I was 16 when I made friends with a kick-ass gang of lesbians, who drove me around in their beater convertibles while we belted out the anthems of Bikini Kill, Ani DiFranco, and other poster children of the '90s counter culture. As part of my radical self-education, I immersed myself in the drama of The L Word and read the Inga Muscio book Cunt surreptitiously in the coat closet of my parents' house. I promptly began refusing to allow boys to pay for my cookies in the lunch line (or whatever it is one 16-year-old buys for another when he has a crush), and I entertained a healthy amount of sexual curiosity. I even dabbled in cross-dressing, wearing boy's boxers under baggy jeans on a few occasions.
The latter two experiments weren't strictly necessary for my acceptance among the ranks of these ferocious young girls, who brazenly wielded the word "feminist" like an incantation that might ward off rape, grabby bosses, and men who opened doors. But I threw all my chips in nevertheless, just so there was no confusion. I tattooed that word on my forehead.
My parents no doubt saw my feminist phase as primarily aesthetic, and perhaps they never differentiated it from the punk-rock phase I went through at 14, in which I thoughtfully reinforced the hems of all my brand new clothing with safety pins of varying sizes. But I believed then -- and upon reflection now, I still believe -- that it was crucial in shaping the moral make-up of the adult I would become. And that rooting of identity was far from painless. The buttons I pinned on my hobo bag and favorite hoodie ("Don't Label Me" or "Uppity Women Unite") communicated an outrage that flew in the faces of my good-ol'-boy classmates. They quickly pinned me as an angry leftist bitch in front of whom one did not, ever, use the derogatory language that was for them as natural as sneezing.
But those classmates would be astounded to find that such radicalism turned out to be nothing more than some brief turbulence in my otherwise predictable life as a straight woman. Dating is hard enough to navigate when you're not trying to explain that you don't hate men, you just think they should all shut the fuck up about abortion. So, like all forms of ideology, my mission to preach the good word of Gloria Steinem shrank next to my practical need to be loved or at least get laid by a man. I toned it down a bit. With years of dating behind me, that tattoo is now so faded you can't even see it anymore.
Lately the media has latched onto this little word, as the newest of its bizarre obsessions. Reporters pop up from behind bushes or from under the red carpet at precise spotlit moments to make perfectly curated pop singers sweat with the question: "Would you call yourself a feminist?" By now we've categorized nearly all of them, based on the sputtering replies they have offered that menacing microphone. But let's be honest -- it means as little when they claim the label as it does when they refuse it, because the word is too flimsy to uphold even the most basic assumptions about real world belief systems.
For instance, is it safe to assume the stars who wrinkle their noses at feminism can't possibly believe women should be paid less than men?
It's a terrible shame that "feminism" has been reduced to its subjective connotations, rather than a hard definition or at least a loosely bundled set of ambitions. Like with so many other alliances -- sports teams and political parties come to mind -- it is easier to align oneself based on whether or not warm, fuzzy feelings are associated with the word than to use critical thinking skills.
To some degree, I sympathize with the confusion of these celebrities, who struggle to remember on which drunken night they agreed to serve as role models for America's young women. And it seems so retro to harp on women's rights at a time when more women are attending college than men, at a time when domestic violence is soundly stigmatized. Sure, there's still the issue of perpetuated unrealistic expectations for women's bodies, which is certainly relevant to stars whose weight can be considered a political statement. But now that we're beginning to celebrate figures like that of Christina Hendricks, we should be able to relax a little, shouldn't we?
I am typically the last person to take an interest in what Taylor Swift is thinking, but the resurgence of a public dialogue on feminism is welcome, no matter how clumsily it's executed. I found myself wanting to get to the bottom of it. Armed with my own microphone, I tracked my less-radical, modern-day, probably feminist friends and waited for the right moment to emerge from the bushes and pop the question.
One friend told me she thinks being a feminist means that we women "stick together." As in, we don't screw each other's men.
Another friend said it means rejecting pressure to be something we're not, whether that "something" is svelte, soft-spoken, or maternal.
To another, it's about pubic hair.
This focus on practical, mundane, personal choices was revelatory for me. Perhaps that's what it means to be a millennial feminist; most of the big battles have been won already, so presumably it's up to us to figure out what to do with our unprecedented freedoms. And these day-to-day choices are relevant to every woman.
My own fall from feminist grace truly becomes poignant on the micro level. I don't mean that I've failed because I've replaced the combat boots with high heels or because I've allowed a man to pay for my meal every now and then. I don't even find it overly significant that I've learned to accept my rape fantasies.
It is significant, however, that on more than one occasion, I've allowed a well-intentioned lover to diminutize me. Baby talk cuteness has sneakily imposed the role of child onto me. Puppy love has made me innocuous, made me a pet to be cared for, despite my proven ability to maneuver life just fine on my own. Certainly, it's important to recognize the instinctual appeal a big-armed man feels at the prospect of protecting a slight young woman like me, but it is in no way acceptable for him to fight my non-physical battles. Have I really been so worried that the strong woman thing would be unattractive, or even threatening?
And while we're at it, I have another confession. I have perpetuated gender roles by feigning ignorance about the use of a drill. So, so many times. That's right, this leftist bitch has played the delicate flower, has fucked other women's men, has shaved it all just to look good in the bikinis she once plotted to kill, and has even briefly battled a well-concealed eating disorder.
But prompted by public discourse to challenge myself, I have decided that this is the year I remember how to be true to my convictions. This is the year that I drill things into walls and drive a stick shift in stilettos and learn to box. The year that I am brave in my refusal to be adorable.
Feminists still have important work to do. There are still unfair stigmas about our sexual choices, and we are still considered formidable bitches when we get ahead at work. Our strength and our intelligence do not receive the recognition they deserve.
But here's the breakdown, ladies: mostly I think it's about the micro decisions, like demanding that our men wash dishes and change diapers. Our predecessors fought social norms to get us into the professional world, but we're still losing the micro battles. There's no affirmative action to guide the ways we each navigate our interactions with our partners or the divvying up of the "second shift." When we allow ourselves to become adorably innocuous, we are lost alone in the woods.