A few months ago, a friend of mine decided to meet up with a man she had met online. After the date, I insisted we hang out to dissect whether this guy could be the Next Big Thing in her life. Typically, after a date, my friend is either highly distractible and walks around for hours with a dreamy look in her eyes or filled with angst and spends the day composing and recomposing a long rant on the futility of online dating. This time, though, she seemed conflicted. “So,” I asked. “How was the date?”
She smiled, but her brow was knit. “It was great! I had a really good time.”
“Was James as cute as he looked in his pictures?”
“Definitely. Even cuter. And he’s really sweet in person and seems super smart.”
All this seemed positive, but I figured there must be a catch. “Well, why aren’t you planning the wedding yet? Did something go wrong?”
“Not exactly. Everything was awesome, except…” She trailed off, avoiding eye contact, embarrassed. “Except, at one point, he said, straight-up: ‘I am not a feminist.’ And I don’t know how to feel about it.”
What are feminist stereotypes?
The thing is, James likely didn’t intend to imply that he thought my friend was lesser than him simply because she’s a woman. Instead, he was probably balking at the "feminist" label because of the stereotypes routinely associated with feminists, which are centered around a very specific image that doesn't resemble him in the slightest.
Stereotypes about any group of people always carry the power to be harmful, and naturally, stereotypes about feminists are no different. If the larger public believes that a small cohort of people identify as feminists, then individuals who do not belong to that group can feel uncomfortable claiming the title to describe themselves; if a man believes only women can be feminists, he’s much less likely to call himself a feminist, even though he might actually believe in gender equality. It's important to examine and criticize stereotypes about feminism because if we clarify public perception of the movement, we can influence more people to join the cause.
9 false feminist stereotypes.
1. Feminists think men should be subordinate to women.
This stereotype stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of feminism itself. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines feminism as “The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” In other words, feminism exists not to destroy men but rather to elevate women to stand on an equal political, economic and social ground. Feminists do not believe women should be superior to men, just equivalent; and in response to anyone arguing that women are already equal to men, one need only point to the wage gap, rape culture, female representation in government and in the media, lack of reproductive rights or any other patriarchal signal to affirm that we’re still clearing a trail toward equality.
2. Feminists are only women.
Because of the general confusion around the definition of feminism, many tend to assume that to be a “feminist” you must be “feminine," — a.k.a. a woman— and that is certainly not the case. Again, feminism is about equality, so any person of any gender identity who believes in equality is a feminist. Men have historically shied away from the label, but a recent influx of male Hollywood stars and other famous celebs proclaiming their feminist status publicly (along with the efforts of countless feminists to change public opinion) has helped normalize the idea that men, too, can belong to the club.
3. Feminists hate all men.
Another reason why it’s hard to convince men to be part of the feminist movement is that they suspect other feminists hate them on account of their gender. In reality, the hatred of men and prejudice against them is an entirely different phenomenon called misandry. It's possible to develop a fear and distrust of men while living as a woman in our society, and misandry definitely exists in some feminist ranks. However, the feminist movement as a whole is very open to male allies, because male members of society have a privilege that allows them to attack issues of gender inequality from a different angle.
4. Feminists don’t wear bras.
This stereotype has historical roots in the Miss America protest that took place in New Jersey in 1968. The protestors’ goal was to call attention to the reduction of a woman to her beauty propagated by beauty competitions like the Miss America pageant. To demonstrate that they wanted to be valued for more than their bodies, protestors threw products typically connected to femininity (makeup, cleaning supplies, bras, etc.) into a trashcan and set them on fire. Thus the image of a “bra-burning” lesbian burned itself into America’s retinas as emblematically feminist.
Subsequent feminists have chosen to forgo bras for several reasons: some leave them in the drawer to try to dictate new, more inclusive beauty standards, while others choose to bare their chests in an effort to desexualize the female body as part of the Free the Nipple movement. So, yes: many feminists eschew bras. Yet feminism also holds the concept of dressing however you want close to its heart as the ultimate mutiny against the patriarchy, so burning your bra will never be a prerequisite to being a feminist.
