What Does It Mean To Be A Feminist in 2017?

Does being a feminist mean blindly embracing any action or choice done in the name of feminism?

It can be confusing, can’t it? Being a feminist in 2017.

There is this widespread embrace that’s happening. Everyone with a vagina is a feminist. And anything and everything in the name of feminism must be embraced—and while this movement has led to a louder dialogue, I can’t help but feel as though it muddles the message to the point where I don’t know what it means to be a feminist anymore. Just because I’m horrified that we have a president who sexually assaulted women and I bought a T-shirt that says “pussy” on it that I wear unflinchingly to Starbucks on occasion and I marched in Washington, does that make me a feminist? What does it mean to be a feminist today? 

There are core tenets, of course, of an unwavering advocacy agenda that are not up for debate. We want equal pay and fair family leave policies. We want to eliminate violence against women. We want to give a voice to victims of sexual assault. We support Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. We want equal representation in public life and in leadership positions in the workplace. We want to stop human trafficking and female genital mutilation. We want to advocate for women of color. We want equal access to education in the developing world. We want to advocate for women with dreams unrealized because of their circumstances by changing those circumstances via public policy.  

But it’s the middle ground that gets fuzzy. Because while this wave is bigger, stronger, and louder, it’s also more inclusive of white noise.

I got in a bit of trouble last year when I brought this up. I wrote a story for WWD profiling actress-model Emily Ratajowski. You can find it here, but for the sake of brevity, this was essentially what happened.

I was pitched by her PR to write a generic profile as the actress had a slew of film projects coming up. However, the morning of our interview, a Lenny Letter she had written about feminism was posted, and so, of course, we discussed it when we met for breakfast. Then, between our first and second interview, Ratajowski posted a topless selfie with Kim Kardashian, ostensibly in the name of feminism. Not only was this a more interesting story but, as a journalist, the onus was on me to produce the most newsworthy, topical piece. Thus, feminism became the focus of the story. 

We had a difference of opinion: Her argument was that she posted sexual and nude shots of herself on Instagram as a form of feminism, a reclaiming of her female sexuality and an act of self-empowerment.  When I asked her about it during our first interview, she said, “My response to people saying I post oversexualized images is that it’s my choice and there’s an ownership and empowerment through them. When I take nude photographs, I’m not there for the boys. It’s about owning my sexuality and celebrating it.”  

I felt that when discussing feminism, an issue with immense complexity and heft, all sides must be examined. In other words, instead of blindly accepting something stamped as female empowerment and writing the inane, easy headline of “Emily Ratajowski is a Badass Feminist,” I took a harder look at it, writing, “Why does she feel the need to express her sexuality in such a public forum, if these pictures are, as she says, purely for self-fulfillment and self-empowerment? And where, exactly, does this wave of empowerment wash over her between the cropping and filter selection? How is dwindling herself down to a silent sex object—even if said objectification is self-induced—moving the feminist conversation forward? And aren’t we promoting a body ideal that is, to most human beings, unattainable?”

The day after it was published, Ratajowski posted a string of tweets calling my opinion “a bullshit way of thinking” and accused me of not being “a woman who supported other women.” Thank God I wasn’t on Twitter at the time (I’m a bit of a noob, I know) or I’m sure I would have incurred the wrath of her then-5.7 million followers. And my immediate reaction was that of shame—am I a bad feminist? Does being a feminist mean blindly embracing any action or choice done in the name of feminism? Can’t two intelligent women have an ideological difference of opinion without it devolving into some sort of Twitter catfight? Am I not allowed to call into question another person’s decisions simply because we share the same sexual organs? Is that what being a feminist means? 

My feelings were put to a point a few weeks later when I was reading a New York Times book review of fabulous feminist Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once. Her argument is essentially that the movement has been co-opted by the mainstream and in that process has averted our focus from organizing and affecting any real change. 

“In her view,” New York Times’ Jennifer Senior wrote of Zeisler’s book, “feminists today are all about the right to make individual choices—any choices, choices that may be wholly estranged from the original objectives of feminism, which once meant collective action to change whole systems.” Heisler calls this the “decontextualized” version of feminism that focuses on “self-actualization” rather than on policy or on affecting substantive change. 

It’s the view from this myopic perch that I think causes us to focus on these less exigent fringes of feminism. The idea of yesterday’s strike strikes me similarly—the women most in need of feminist-affected change (minimum wage workers and poverty-stricken single moms) do not have the option of not working. And my purview is extremely limited as well. I almost feel guilty engaging in this dialogue knowing how ignorant I am to the depths of female oppression. We can lead a very insular existence, myself very much included.  

And so while it is all well-intentioned, I hope that women think about what it really means to be a feminist, aside from Instagramming yourself in a sassy slogan T-shirt. My suggestion? Take half an hour today to visit and click around. Let’s educate ourselves on what we can do and then let’s tap into our power as a collective. Ladies, now let’s get in formation. 

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