On Being A 17-year Old Anti-Feminist. And Also, Why I Love Being A Part Of xoJane.

I remember, as a teenager, having a disagreement with a friend of mine when I wouldn’t call myself a feminist because I said that it implied that I hated men and I was terrified of being seen as anything other than a desirable, sexual being who just loved guys.

Feb 11, 2013 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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Full makeup, short dress. Still a feminist.

Last week, Rebecca asked who wanted to write a piece on feminism as a dirty word, after some girl who used to be on X Factor was stopped (by her PR) during an interview when she was asked whether she was a feminist or not.

I jumped at the chance, because I just love stuff like this. I get all self-righteous and militant and start shouting things like ‘feminists are cool, too’ and embarrassing anyone in a 10-mile vicinity of me. But I have put off writing it, because I just don’t know what to say.

I can’t believe we are still having (or not having) these conversations but I am loathe to criticize poor Ella Henderson for not fighting against her PR’s strict instructions to not answer the question. Because, at 17, I don’t think I called myself a feminist either. This makes me really sad, and a bit embarrased, but I’m pretty sure is the truth.

People often ask me how and when I came to self-define as a feminist activist, and I can’t remember because it doesn’t seem important anymore. Fighting for and writing about gender liberation and equality is such a concrete part of my identity these days that it seems irrelevant when I first used the f-word.

But I do remember, as a teenager, having a disagreement with a friend of mine when I wouldn’t call myself a feminist because I said that it implied that I hated men and I was terrified of being seen as anything other than a desirable, sexual being who just loved guys. For me, as a 17-year-old-girl, the two things were disanalogous and there weren’t a lot of people telling me otherwise.

Learning how the empowerment of women was my empowerment, too, was something that I discovered as I discovered who I was, as I sought out different media, as I found books that I loved, as I learnt what being a woman meant to me.

I didn't pick it up at my all-girls school, where the only woman who spoke about feminism was our History of Art teacher (who we all cruelly laughed at, as teenage girls do). I didn't get it all at once. And I'm okay with that.

The online revolution has, I think, done wonders for women. I am a part of communities where women like Emily talk about how they like men coming on their face in the same breath as gender equality. There is a world of diversity available to me, and that is fucking cool, feminism doesn’t have to be a monolithic order of lipstick-haters. 

I don’t think it ever was – I think that a lot of radical second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin are embarrassingly misquoted to fulfil a narrative of oppression, but the internet opens all feminist issues to free discussion.

I can read the experiences of so many women who believe in equality, and it reminds me that feminism is an amazing spectrum. There can be self-defining Conservative feminists, I have read their arguments here. There can be sex-positive feminists.

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Andrea Dworkin : no makeup, no minidress, also a feminist.

There can be asexual feminists, queer feminists, feminists who love Beyonce and feminists who don’t (myself included). It's through being able to read others in feminist or female-centric spaces that I have felt certain and supported in my belief that I can be sitting in bed with Real Housewives on pause and a facemask on and confidently self-define as a woman who believes and fights for gender equality.

I don’t think we need to be burning a 17-year old X-Factor contestant at a feminist stake for not being so certain of her political convictions that she wants to go against her PR management. What is obviously a sadder state of affairs is that her PR doesn’t want her identifying as feminist.

In the Reagan era, feminism became a dirty word. It was artfully constructed as a synonym for man-hating women who couldn’t get a husband (the worst thing you could ever possibly be), and that legacy still stands with embarrassing strength in mainstream media. You often hear of women in the spotlight happy to state that they are believers in equality, yada yada yada, but not feminists - because guys are cool, too.

It seems like the very meaning of the word, which I believe just to mean that you believe in freedom of choice and expression regardless of gender, is still confined to a very narrow understanding. And if sites like XOJane and Jezebel teach us anything (particularly in the comments sections), it’s that feminism is anything but narrow.

A lot of resistance to feminism seems to circulate around the idea that it’s not very sexy. In a society when everything to do with women, from breast cancer to rape, is sexualized in order to be perceived as valid or relevant, associating with something that isn’t about how to acquiesce to patriarchal norms is scary.

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Ella Henderson : not a self-defining feminist (yet).

Because people don’t know what to do with it. If you are selling breast cancer as to do with how much you love looking at tits, or rape as to do with how much she wanted it, something is obviously incredibly fucked. And when you’re reading feminism as the opposite to sex and sexiness, that is obviously utterly terrifying and nobody ever would want to associate with it.

So, this problem is four-fold: 1. People don’t understand what feminism is, 2. People are obsessed with women and women’s issues being sexy, 3. It’s very confusing to PRs to market women outside of the very narrow category of sexy compliance with patriarchal norms and 4. I feel bad for 17 year old girls who are expected to be fully determined in their political stance.

It’d be really cool if the whole world sat up and listened to women like Mandy and Rebecca and Emily (and me, obviously), could see that women and feminists exist as multi-dimensional beings. I think it would have done me the world of good as a teenager to have access to communities like XOJane in the way I do now.

We’re not quite there yet, as situations like Ella’s show, but the fact that there is a sustained interest in communities devoted to the individuality of female experience and expression is a really good sign.

It’s crazy that we’re still fighting against archaic notions of what it is to be a feminist or a woman, these are battles which ought have been won a long time ago, but we’re getting there, ladies and gents! And that’s fucking rad.

Do you love or hate the word feminist? Do you wish you had found xoJane as a teenager? Are you a teenager reading XOJane? Hit me up! I'm also on Twitter @oliviasinger.