These days feminism is a buzzword. On one hand, nearly everyone has some dastardly opinions on feminists even if they can’t clearly define what feminism is. On the other hand, every other product, event or even phrasing is marketed as if it were “women empowering” or “feminist”. For those who know what feminism is, the whole thing is pretty annoying. I’ve written about the former problem- the misconceptions around what feminism is- and that is why I’m no longer correcting people when they say nonsense like “I’m not for feminist, I’m more of an equalist”.
But I have never before addressed the latter problem; the over-marketing of the wrong things as “feminist” and the way that ruins the work of the movement. So today I want to focus on that. I’ll be presenting some five common phrases/notions/happenings that are marketed as feminist but are NOT.
You’ve probably seen #GirlDad here or there under some new dad’s post. The hashtag has been pushed as an impactful statement; the men using it are articulating their pride in being a father to a daughter in a world where daughters have not been valued as much as sons are. #GirlDad has also been used to articulate the belief that being a father to a daughter is a different experience; you often hear men saying “having a daughter helped me appreciate/respect women”. In so doing men reveal how they become more sensitive to the inequalities and dangers faced by the female gender when they have a daughter. So what is wrong with this supposedly impactful statement, and why is it a clear example of something which has been wrongly branded as feminist? Simple answer: it is being used in the wrong way.
While the initial motive of the hashtag #GirldDad (promoting pride in having daughters) is laudable, the hashtag has unfortunately been used to reinforce stereotypes that some things are “girl things” and others are “boy things” (same problem with the #BoyMom hashtag) and this is anything but feminist. Being a girl dad on social media has been presented as being a father who is overprotective “because he has daughters to guard” (interestingly from members of his own gender), a father who does stereotypically girly things, and a father who is suddenly more sensitive to the inequalities and dangers faced by the female gender because he has a daughter. There is a fine line between emphasizing the equal value of daughters and making one gender more ‘special’ than the other and the #GirlDad hashtag often crosses it. Also, one should not need to have a daughter to recognize the equal value of girls and women to boys and men, so parading that is anything but feminist. Perhaps the most annoying thing about the hashtag is how capitalism has used it to now market stereotypically “girly” things to men “don’t you want to be a girl dad, buy this unicorn hat and prove it”.
2. “Split the costs 50/50, match his game”
Contrary to popular belief, splitting the bill 50/50 is NOT FEMINIST. Hear me out, I know some anti-feminists will be vexed by this one. Feminism is used to refer to the belief (and the movement which acts on that belief) that men and women should have equal rights, opportunities, responsibilities and fair treatment. Read that again and see the word SHOULD. This- gender equality- is what we believe and advocate SHOULD be. Gender equality is the desired state where the “rights, responsibilities and opportunities of individuals will not depend on whether they are born male or female” (Warth and Koparanova, 2012). That is the desired state, the state we’re advocating for; it is the goal but it is not the current reality, NOT YET. We are still in a state of prevalent gender inequalities.
Now, Gender equity refers to the efforts being made to reverse gender inequalities and ensure fairness between men and women so that the desired state of gender equality will one day be realized. We practice gender equity because we recognize that social norms and power structures have historically (and continue to) impact the lives and opportunities available to men and women differently and ensure imbalance and inequalities. We practice gender equity by enforcing measures to compensate for the historical disadvantages one gender has faced (and continues to face) to create a more levelled playing field. In sum, equity leads to equality. Without equity, there cannot be equality. Hence, until things are equitable, until the situation where men and women both have equal rights, access to work, same pay, same responsibilities as parents, same expectations of them in our society etc. we can’t be doing anything 50/50/ UNTIL THEN, there can be NO EQUALITY. To ask someone who is earning less, and being demanded more to split 50/50 is NOT FEMINIST. What that means, is you are asking them to act as if they were in the desired state when they are not.
This issue is regularly used to gaslight feminists with statements like “don’t you people want equality?” Unfortunately, there are too many who trip on their tongues when faced with this question because their understanding of feminism and feminist thought is shallow. The feminist goal is fairness; so if women expect to receive more financial support from men in a society that historically and continuously favours men with higher pay, better work opportunities, and less domestic responsibility, then that expectation is not unfair, it is their way of being “compensated” for the “traditional” role they are forced to play (and that compensation is not enough, to be honest). This ‘compensation’ may look like bias against men/for women to those who are less aware of their privilege. To that, I say: educate yourself.
