Are we raising a generation that is afraid of feminism?
“Women with actual PHDs review sexy PHD costume.”
“Here’s Benedict Cumberbatch in a feminist T Shirt.”
“Rebranding the women’s campaign.”
All of these are headlines to have appeared on my Twitter and Facebook feeds within the last 48 hours. Certainly in my experience, women’s equality has been a much hotter topic in the last six months than I ever remember it being before, with celebrities like Emma Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sinead O Connor speaking up for a feminist agenda. With feminism becoming more and more prominent on social media, debates about gender equality and gender roles are reaching a younger audience and being drawn to the attention of teenagers and pre-teenagers, especially it seems in Britain.
But how are the young people of the UK reacting to this contemporary feminism? For the answer to this question, I look to my younger sister. She is beautiful, smart, funny, and (at the tender age of nearly-sixteen) on the brink of easing her way into womanhood. Obviously as her older sister, I have felt it my duty to set an example and to make her comfortable in discovering what it means to be a woman, and especially what it means to be herself as a woman.
Now I will be the first to admit. I am a big ole feminist. Since leaving the comfort of my parents’ house and having to find my own two feet in the world, I have developed an interest in the way that women and men are treated, and my own views on how the sexes can live together in equality. I have had my eyes opened to gender as an idea, and that there are extremely high expectations on both men and women to uphold certain ideals, which are different for each gender. I have myself come to the decision that I don’t like that, and this is a discussion that I have been having with great relish among my friends and peers for some months now.
I was therefore (understandably I think) quite saddened when my little sister informed me that she did not consider herself a feminist. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why a girl who has her whole life ahead of her would NOT want to be assured that hers was going to be as fruitful an education, career, and love-life as that of any man. But there are certain things that could be better in the way that we bring children up to think of feminism.
There is a pretty common misconception about what it is to be a feminist, and how we as a society define feminism can sometimes be somewhat inaccurate. The dictionary definition is: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the EQUALITY of the sexes.” I think that there are still too many people in this world that conjoin the word feminist with ‘man-hater’ and ‘extremist.’ Of course, there are those out there who identify themselves as feminists, and DO believe that women should be the dominant sex. I would argue that this is not real feminism, and that not all feminists should be branded in this way.
It is hard as a young girl to be confident in upholding these views if there are such negative connotations surrounding them, and even harder to be a young man and to openly converse about the notion of male feminists. In general, Boys are not told that they too can be feminists, and even though many men would agree with the concept of equality between men and women, there are very few that would say “yes” when asked if they consider themselves a feminist. I distinctly remember at the age of about fifteen having a few male friends, some of them a bit older than myself. Because they were older and I looked up to them, their opinion was gospel in my eyes. I remember having a discussion with one in which he informed me that he didn’t like feminists, as he thought they were pushy and bossy. There is one who to this day gives me the verbal equivalent of a patronising pat on the head and laughs whenever a gender fuelled topic arises, and my own brother frequently informs me that he thinks that I am “forcing my views on other people,” if I talk about it in front of him.
This is another misconception that I think that people have about feminists, especially in the 21st century. People think that we always have to be fighting. While I am all for taking action against things which I feel are unjust, I don’t think that you can only be considered a feminist if you are spending your weekend burning bras and storming gentlemen’s clubs. The positive thing to come from this sudden feminist surge is the opening of a discourse on social media, into which young women and men can contribute. The problem with these discussions is that although we are very good at voicing our opinions over the internet, we are also very good at creating angry atmospheres and belittling others.
We have all seen them, those Facebook debates where two people take opposing sides and hammer their antagonist’s views down in turn. All you can do is sit there and press the refresh button, while silently forming your own opinion on the matter. If this is what we show feminism to be like, then no wonder younger people are not interested.
The feminist dialogue does not necessarily have to be violent and aggressive as it is often portrayed. It can be calm and informative if we wish it to be, and if we want to keep these discussions alive I think it has to be. I do not think that young people always feel fully equipped to join a dialogue which they feel is angry and full of hate. Not only can we be better informing young people, we can also be encouraging them to join discussions by listening and speaking in a calm and sociable manner. Nothing can survive on social media these days without the attention and support of the younger audience, so we have to create an environment into which they can participate.
So, what can we be doing?
I am not disappointed in my sister for not adopting a feminist label. I will never tell her that she is wrong and I will always be immensely proud of her. It might be that one day she wants to talk about feminism and the concept of gender, and if that day comes, I will be ready with a cup of tea and a couple of hours to help her discover that world for herself, and to tell her how I see it. As for my brother? I do not expect a sudden change of heart and a newly found feminist agenda from him, but I hope that he understands that he doesn’t have to be the alpha male all the time. That he has no expectations that he has to live up to, and in the words of Tony Porter, “(his) liberation as a man, is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
If we as a society are open and willing to have these conversations with young people, I hope that we might be able to help to destroy any misconceptions and fears that they might have regarding feminism. That calm chat about why your daughter doesn’t always have to wear make-up to school, or why your nephew is allowed to feel like crying sometimes might not be life-changing. They might not even pay much attention at the time, but it might open a space for these thoughts somewhere in the future.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.