Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, I can distinctly remember hearing the word ‘feminist’ used as a slur. It conjured up images of unshaved legs, a face sneered in anger, a humorless woman who didn’t care about being attractive (and wasn’t), a woman who hated (and was hated by) men.
During my boy-crazy pre-teen years, it was an insult of the highest order. Strangely, though, outside of that context, I really didn’t hear too much about the word. I went to an all-girls school. Our motto was “Girls can do anything” and the importance of gender equality was embedded in nearly everything we did. Yet our teachers rarely, if ever, called it feminism. It was a word to be implied, but never spoken, probably because the teachers guessed that if they called what they were teaching us feminism, we’d want nothing to do with it.
Thankfully, and rightfully so, all that has shifted. For the first time in probably decades, the word is being propagated (if not always embraced) by the mainstream media. Beyonce wrote an album about it. Karl Lagerfeld celebrated it in his Spring 2015 Chanel show. Emma Watson championed it in front of the UN. Celebrities are clamoring to be labeled as one and, unsurprisingly, young women (even of the pre-teen boy-crazy variety) are proudly following in their footsteps.
This is a good thing. It’s a movement that affects everyone—not just women—and it’s about time it got the airtime it deserves. However, the word’s trendy popularity comes with consequence. And like any over-saturated movement, the backlash has begun in the most unlikely of places. Just last week, Time—perhaps one of the greatest magazines of note, has declared that ’feminist’ should be one of the words that is banned in 2015.
The weekly (which later issued an apology) wrote:
“You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.”
Also on that list: ‘bae,’ ‘obvi,’ ‘sorry not sorry,’ and ‘kale.’ Get it? These are words birthed, and then mindlessly repeated ad nauseam, on the Internet. In short: they’re fads—of the very meaningless and short-lived kind. The problem here is the price that ‘feminism’ pays for its recent prevalence.
But feminism is not a trend. It’s been around for centuries (see: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792) and has played a major role in shaping our society today (hi abolitionism, environmentalism, suffragettes). And, sorry bae, but feminism, as a word, actually means something — no matter how much it’s being thrown around.
And that brings us to the second peril of the word’s popularity: It’s getting thrown around so much, that many people might only superficially understand its meaning. Actress Anna Kendrick, a feminist herself, explained it thusly to The Daily Beast:
“It’s hard because words confuse me sometimes. There isn’t a word for a member of an ethnic minority who is pro equal rights for all races, but there is a word for gender equality—and that’s feminism. It’s a very female-centric word. I understand that the implication is that ‘I’m a woman who supports women’ and not ‘I’m a person who supports gender equality.’ I feel like the word can be appropriated by the wrong people for that reason and misinterpreted by those people.”
Precisely. Contrary to what many people believe, feminism is not just about women’s rights; it’s about equal rights for women and men. But in order for gender equality to happen, women’s rights, specifically, do need to be advanced. So yes, the etymology of the word—which literally means, according to Bustle.com, “action of/for/about women”—is undeniably female-centric. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
As Anna says: “You just have to fight back and own that word. It’s practically become a curse word… Why are we afraid of that word? It exists and we can’t get rid of it, so let’s fight for it and embrace it.”
One company that’s certainly embraced it—and curse words in general—is FCKH8, a for-profit T-shirt brand that recently launched an “F Bombs for Feminism” campaign. It features adorable little girls dressed up as princesses and with some of the foulest mouths out there (aka “potty mouth princesses”). Underneath the curse words, though, is a powerful message about women’s rights. The princesses have sounded off on everything from sexual assault to income inequality, and in their most recent video about domestic violence, they drive their point even further, sporting fake black eyes and fat lips.
It’s disturbing and uncomfortable to watch — and that’s exactly the point. Because what should truly be shocking is how prevalent gender inequality is in 2014. If feminism’s new popularity accomplishes one thing, let’s hope it’s to inspire the next generation of powerful women to keep on fighting.