Last week, as the world watched and discussed Emma Watson’s powerful feminist speech at the U.N. calling on men to get involved in the fight for women’s rights, we also witnessed once again how reactionary people become when facing the prospect of feminism.
Do critics aim to dismiss or shut down feminism because they are afraid of the changes it is heralding? If that’s the case, they should brace themselves because the feminist movement isn’t going away. In fact, it continues to gain steam.
When celebrities like Watson, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift defy the celebrity anti-feminist trend by calling themselves feminists, or when we look at the remarkable work being done by women on issues like rape on college campuses and sexist dress codes, or when we see the public outcry over Ray Rice’s abusive behavior or the celebrity photo leaks, we recognize that despite the backlash against feminism, the years of feminist organizing is also having a cultural impact.
Watson’s speech kicked off a campaign called “HeForShe,” which hopes to mobilize men and boys worldwide to end violence against women. Watson cited her own experiences with gender inequality as politicizing and said that “fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating.” As if on cue, a threat to leak nude photos of Watson started circulating the Internet. The threat turned out to be a hoax, but the notion of using threatening action online against a woman who stands up for something isn’t uncommon.
Women like pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian routinely get sexually harassed and threatened with violence or death for trying to point out how our culture treats and views women. The threats create a chilling effect that can silence women from speaking out for their rights or publicly at all. Scholar Danielle Citron argues that this is a civil rights issue.
Online harassment is not the only kind of measure taken by anti-feminists. Some are also getting predictably huffy about this new moment of feminist publicity and outright deny the impact of sexism at all. Take Jonah Goldberg as an example. In a recent column, he claims the “war on women” ended a long time ago -- and that “women won.”
Goldberg’s assertion that things really aren’t as bad for women as the “feminist industrial complex” implies makes me want to set more than my bra on fire. But I also think that the very existence of this article means that feminist activism is working.
Feminism today is taking bold steps that question a dominant power structure that prioritizes white heterosexual male privilege. Critics who issue threats, real or fake, or who try to dismiss the validity of feminism, do so because their privileges are at risk. No one willingly steps down from a place of power.
Of course those that quake at the thought of feminism know it’s about more than women’s equality. Ultimately feminism is not just about women’s rights. It’s about demanding human rights. It’s about the belief that we can build a culture that embraces all gender and sexual identities. It’s about ending structural oppression like racism and income inequality across the board. Feminism will always mean a lot of different things to different people; it’s evolving and ever changing. No matter what, however, it’s always exciting to see a mainstream conversation about feminism, even if right now the focus is on a squeaky-clean celebrity known mostly for her role in movies based on children’s books.
We still have a long way to go and Watson is certainly not the be-all, end-all feminist icon. But her voice could put feminism on the map for a lot of people who may not otherwise be interested in it.
If a celebrity can help clarify the meaning of feminism, that’s progress. It can lead people toward action that continues to make feminist ideology a reality. This forward process, no matter how slow, is a lot better than staying stuck in the past where our critics want us to stay.
Those who are threatened by the feminist movement should be. An accumulation of voices and organizing will eventually drown out the toxic drumbeat of misogyny.
Anti-feminist activists may intend to silence us with threats, dismissal or even violence, but what they don’t realize is that their fear also makes us stronger.
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.
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