it's just my opinion". But opinion cannot simply be OK with being incorrect, and simply saying, "This is my opinion" does not preclude a connected statement from being dead wrong'.
I saw a point in his set, when he realised he had gone too far, as he started to make an uncomfortable case for gender-based violence. But he continued, buoyed by the fact that these statements are so commonplace in society, that they are rarely called out or questioned. People squirmed in their chairs, many laughed, and others looked at each other, incredulously, their faces contorted in disbelief.
The same angry feminist trope was repeated in the article, which stated that we should give up the 'aggressive gender bashing' and women should do feminist work 'with grace'. It left me wondering whether people actually engage with what feminism is and the full range of feminist work, before commenting on it - or whether they remain comfortable echoing dominant ideas without questioning them, or themselves.
In spite of Google being 'full and free', it's the way people engage with ideas, do selective reading and choose interpretations that prop these kinds of thoughts up. It's not simply about doing the reading, but about how we read, and whether we are OK with being made uncomfortable, with our assertions being challenged and whether we are open to having our opinions changed. We cannot simply read to only have our own feelings, thoughts and opinions mirrored back at us, staring at our own reflection in word form.
There are ample resources that reveal that feminism fights for all genders and expressions of gender identity, including highlighting how dominant ideas of masculinity hurt men and boys, with statements like 'boys don't cry' limiting ideas of what 'being a man' requires. There is also proof that women in powerful positions are not necessarily pro-women or feminist icons, or that some feminists are not here for all women, or a range of complicated, messy issues that accompany being different kinds of women.
In her seminal text _ Feminism is for everybody_, bell hooks notes a particular phenomenon that colours many encounters with people on feminism:
"…I tend to hear all about the evil of feminism and the bad feminists: how 'they' hate men; how 'they' want to go against nature and god; how 'they' are all lesbians; how 'they' are taking all the jobs and making the world hard for white men, who do not stand a chance. When I ask these same folks about the feminist books or magazines they read, when I ask them about the feminist talks they have heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by letting me know that everything they know about feminism has come into their lives third-hand, that they really have not come close enough to feminist movement to know what really happens, what it's really about. Mostly they think feminism is a bunch of angry women who want to be like men. They do not even think about feminism as being about rights - about women gaining equal rights."
It is a short, easy to read book that helps answer the question, "What is feminism?", and required reading, working with a clear definition: "Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression."
As hooks notes, when it comes to things like feminism, racism, homophobia and a range of structural issues, it seems that we are often stuck in a mode where we are continually tasked with disproving a range of problematic assumptions or misunderstandings, or left with the burden of proof - particularly when people's encounters with it are 'third-hand'.
There is also a constantly repeated call for humanism, rather than feminism that functions as a desire for a similar kind of erasure that happens in the film The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind - where the lead characters erase all memory of their shared past.
It asks for an erasure of the different ways we are and have been historically treated, so that we can just move on - aiming to move past inequality without tackling it, under the idea that 'we are all human', even as society constantly reflects that we are not all considered as human as each other.
Feminism is for everyone - it is not, as frequently problematised - a fight for some at the expense of others, and is defined as such because we need to recognise particular struggles which have the danger of being collapsed under 'humanism'. It requires us to take a serious honest look at where we are right now, because the world is not a meritocracy.
Feminism cannot be anything and everything that you want it to be. It also does not belong to the academy, or theorists, but is a practice that many are carrying out, and have carried out across the ages, before it was termed or named as such. It requires requisite action, not simply donning a label.
It is more than being able to quote bell hooks or Chimamanda Adichie, or claiming consciousness. It is about the work, about constantly pushing yourself, about identifying what you do not know and how you fall short - and then working on it. It's a constant and continual commitment that is only as good as your willingness to be open to critique and learn from your blind spots.
We make things, like feminism, in our own image - an insular way of constructing ideas without considering anything outside our perspective. Frequently, feminism is being mentioned, and attached to popular figures and brands, or watered down to fit different kinds of interpretations, rarely but rarely interrogated in terms of what it means, requires or demands - which is a tricky kind of new popularity that has multiple sides.
I find myself constantly learning and unlearning, being schooled and schooling myself as my thoughts are shifting and being moulded and remoulded - on a range of issues that include feminism. I am still reading Feminism is for everyone, again and again, along with many other texts and articles, and questioning my own complicity and reproduction of problematic ideas. In conversations with friends, or searching the internet, my commitment to feminism and understanding of the world is always in process, tested, broken down, and enhanced.
In the words of Sekoetlane Phamodi: "For those of us who claim (or are thinking about claiming) the feminist identity, we need to be clear about what it is that we're committing our lives to, how it is that we can advance the political project and what not to do to protect the movement from being derailed from its sure and steady course to freedom. Sometimes that will mean being told to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves and the project."
The comedian later came up to me, and apologised for going too far - admitting that he had realised it in the moment, but felt unable to stop. We had a long conversation unpacking his assumptions about feminism. It became clear that his only encounters with it had indeed been 'third hand', through popular opinion and a range of assumptions that were dangerous and lazy to reiterate. I walked away from that discussion wondering what it would take to obliterate these incorrect negative misunderstandings, wilful or not, about feminism.
Perhaps it starts with admitting that we don't know enough about whatever topic, movement or issue we are engaging with, and working to change that through the means available to us. And even if we do have some degree of knowledge, we acknowledge can always know better, and more. There is always another corner to turn, and a greater distance to travel, as we never arrive. It is an endless journey.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler
Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.