I grew up with a second-wave feminist. My mother brooked no sexist fools. When I confessed I loved The Jetsons she huffed and told me it was sexist drivel. My siblings and I could define patriarchy before we were twelve and we knew all to well how virulent sexism was. In sixth grade I nearly stopped talking to my best friend because she was pro-life. I’ve always been a feminist. I’ve always identified as one. To me the word is as innocuous as any other polite descriptor.
When I launched FemPop in March 2011 the tagline for the website was “Pop Culture Through A Feminist Lens.” It was accurate and snappy and emblazoned at the top of the site and on all related social media forums. Almost immediately people noticed the phrase. Particularly guy friends and relations.
“It makes me uncomfortable,” was the usual line.
“It just doesn’t jibe with the material,” was more specific. “Your site is for everyone. Feminism isn’t.”
Feminism was, to these people, a moniker used by angry hairy-pitted activists who hated men, loved women too much, were physically incapable of humor and probably didn’t wear a bra.* It was a word intoned by activists. Not “real” people. I can only guess they still talked to me because I “wasn’t like a normal feminist” or something. It must have been all the dead rape baby jokes I used to tell in high school.**
Frustrated I went and whipped up a Tumblr, “You Might Be A Feminist.” It was a way of defining what feminism meant to me and other women and it was a very quick success, if moderate, success. But only with people already identifying themselves as feminists. It wasn’t changing anyone’s way of thinking or converting the Katy Perrys, Carla Bruni Sarkozys and Rooney Maras of the world. The people who NEEDED to see it weren’t. It started to feel a little masturbatory.
In February 2012, after yet another explanation from a well-meaning friend that the word was alienating to FemPop’s audience I snapped. I abruptly changed the logo and removed the word “feminism” from its prominent position on the website. I told myself it was an experiment I could later write about. I briefly even deluded myself into believing nothing would change.
Except there was a change, and it was so immediate and immense I actually thought I’d broken something on the website in my minor bit of rebranding.
The photo above is the bounce rate for FemPop immediately preceding and succeeding the change. For those of you not in the SEO know the bounce rate charters the percentage of people who enter a site and then “bounce” away. If a person comes to your site, looks at one page and promptly leaves that’s a “bounce.” A high bounce rate means more people doing this and vice versa.
I changed one word and suddenly visitors felt comfortable poking around. Nothing else changed on the site. There wasn’t a huge redesign and the clearly feminist title of the site didn’t change. I didn’t alter color schemes or suddenly post the best article in the history of the universe. It was still pop culture through a feminist lens—but with a little less feminism on the front page.
It disturbed me that my friends and family had been so correct. I set the knowledge aside a little too scared to write about it. Because there are implications. Feminism is a dirty word with the mainstream and that’s a little terrifying to me.
Back in March at SXSW I was speaking with some older lady volunteers. I’d grown accustomed, at that point, to having to be careful with how I explained FemPop to people. Have you ever gone to E3 (a video game expo) and introduced yourself as working for a feminist entertainment website? The look on the PR reps faces is not a pleasant one! When these ladies saw the name of the outlet I was representing I saw their eyebrows rise. I braced myself for yet another “oh you’re one of those” moments I often have at industry events.
Instead they politely asked me if my site was related to feminism. I said yes, because even post-rebranding I wasn’t going to hide the purpose of the site. They were delighted! We chatted and I confessed to them the entirety of the “feminism” experiment.
“Well,” one said with the sage wisdom of a native Austinite in her 60s, “whatever you got to do to get them to listen right?”
I don’t like to be sneaky. I shouldn’t have to cringe when I declare myself a feminist in mixed company like I’ve just outed myself as a Democrat in Texas. In a perfect world I wouldn’t. But ours is an imperfect one where the word “feminist” has become positively toxic. When you have well-educated women refusing to label themselves as feminist there’s a problem. When Tumblr is full of people (not just men’s rights activists!) who call themselves “equalists” instead you have a problem. Katy Perry had a perfect platform when accepting her Billboard Woman of the Year Award. She could have legitimized feminism in a very radical way. She did the exact opposite.
Part of that’s on her, and I get irritated just thinking about her refusal to use the label. But by rejecting the label she’s pointed out that there’s something wrong with it. Feminism isn’t evil or dead or the exclusive purview of the (white) activist, but the word is. *I was an awful person in high school. It isn’t even up for debate.
The above originally appeared at FemPop on December 12, 2012.
You might be a feminist if you can rock out to Alabama Shakes.
You might be a feminist if you cringe when people say they’re not a feminist—clearly believing negative stereotypes.
You might be a feminist if you love Pam Grier’s blaxploitation films.
You might be a feminist if you refuse to be a Roman Polanski apologist.
You might be a feminist if you find it odd that a man is called ‘Mister’ his entire life and doesn’t have to change that when he is married.
You might be a feminist if Princess from Battle of the Planets was your hero growing up.
You might be a feminist if you have a sense of humor.
You might be a feminist if you’re okay with being called a misandrist for life.
You might be a feminist if it’s physically impossible for you to see the phrase “let’s get down to business” without saying “to defeat the Huns.”