3. “A Beauty with brains”
First of all, I forgive myself for once believing this was a compliment and smiling at being described as such. Most who use the “beauty with brains” phrase as a compliment have something alike to those who used #girldad; they claim the saying has a somewhat positive motivation to encourage girls/women to invest in their intellect not merely their looks. Yet these people fail to question why. Why guys don’t get described as “beauty with brains”? Because it is expected that they have “brains”, it wouldn’t be “exceptional” for them. Why are women- particularly “conventionally pretty” women- expected to be dim-witted, and less intellectual so much so that “beauty with brains” is used to say “oooh I’ve found a rare one, that has both pretty looks and a smart mind?” Because historically, girls and women were kept out of spaces where they could invest in their intellect- schools. We have been told for ages that how we look matters more than what we know; in fact, if we know too much we are seen as a threat. They have been groomed to be preoccupied with their beauty and their ability to be domestic/caregivers. So you see, the supposedly “dumb yet pretty” woman is a product of society’s sexism and those who use the ‘beauty with brains’ phrase as a complement are not only displaying their ignorance of that fact. Above all, the reason why this phrasing is everything but “empowering” is that it is an underhanded compliment, “beauty with brains” is used to praise individual women by shaming others; it implies that this woman is not like others, she’s more valuable, worthy of respect and fair treatment. And this is the reason we women love it, we are very much part of the structures which oppress us and our own internalized sexism loves the idea of us being special/exempt/more deserving than other women. Feminism advocates that we all be treated equally. All humans are beautiful in their own way and we all have brains.
4. Miss independent/superwoman/strong woman
I bet the first thing that comes to mind when you hear of an independent woman is a feminist or the feminist movement. What if I told you that independence was never the goal? Yes, the feminist movement is rightly known for breeding independent women, women who broke free from social norms and fought for their equal right to work, vote, own bank accounts, drink and smoke if they wanted to etc. Independence- when defined as freedom from oppression, freedom to choose for oneself is definitely feminist. But the notion of Miss Independent, the one who does it all by herself, the superwoman – IS NOT.
As women sought freedom from oppression, feminists argued that women could do just as much as men and should be given a chance to. With phrases like “what a man can do a woman can do better” women set out to prove it, to prove that they deserved what they were being denied. That they were strong/smart/capable enough to take up space in both the productive sector and reproductive sector. The movement had to prove that women deserve to be recognized as individuals who were not defined by whether they were married, nor whose daughter/sister they were. So independence was a means.
But soon, the system found another way of exploiting women and the feminist movement too. Women were increasingly encouraged/expected to “do it all”. The rallying cry “women can do anything” slowly became, “women must do everything”. An independent woman is advertised in the media as a superwoman and glorified (think of songs like Alicia Keys’ Superwoman Or Ne-Yo’s Miss Independent). The freedom to do and be all that we could be just as men are- was warped to the point that it became a requirement to do and be all so to prove we are just as deserving as men who just be.
Yet gaining independence as a woman was winning a battle, not the war because that was never the goal. Interdependence is the desired goal, which would only be possible in a state of gender equality. But for there to be interdependence; both men and women must be independent, mutually respected and their status equitable so neither is exploiting the other.
The Miss Independent/Superwoman notion as marketed today is the exploitation of feminist advocacy because the only group that benefits from women “doing it all” is men. There is a world of difference between being able/free to do what you choose without the hindrance of systematic oppression/social norms and being forced to play multiple roles to earn your equality. The latter is not feminist.
5. Women’s Day in Cameroon
As expected, being a student of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Buea I was more aware and active in Women’s Days events than students of other departments. Yet, even as a student of that department who understood the establishment of 8th March as an international day for women through which we recognize the often-overlooked contributions of women and the issues they continue to face worldwide as the subordinate gender, I didn’t really understand Women’s Day in Cameroon. I had nothing to compare it with back then, but I found it odd that Cameroon’s theme was different from the international theme set by the UN. I found it odd that we had fabric to buy and that we “celebrated” by having women march in front of the “leaders” who actively partake in their subordination through their bad governance and enforcing of unfair laws/policies. It made no sense.
I received some clarity in 2010 during a field trip our departmental association made to the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family (MINPROFF) in Yaoundé. There we had an audience with the Ministers’ second in command and got to ask direct questions. Although she was as diplomatic as could be, she made it clear that the marketing of a women’s day fabric in Cameroon is a necessary means of fundraising for MINPROFF which receives the least financial support among the government ministries. I affirmed this myself the following December when the national budget was approved by parliament. Without the funds they raise through fabric sales MINPROFF would barely have enough to pay its staff, talk less of being able to run projects needed for women’s empowerment.
So why do I say it’s not feminist? To sell their fabric, and fund women’s empowerment projects which our leaders, unfortunately, do not value the ministry has commodified International Women’s Day and almost completely undone the purpose for the day. International Women’s Day is called/treated as a “fete” only in Cameroon. The motives of this “fete” have little to do with redressing the subordination of women and it shows in how they consider having women parade under the hot sun while “leaders” sit in the shade a ‘commemoration’ of the day. The commodification of International Women’s Day has enabled the ministry to survive with its meagre budget, but it has done little to nothing for the Cameroonian feminist movement. In fact, it has taken the aims of the movement backwards. Women are pitted against each other in fashion parades to show off the fabric, not wearing the year’s fabric (repeating the old one) is scorned and seen as shameful, and women are told 8th March is “their one day” and then judged for “celebrating excessively”. Although it is clear to any true feminist that Women’s Day as celebrated in Cameroon is anything but feminist, we feminists still get blamed for it. I’m hoping this helps someone educate themselves.
Unfortunately, these are but a handful of examples of ideas being wrongfully passed as feminists, I can’t deal with them all. But you can. A proper understanding of what feminism is will help you avoid the misconceptions which abound.
As always, I’d love to read from you! Drop a comment and tell me what you think!