Wait — are you a feminist?
This question was posed to me in a somewhat exasperated and amused tone a few days earlier. I hesitated for a moment, not completely sure of my answer but also put off balance by the inquirer’s negative connotations to the term. Its usage has become so loose among our youth, who have grown up learning about feminist protests, watching Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You listening to feminist punk and laughing at Tina Fey’s hyper-ambitious character in 30 Rock that the definition itself has become blurred.
In a technical sense feminism is the term used to describe the promotion of equal rights and opportunities for women. But it has become a term where the persona associated with it has superseded the actual definition. In popular culture, feminists are often depicted as radical, fitting into this anti-establishment believing, vegetarian eating and Sylvia Plath reading niche.
On the other side of the spectrum are women who appreciate modern day chivalry, don’t mind when a man pays for their meal and aren’t too crazy about being able to be drafted in a war anyway, a la Declaration of Sentiments. Yet these two camps seem to be polarized. Can someone be a feminist while still appreciating when a man holds a door open for them?
The reason why I hesitated when faced with the question of whether I was a feminist is because I find it endearing in movies when a man walks a woman home and I see a certain charm in paying for a woman’s meal. But at the same time, like most progressive individuals, I think that women deserve and are capable of positions of power, when I was eight I thought Mulan was pretty BAMF and I had a Mary Wollstonecraft phase for a while.
Keeping these camps segregated just loses people on both sides because the dichotomy between chivalry and feminism isn’t always there. Not every chivalrous act always denotes a “damsel in distress” attitude — maybe it just denotes a human-to-human nicety.
Is paying for a woman’s meal a nice deed or embedded in notions that the woman can’t pay for the meal herself? When a woman tries to pay for a man’s meal she is often viewed as trying to make a point and assert herself. This ideology is what added to my to-be-or not-be feminist hesitation: this notion of feminist being combative and reading into inequalities that aren’t really there. The existence of women inequality is uncontestable; simply looking at women’s underrepresentation in politics is evidence enough. So perhaps these negative connotations of feminists have arose not because of a disagreement with their core values but because of a fear of radicalization.
Do chivalry and feminism have to be mutually exclusive? I used to think that if I harbored traditional ideals of men and women interactions but still believed in women equal rights I was trying to eat my cake and have it too or worse that I was just being a feminist poser. Now I settle these two seemingly contradicting ideologies with a qualifier: feminism is about equality but that doesn’t mean that men and women will be identical- those terms aren’t interchangeable and neither are men and women. They have two separate histories and two separate biological make ups. So holding the door open for an individual who’s about 50 pounds lighter than you, whether it is a man or woman, in my view, isn’t anti feminist.
But then again, maybe I just support anything that cuts down on how much manual labor I have to do on a day-to-day basis.