Rothfeld: Mischaracterizing Feminism
By Becca Rothfeld, Contributing Columnist
Published on Monday, October 8, 2012
Since the advent of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, the mainstream feminist movement has suffered a disquieting decline in popularity. According to a 2009 poll conducted by CBS News, only 24 percent of American women identify themselves as feminists. Among men, numbers are even more disheartening: Only 14 percent of the American male population identifies as feminist, while 24 percent of American men regard the term as an insult.
It is difficult to see what could be so off-putting about a movement whose primary aims are so innocuous. I doubt that feminism’s detractors would oppose the elimination of institutionalized gender inequalities or endorse the objectifying practices that underlie a culture of rampant sexual assault. It is equally unlikely that these self-proclaimed anti-feminists would champion the glass ceiling, defend employment discrimination or speak out on behalf of domestic abuse. What, then, could possibly account for the recent wave of hostility toward the feminist position — a position whose goals are so uncontroversial by most modern standards?
“People see feminism as a knocking down of men rather than a convergence of the two genders,” one ’13 male, who asked to remain anonymous, said. Furthermore, J.P. Harrington ’14 explained that he is not a feminist because he perceives the movement as having “largely strayed from self-determination and independence to arguing for special benefits.”
These anecdotal reports lend credence to what I have long suspected — that most opposition to feminism derives from a complete misunderstanding of what the movement actually entails. Backlash against the feminist position is not a response to the arguments and ideas presented in feminist literature or women’s and gender studies classrooms, but rather a response to the caricatures of feminism that riddle popular culture.
According to common logic, the feminist is an unshaven, combative creature intent on the utter destruction of the male sex. She is willfully ignorant of the difficulties that males face in our society, and she is self-righteously indignant at every opportunity. Although she is quick to blame individual men for the long history of chauvinism plaguing the Western world, she remains incredibly resistant to engaging in even a cursory examination of her own role in the process of female marginalization. Even the most favorable popular portrayals of feminists still tend to represent them as aggressive, abrasive and unappealingly sanctimonious.
Such a characterization could not be more misleading. Although the term “feminism” refers to a diverse array of stances and intellectual advocacies, there is widespread consensus among feminists that the goal of the movement is to promote critical dialogue and self-reflection. Feminism is not so much a commitment to a certain set of beliefs as it is a commitment to general inquiry and dialectic. Prominent feminist theorists like Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler are less wedded to any particular account of the world than they are to presenting challenges to unquestioned cultural conventions.
Much of the criticism levied against feminism relies on the unfounded assumption that feminists ignore men’s issues or hope to fight misogynistic hierarchies by reversing them. In point of fact, most contemporary feminists are quite sympathetic to the male plight. From a feminist perspective, female oppression and male oppression arise from the same central source: from the series of social expectations that conspire to create gender roles. The chauvinism responsible for the suppression of women is bound up with the very same cultural structures that demand certain behaviors from men. The notion that women should be demure, sentimental and delicate is closely related to the corresponding notion that men should be strong, stalwart and reserved. Consequently, any discussion of gender norms that fails to address men’s issues is miserably incomplete.
Feminism is nothing if not cautious when it comes to assigning responsibility and blame — indeed, many tomes have been dedicated to an examination of women’s hand in their own subjugation, a consequence of the internalization of sexist ideologies. The position is not anti-men — it is merely anti-patriarchy, and reasonably so.
The myth of the dogmatic, hysterical feminist is one more attempt to silence the feminine voice and discredit the female point of view. The assumption implicit in such accounts is that women could only oppose their own oppression by assuming an unreasonable posture, an assumption that smacks of familiar stereotypes and prejudices.