My professor asked me bluntly the other day if I was a feminist. His tone seemed rather neutral, but the tone in my head associated with that word—“feminist”— was not. “Maaybe,” I said sheepishly, but with certain “yes” undertones. He laughed an awkward laugh, as did I, and we continued on to discuss the film Killing Us Softly (1979).
Although I have not seen the original film, our class watched Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 3 from 1999. Kilbourne’s lecture focuses on advertising’s image of women, particularly in American society. Kilbourne critically analyzes the objectification and compartmentalization of the woman’s body in popular culture through various visual media. In class, the reactions ranged from epiphany to cynicism, from humorless stares to humorous disbelief. “I think she overreacted,” said one girl. “Some of these images are just ‘artsy’” (referring to a sexualized, emaciated, battered woman photo narrative in some magazine).
In the same class earlier that week, our professor asked us to construct the typology of an “ideal wife.” Traits such as honesty, faithfulness, attractiveness, wealth, patience, and intelligence were suggested and marked on the board. Before we were able to deconstruct the notion of “ideal culture”—beliefs and practices infused with cultural values that are not actually “natural” nor easily achieved—a young man shouted out, “She doesn’t have to be smart!” He threw his head back as people around him chuckled over such obvious guile.
I am a feminist, and the bad rep the word has somehow acquired is just another reason for me to support and flaunt its significance. I sheepishly regret my sheepish admittance to “maaybe” being a feminist. Actually, I’m a full-fledged individual with a stanch belief in feminism. If believing in the equality of all persons, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., is seen negatively, and the fight for that equality seems melodramatic, then I am still living in a time when women’s rights aren’t being taken seriously. I am not talking about U.S. legal rights per se, but about the intellectual and social equity rights of individuals in the midst of their gendered, mediated paradigms.
A hyper-sexualized or hyper-compartmentalized ad about how to improve my body is disrespectful to my personhood. The new Special K campaign “Jeans Don’t Lie” discloses, “The best way to tell how you look great is in your jeans. Drop a jean size in 2 weeks.” it commands. There isn’t even an exclamation point after the statement, to lighten the blow of the fact that my jeans are telling me something depressing. There is a period at the end of this sentence; it is very matter of fact and very isolated. It is saying my ass can be helped; therefore, I as a woman (not person) can be helped. I am reduced to a lump of cellulite far from that other, more productive lump, my brain.
When recurring carbon copies of “nice” figures, or just severed-off parts of those figures, saturate our media, they saturate the socializing process. Moreover, categories of different (yet narrow) “womanhoods” are formed and imbued with self-deprecating text to complement the carbon copies. In the October issue of Cosmopolitan, the feature “Don’t Get Bitten by the Office Bitch” eloquently confirms that my gender in fact possesses the “bitches” of humanity. “A new survey found that 1 in 4 workers is willing to sink their fangs into you to get ahead. Even worse, more research shows it’s likely to be an office gal pal—not one of the guys. We help you spot the conniver…and muzzle her” (italics mine). There are 5 bitch categories Cosmopolitan demarcates for me so I know how to successfully silence other women, no matter their class of bitchiness, and silence them like the dogs that, via association, we are. Although the magazine probably hopes to empower female pushovers by targeting our gender’s “delinquents,” it instead reinforces the reckless mutt condition of which we are (most) capable AND the condition of our other half—helpless and vulnerable women in the workplace.
Intragender (Office Bitches) conflict does not empower; it solidifies a regimented defining system that still caters to a patriarchical and dualistic structure. Intrapersonal conflict (Special K Challenge) does not empower; it redefines (often in a sexist, dehumanizing way) measurements of value and self-worth. What empower are individuals realizing personhood, and through that, the right to equality in all areas of life, not just in policy handbooks and rhetoric.
I am a person who is female by nature, and feminist by conviction. So next time I’m asked whether or not I’m a feminist, I will purposefully respond ‘Yes’ – knowing fully the risk of meeting judgment from others, but knowing also the greater risk of stifling a personhood, and ultimately, fellow personhoods seeking change.