Thursday, June 11, 2015

Are You A Feminist?

"Raise your hand if you're a feminist." Day one of my first French lit class with one of the best profs in the department.  And this was the question we were greeted with.

It was a fair question--the course was "Ecrits Feminin" which translates literally as Feminine Literature, and could also be understood as "Literature for Women."

A few young women proudly raised their hands.  A few other made "nuh-uh, not me" noises or crossed their arms, removing themselves from the question.  Many of us--me included--looked back at the prof with "Is this a trick question?" written all over our faces.

It was probably a good idea to ask that--"is this a trick question"--given how well we got to know that professor over the courses we took with him.  He was wily, that Swede from Minnesota who wore the same rotation of v-neck sweaters every week and had a voice reminiscent of Garrison Keillor.   He didn't ask trick questions, but he asked good ones, and they were usually much more precise than "Raise your hand if you're a feminist."

But like a good lawyer, he asked the question to get exactly the answer he wanted.  

"Is this a trick question?"

Fact is, it is kind of a trick question.  I can answer it easily if I get to set the definition.  "I'm someone who's interested in women's stories and women's voices and examining the human condition through the lens of feminine gender identities, yes."  (That's why I took the course, after all.)  And to many people, that's exactly what is meant by feminist.  Boiled down, it's valuing women and what women have to say.


But to other people, it has other connotations.  Both those who self-identify as feminist and those who self-identify as counter to feminists.  For some, social or political action is a requisite part of feminism.  For others, there are tenets one must agree with. Men are oppressive.  No, society is oppressive. Women are oppressed by men...or maybe it's society. No, men and women are both oppressed.  Women and men are fundamentally different.  Women and men are fundamentally the same.  We need legal action to narrow gender gaps.  We need grassroots change because society will never give women the place they deserve. The lens narrows.  Answering the question means answering a set of implied questions you maybe didn't realize you were agreeing to.

"Is this a trick question?"

It gets even hairier as a writer.  I don't need to tell you all about the bazillion battles (which may or may not be Twitter hashtags) devoted to opening up the boundaries of representation in literature.  In YA lit, it feels even more present, eager, important--we're talking about the books THE FUTURE is reading.  So if I believe in equality between men and women, if I believe a girl can do damn well anything she wants (which I also believe about a boy, for what it's worth, any boys reading, and that's part of "feminism" for me), I should own that title of "feminist," right?

"Is this a trick question?"

I think part of the issue is that labels are like going into a tent. If I say I'm a feminist, I'm in the tent. There are a lot of people in the tent. I don't agree with all of them. In fact, I think some are rude, or make kind of stupid points, or just really misguided and take things too far. Sometimes I think they're just illogical and my mind goes all Spock and I can't get behind what they're saying.  But we're still in the tent together, and since I went into the tent, I'm affiliated with their beliefs whether I want to be or not by those both inside and outside the tent. Sometimes their ideas end up representing me, because they're really loud or they have a really big platform, even if I don't agree with them. If I say I'm outside the tent, I'm disrespecting the tent and the good things the tent stands for. Tents and labels can both stink (especially if they don't get aired out).

I'm a feminist...but I define what that means for me.  I won't always dive wholeheartedly into the discussion self-labeling as a feminist because it might be clear that the label means something that smells like last weekend's camping trip to me.

We often, in feminist circles, demand that men stop talking and start listening.  Maybe I'm asking us to all hold off talking and do more listening.  When we ask "Are you a feminist," really listen to the answer. 

Because it doesn't need to be a trick question.