Defining Feminism: Tumblr, Bra-Burners and Beyoncé

To be a feminist doesn't mean that you have a quota of protests to attend or spend a minimum amount of time ranting about the patriarchy. It means you believe in equality.
10/24/2014 12:29 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

I've seen the blank stares.
Eyebrows scrunch in confusion, lips purse and there's a hesitant pause.
"You're a... feminist?"

It would concern me if they weren't, too.

Let's break it down first: Feminism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, means "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities." When and why did this become controversial?

To help find answers to these questions, I started the Defining Feminism Project last June. Armed with a clipboard, Sharpie and Tumblr page ready to be updated, I approached complete strangers in my school and town, asking them to complete the sentence "I think feminism is..." The responses, both in reaction to the question and their answers, varied. There was everything from a 45-minute long conversation on the empowering aspects of Frozen to the very common "What other answers have you gotten?" As for completing the sentence, the spectrum ranged from "I think feminism is awesome" to "I think feminism is something that should not exist" to "I have no idea what feminism is."

Few words would yield the same spectrum of definitions. Perhaps it seems that so few people actively identify as feminists because they don't think they qualify for the label. A Starbucks-drinking, Forever 21-wearing high school student isn't the first image that comes to mind when one hears the word "feminist," so she probably doesn't think of herself as one. To be a feminist doesn't mean that you have a quota of protests to attend or spend a minimum amount of time ranting about the patriarchy. It means you believe in equality.

That being said, the re-emergence of the archetypal bra-burning feminist is ridiculous. Can women not speak up for themselves without coming off as overly aggressive or annoying? As Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Chavez put it in "Bossy: the Other B-Word:"

Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. When a little boy takes charge in class or on the playground, nobody is surprised or offended. We expect him to lead. But when a little girl does the same, she is often criticized and disliked.

Other subtle words put women who speak their minds down. The documentary Miss Representation highlights how when male politicians take stances on issues, they are "stating opinions" or simply "saying what they think," but when women do the same, they are "complaining." Conformed to gender norms, "nice girls" don't assert themselves, don't talk about politics and certainly aren't confrontational or intimidating.

What does a feminist look like, then? Yes, there are man-haters and bra-burners. But a feminist is anyone who believes equality, regardless of gender or sex. And that doesn't necessarily mean that all female feminists strive to be CEOs or Congresswomen -- it means that people should be able to do what they find fulfilling without gender-based discrimination. If you like wearing lipstick and baking cookies, by all means hit up Sephora and Toll House to your heart's content. And guys should be able to do theater or choir without ridicule (although such ridicule is also inherently sexist -- why is it a bad thing to have feminine traits, such as emotional expression?)

This is why I'm so grateful for feminist figures like Beyoncé. Queen Bey is gorgeous, talented and undeniably feminine, but embraces empowerment nonetheless. It's an Elle Woods-style outlook that says, "You can be feminine, and smart! You can want to impress boys, and still think for yourself!" Beyoncé even went so far as to spell out the definition of feminism. Use it.