5. Feminists don’t shave.
This is a similar stereotype about the way feminists choose to present themselves. One strain of feminist thought links women's habitual removal of body hair to oppression. Beauty standards imposed by men create the expectation that women must appear hairless in order to be beautiful, influencing women to shave or wax off their natural hair growth any time it springs up, which is not only a hassle but can actually be harmful to your skin and leave you vulnerable to infection. Since hair growth is an issue that has been claimed by feminism, there are definitely some hairy feminists out there, but again, feminism preaches that you should present your body in the way that makes you happiest and most comfortable. That can mean hair removal, if you love the feeling of your clean-shaven legs against the sheets at night; it can also mean letting the lawn grow.
6. Feminists are all lesbians or cannot get a man interested in them.
Since there are many openly queer feminists, some people seem to have confused politics and sexuality. Lesbians can be feminists and are likely to be open about their feminist beliefs as a result of being invested in women's issues; however, not all feminists are lesbians, because you can believe in gender equality even if you are attracted to men, or attracted to other gender identities. A particularly vindictive stereotype goes so far as to claim that women become feminists because they simply cannot attract a man. This view, upheld by the people who are least likely to listen when you try to explain what feminism really is, argues that women who are "unattractive" run to feminism for solace after trying their luck in the dating pool and presumably would give up their feminist ideals if only someone loved them. It's clearly a biased viewpoint, and as a stereotype, it holds very little weight.
7. Feminists don’t believe in marriage.
Marriage may be looked on as mere tradition by some, but others perceive it as a long-standing method for the continued oppression of women. The practice of marriage originated to create political alliances between in-laws, and for a long time, women were practically sold to their husbands. For centuries, the expectation that married women "keep house" was used to keep women tame, demure and submissive to their husbands. For that reason, many feminists choose not to uphold the tradition of the antiquated system of marriage. However, marriage has changed a lot over the course of time, and now love's role, along with possible tax and insurance benefits, mean that a wedding has many more perks, and many feminists do choose to get married.
8. Feminists are all vegans.
The uptick in vegan eaters across the globe is due in part to climate-change activism: a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that meat production is an extremely wasteful industry and changing your diet can actually have a significant environmental impact. The link between feminism and the vegan lifestyle lies in feminists’ goal for equality — how will we ever see a world where the playing field is fair if our planet itself is on the brink of collapse? This reasoning likely explains why feminist vegans exist in such large numbers, because people who are drawn to one cause are likely to find the other attractive as well. However, only around 6% of the U.S. population is vegan, according to the Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017 report, so clearly not all feminists have prescribed to that particular diet.
9. Feminists are all white.
Unfortunately, the feminist movement hasn't always considered intersectionality in the fight towards gender parity. Many women of color feel that both past and present feminist movements have failed to address minority issues, and that certain causes within the feminism movement solely serve the agendas of white women. For that reason, some former feminists of color choose instead to identify with womanism, a movement founded on the idea that to defeat any one type of oppression, all oppression must be eradicated.
Womanism tries to take into account how gender intersects with race and social class in order to best serve the needs of its constituents. The stereotype of feminists as white is therefore grounded in truth; many people of color find more value in the womanist movement, and many other people of color just feel jaded about self-serving white feminism and are less likely to identify as feminists on those grounds. However, this is not true across the board, and most people of color who take issue with the “feminist” label don’t disagree with its core goal of equality but rather the choices the movement has made.
Was James cognizant of all these stereotypes and made uncomfortable by the idea of associating with them, or did he mean to say that he genuinely stands against gender equality? My friend declined to ask, so we’ll never know. However, I have a feeling that if James were better informed, he wouldn’t have so readily admitted to not being a feminist. By debunking and discussing feminist stereotypes to find the truth in each blanket judgment, we can better inform ourselves and decide what being a feminist means to each of us.