Show a Little Leg
Drop Dead, Amie Dicke, 2007
My favorite definition of a feminist is one offered by Su, an Australian woman who, when interviewed for Kathy Bail’s 1996 anthology DIY Feminism, described them simply as “women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” This definition is pointed and succinct, but I run into trouble when I try to expand it. I fall short as a feminist. I feel like I am not as committed as I need to be, that I am not living up to feminist ideals because of who and how I choose to be. I feel this tension constantly. As Judith Butler writes in her 1988 essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”: “Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all.” This tension—the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman—is ongoing and pervasive.
We see this tension in socially dictated beauty standards—the right way to be a woman is to be thin, to wear make up, to wear the right kind of clothes (not too slutty, not too prude, show a little leg, ladies), and so on. Good women are charming, polite, and unobtrusive. Good women work but are content to earn 77 percent of what men earn. Depending on whom you ask, good women bear children and stay home to raise them without complaint. Good women are modest, chaste, pious, submissive. Women who don’t adhere to these standards are the fallen, the undesirable. They are bad women.
Butler’s thesis could also apply to feminism. There is an essential feminism, the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist, and there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.
I sometimes cringe when someone refers to me as a feminist, as if I should be ashamed of my feminism or as if the word feminist is an insult. The label is rarely offered in kindness. I am generally called a feminist when I have the nerve to suggest that the misogyny deeply embedded in our culture is a real problem, requiring relentless vigilance. For example, in an essay for Salon, I wrote about Daniel Tosh and rape jokes. I try not to read comments because they can get vicious, but I couldn’t help but note one commenter who told me I was an “angry blogger woman,” which is simply another way of saying “angry feminist.” All feminists are angry instead of passionate.
A more direct reprimand came from a man I was dating, during a heated discussion that wasn’t quite an argument. He said, “Don’t you raise your voice to me,” which was strange because I had not raised my voice. I was stunned because no one had ever said such a thing to me. He expounded, at length, about how women should talk to men. When I dismantled his pseudo-theories, he said, “You’re some kind of feminist, aren’t you?” His tone made it clear that to be a feminist was undesirable. I was not being a good woman. I remained silent, stewing. I thought, “Isn’t it obvious I am a feminist, albeit not a very good one?”
I’m not the only outspoken woman who shies away from the feminist label, who fears the consequences of accepting the label.