“Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!”
-The patron-saint of modernity, P.T. Barnum

The phrase, “I’m not a feminist, but [insert feminist statement]” is like nails-on-chalkboard to most of us, and no doubt, our familiar exasperations (humph!, gfaw!, gadzooks!) are fast becoming as cliché as the utterance itself. Which is why what I’m about to say to my fellow feminists, with all assurances that I am both their colleague and friend, will nonetheless be most definitely unpopular: quit bitching.

Are you really shocked that even women who express pro-feminist sentiments might not want to associate themselves with one of the most misunderstood terms in the English language, surpassed only by “ironic” and “existential”? Are you aware that most people who are invested in social or professional circles ignorant of the every nuance and contour of the feminist movement, may find said ignorance to hinder them in private and public navigation? Should they devote their energies to educating these people (ha! good luck) before stridently proclaiming their feminism? To whom shall they turn for a working definition in the first place? I certainly can’t help any. Feminist bloggers and academics are awesome at destructive criticism, but what intelligible pillar is erected (or, uh, what golden orb is amassed) amongst the ruins? These women are not going to throw themselves on the sword, or totally reorganize their public perception for a term that is likely to be denied them should commitment falter, or said “feminism” become suspect (you’re always just one pair of stiletto heels away from your elaborate faux feminist con-job being exposed! Keep it on the down low ladies…)

I am in no way inferring that the political gains of feminism are dismissible. Au contraire! They are acts of pure good, and of the utmost importance to maintain. But when we desire women who are not involved in any organized political movement to identify as feminists, we are asking them to identify with a term loaded with unclear, half-formed and three-quarters negative meanings (imbued, as it were, by Conservative ideologies as much as our conflicted own). Why the hell should she?

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s not that she doesn’t identify with feminism, but that she makes a point to distance herself from feminism rather than not mentioning it at all, to which we take issue, for it contributes to the confusion you point out and exacerbates the smear campaign feminism must constantly overcome! U dig?”

Fair enough, but then we have to face the realization that women who feel feminist feelings, think feminist thoughts, and speak feminist words, frequently actively endeavor to undermine “feminism”.

This would be a bad thing.

Basically, I’m presenting two troubling scenarios:
The woman who says “I’m not a feminist but…” angers feminists either because:

A) She refuses to associate with the term, despite her feminism

OR

B) She actually wants to contribute to the damnation of feminism, despite her feminism

I propose we entertain the notion that unless we embark on an active PR campaign to make the social/conversational meaning of “feminist” and “feminism” clear and truthful, we must forfeit the term to the subjective masses. In accepting its desecration by Rush Limbauch and his ilk, we therefore understand and sympathize with (or at least pay little mind to) women who chose to distance themselves from the mutilated word. Feminism, certainly, must continue to be used for political organization, but alas even that requires corralling modifiers.

That said, I don’t think the term ought to be abandoned. We need to wage a war of meanings, not on our home turf, but on enemy or at best neutral grounds. I, of course, speak of mass media. Like John and Yoko with their “peace” campaign, let’s sell feminism.

“We’re trying to sell peace, like a product, you know, and sell it like people sell soap or soft drinks, you know, [it’s] the only way to get people aware that peace is possible…”
-John Lennon

We don’t need to compromise feminism to break down communicative barriers between “us” and “them”, but we do need to seriously confront the astounding misconceptions entertained by the overwhelming majority of people (still?). It may not be right or fair that these misconceptions persist, but if we leave all the meaning-making to the right, we suffer the material consequences (look how “liberal”, “patriotism” and “terrorist” were just taken, reshaped, and used to animate a false administration, which resulted in…um, well, you know.)

The apparent aversion some of the most dedicated feminists have to the populist impulse (which is now expressed almost entirely in media-res), is entertained at their cost. Look, Gloria Steinem is an amazing woman, and important thinker, and would have been essential to the feminist movement even if she didn’t “sell”. But she did. She is a well spoken, witty, beautiful, media-friendly woman who, in tandem with her other achievements, helped to make feminism in the 1960s and 1970s marketable.

This is not to say that we need to shove out the “pretty” feminists in the spotlight in order to improve public perception. Hardly! I use her example to underscore the power of media appeal—in whatever effective form.

Feminism’s perceived negative image to would-be feminists is an embarrassment to both parties. We need to accept at least some of the responsibility for this failure.

I’m not a nonfeminist, but let’s quit this bitching and step it up in a world speaking in hieroglyphic tongues—where image, I regret to inform, is Queen.

* * *

For more on promoting feminism, refer to my earlier post, The Revolution is Being Televised, and stay tuned for part 2 of “Selling Feminism” right here on Pop Feminist after a word from our sponsors.

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