I have a confession to make: I don't understand feminism.
This is particularly embarrassing for me to admit. I'm a pretty liberal person and I go to a university where feminism is taken very seriously. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for women's rights and, in the end, my ideals probably line up with the goals of feminism. Yet every time I call myself a feminist (which I do a lot to avoid sounding stupid), I find myself cringing a little bit inside.
It's not that I don't support feminism; I just don't fully understand it.
My younger sister is an avid follower of the Internet feminism movement popularized by websites like Tavi Gevinson's Rookie magazine. Many a time she has called me out for accidentally slut-shaming or saying something that I didn't even realize was anti-feminist. Girls like my sister, who actively identify themselves as feminists, tend to be well-educated and very opinionated on the topic. I, on the other hand, have blustered through countless articles on the Internet in an attempt to better understand feminism, and still I find myself constantly shying away from feminism-centered conversations.
The more I read about feminism on the Internet, the more confused I become. One blog post will advocate the Lean In ethos of Sheryl Sandberg while another will praise Debora Spar for her willingness to not have it all. And don't even get me started about sexuality, where the Internet feminism movement often seems to put forth contradictory ideas. Slut-shaming is a major no-no because women should be allowed to dress however we want, right? Then a video ("How the Media Failed Women in 2013") goes viral, criticizing how gender is depicted in media and culture. At 0:57 we see Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs, tying her provocative attire and dance moves to the failed depiction of women in the media. But wait -- I thought we weren't supposed to slut-shame her? I'm not criticizing one or the other, I am honestly, genuinely confused.
A few weeks ago, Rookie published an interview with Lorde, the 17-year-old pop singer from New Zealand who has taken the music world by storm (disclaimer: I'm a big fan of Lorde's music). At 11 pages long, the interview is a bit of a time commitment, but worth the read, I think, if for no other reason than an enlightening discussion on feminism on page 10. Lorde says:
I think I'm speaking for a bunch of girls when I say that the idea that feminism is completely natural and shouldn't even be something that people find mildly surprising. It's just a part of being a girl in 2013. That kind of normal, non-scary, chill vibe that you had with it, and that Rookie had, was really encouraging when I was like 14. Even now, I find a lot of feminist reading quite confusing and that often there's a set of rules, and people will be like, "Oh, this person isn't a true feminist because they don't embody this one thing," and I don't know, often there is a lot of gray area that can be hard to navigate. It's just something that I'd assumed was natural for a long time. It's not some crazy kind of alien concept to me. Did you ever have that problem of getting into feminist writings and then feeling confused about all the ways people's opinions differed and all of the weird rulebooks and you're like, What?
Tavi goes on to agree with her completely:
Tavi: Oh, yeah. Ultimately, I think we are all here for the same reason. I think it's so personal, though, for each person who identifies as a feminist, and it can be related to the hardest shit that they've had to put up with in their lives and all of these different ways in which they've been oppressed and marginalized. It can be so delicate and hard to navigate that sometimes I just feel like, "I never want to write about this again, because how can you ever know enough?"..."How can you ever have read enough to be able to talk about this in the right way?" What I've learned is that the answer isn't to retreat into ignorance, but to find the ways in which it's important to you and talk about that and help other women talk about their experiences too. Just finding the human part of it is what I find myself coming back to when I feel disillusioned with feminism as a community. It's complicated. Ultimately, I'm a feminist, yes, but I certainly have moments where it has to feel like something that is mine, and...
Lorde: And not something that a hundred different people can define in exactly the same way.
In a few paragraphs, Lorde and Tavi perfectly articulate everything that I've ever felt about feminism. I guess this isn't really that revolutionary an idea, but to hear it from the mouths of well-respected public figures, especially ones who have made such waves in the feminist community, gives legitimacy to my confusion.
In the past, college was the time when you were supposed to find yourself and figure out where you stood in the world. But, like so many other things, self-discovery is being pushed back earlier and earlier. So many young people today think that they have to be firm in their convictions, to have solid beliefs and be able to defend them to the death. My peers are national debate champions, have appeared on CNBC and written for a whole host of national publications. Dorm room political arguments resemble CNN debates. It's intimidating. Sure, I have opinions on plenty of issues, but there are just as many things on which I don't, and feminism is one of them.
I've always admired Tavi and the way she seems to have it all figured out. Clearly I was misguided. She doesn't have it all figured out. Even Tavi, arguably the most prominent feminist of my generation, sometimes finds herself confused by feminism. What makes her different is that she understands that, in a group as large and diverse as the female (and male) population of the world, there are bound to be disagreements. That rather than being a collection of universal ideals, feminism should be personal for every person.
So while I'm not going return to school and immediately jump into debate with my friends majoring in Women and Gender Studies, maybe I won't be so quick to balk at the sound of "feminism." Instead, I'll open myself up to new ideas and acknowledge that, for every feminist opinion I hear, there's someone out there who could argue the opposite. Most importantly, I'll accept that I don't have to be an expert on feminism to proudly call myself a feminist. After all, if Tavi and Lorde don't know everything, then I don't need to either.