The atmosphere of the room always changes when I say the word “feminist”, either self-referentially or in the context of the movement itself. People avert their eyes slightly, or they giggle uncomfortably, or they flat-out tell me, “I don’t like that word.” I’ve never been able to understand what made people cringe about feminism. But recently, I am realizing that it’s not the movement or the ideology that people object to: it’s a false perception of what the word actually entails.
A few months ago, Twitter went crazy when actress Kaely Cuoco, best known as Penny on The Big Bang Theory, denied the label of “feminist,” saying she’d never faced inequality and therefore felt uncomfortable speaking on behalf of those who had. She also cited her femininity as another reason she didn’t subscribe to the label, saying that she enjoyed taking on a domestic role in her marriage and found happiness in that role. Cuoco was essentially ripped apart online by people who found her response to be offensive. How could someone so grossly misunderstand the point of feminism, they asked? And how could someone be so self-focused that they would only consider themselves a part of the movement if it directly affected them?
Despite the backlash to Kaely’s statements that I read online, I’ve found that a lot of people I spoke to in person about her distaste for feminism actually agreed that feminism was too strong of a word to use to describe their ideas about gender politics. They also agreed that they felt like women with an affinity for domesticity were not welcome by the movement. This is troublesome for two reasons. One: it shows that the word “feminism” has become associated with a fringe political movement, rather than simply a leftist one, which is problematic because it makes people afraid to associate themselves with the movement. Two: it also shows that there is an enormous element of feminism that has been lost in translation. That element is intersectional inclusivity.
I’m not just talking about the inclusivity of effeminate women. I mean inclusivity of all races, all gender-deviant women, transgender women, old women, young women, criminal women, famous women, all women. To agree with the statement “I’m not a feminist because I’ve never experienced inequality” is to agree that there is no inequality to be addressed, and that invalidates the inequality that goes on between men and women around the world, across the gender binary, and between all social classes. Perhaps you’ve never experienced inequality, Kaely Cuoco, but you are also an attractive, wealthy, healthy woman living in the United States. Inequality between men and women exists universally, but that can be hard to see when you live in a world that is surrounded by rose-colored glass.
The great irony here is that this is precisely the reason that we need feminism; the movement exists to call attention to the inequalities that have been going unnoticed or being swept under the rug for so many years. When people dismiss feminism as being a dirty word simply because they feel it doesn’t accurately depict their own struggles, they are totally dismissing the struggles of other women, and actively fighting against feminism – even if they don’t mean to. And when women accuse feminists of excluding feminine women or women in domestic roles, they ignore the years of progress the feminist movement has made in its inclusivity and intersectionality. They contribute to the growing feeling that “feminism” is as taboo as any other four-letter word.
It may seem silly to be upset by a celebrity’s misguided answer to an interview question, but in a culture where feminism is so derided and misunderstood, it is important to call attention to the aspects of the movement that are not being properly communicated. Feminism is not a movement designed to prove that all women are mistreated and that men should be a subjugated sex. It is a call for equality in all spaces, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or any aspect of your personhood.
We are not a slur. We are just a voice, wanting only to be heard and understood.
Kathleen is a twentysomething aspiring TV comedy writer and independent filmmaker. She is passionate about feminism, education, and politics, and can often be seen trying to balance a cup of coffee in one hand and a huge bag of camera equipment in the other.