‘Feminism’ Is the Word of the Year: Cool, and Maybe We Can Move Past Definitions Now

Feminism is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, and this fact admittedly warms my Gen X feminist heart. I clearly remember realizing I was a feminist while taking a college women’s studies class in the 1990s; the actual awakening came when the professor explained her irritation with young women who said, “I’m not a feminist, but …” and then went on to list a bunch of feminist objectives: but I want equal pay, but I think women should have the same opportunities as men, etc. I thought to myself, Why on earth wouldn’t you just call yourself a feminist? This truly baffled me. That’s when I knew I was one.

But haggling over the word and its definition (incidentally: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”) has also become a major stumbling block as feminism has gone more mainstream in recent years. It has also often become a cudgel for women to use against one another.

I stuck to my “you’re a bad person if you don’t declare yourself feminist” guns for decades. When I ran a website called Sexy Feminist with my cofounder and friend Heather Wood Rudúlph, we both still felt strongly about this. We wrote the requisite essays railing against female celebrities who refused to embrace the word. We had a feature called “Feminist or Not?” where we would declare pieces of pop culture—Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars—feminist or not. We developed slightly more nuanced views over time—for instance, we wrote a lot about allowing young female celebrities to evolve into their feminism instead of bashing 22-year-olds for “doing feminism wrong.” (In other words, let Christina Aguilera wear her assless chaps.) But our mission, obvious from our very name, was to show young women all the reasons to embrace feminism.

But now I’m starting to tire of the haggling over the label. We get caught up in semantics and forget to do something about the vital issues at play. The “Is Celebrity X Feminist?” debate means almost nothing. What difference does it make to you or to women worldwide if Kim Kardashian/Taylor Swift/that one model who recently writhed around in linguine and called it feminist is the dictionary definition of feminist? The answer will always be that said celebrity is a human with all of her human complexities, and sometimes she will engage in activities that meet the dictionary definition of feminism, and other times she will not. The minute you declare yourself a feminist does not mean every action you take must be inherently feminist. Is the tea I’m currently drinking “feminist”? No, it’s just tea. Is Kim Kardashian feminist? No, she’s Kim Kardashian. She may engage in an action that slightly helps to advance the cause of women in general on occasion. I think it’s safe to say that if she attends a pro-abortion rally or donates to help formerly incarcerated women, she has done something feminist. She recently, for instance, used her public platform to draw attention to the cause of a former child sex slave who was jailed for killing her abuser. Kardashian even enlisted her own lawyer to investigate ways to help. That seems pretty fucking feminist, and just generally cool.

The problem comes in branding someone “Feminist or Not” as if its an inherent and unchanging quality. You can’t be “a little bit pregnant.” You absolutely can be “a little bit feminist,” or “sometimes feminist.” In fact, I suspect that with some of these female celebrities, many young women are starting to confuse “not feminist” with “I don’t like her.” In some circles, “she’s doing feminism wrong” is the ultimate burn, and it’s much harder to dismiss than “I don’t like her.”

I really do love hearing that people are looking up the definition of feminism so much that it’s our word of the year. Looking up the definition is often a gateway step. Word is that Beyoncé looked up videos on feminism as she was writing songs for her 2013 album Beyoncé; this led to her massively influential embrace of the term by flashing “FEMINIST” on a giant screen behind her during an MTV performance and, more importantly, sampling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech about feminism in her song “***Flawless.” More lookups means more people are starting their own feminist journeys. It’s also just delightful in the era of #MeToo and a sexual predator as president. We need this news in 2017.

Apparently lookups spiked at a few times throughout the year, inspired by the Women’s March, The Handmaid’s Tale, Wonder Woman, and the #MeToo movement. This is a great list of actually feminist moments. Let’s keep making those happen throughout 2018, and stop worrying so much about what is and isn’t feminist.

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