Last night I decided to watch The Mask We Live In as it had just arrived on Netflix, and after finishing it I couldn’t help but go back and rewatch Miss Representation. It’s still a pretty good movie, that introduces a lot of basic concepts about feminism and media in a really accessible way. But I found that as I was watching it I started to get really anxious.
It was a kind of anxiety that I hadn’t felt so acutely in quite some time. “You’re missing your window of opportunity,” is what it said. “What will you become?” it asked. “Why doesn’t anyone look up to you?” it taunted. It was very talkative anxiety. I remembered the feeling that I used to have as a kid that my life could be the kind of thing that someone would talk about with a tone of awe. In Miss Representation, Condoleeza Rice talks about her friend Sally Ride and says that if Sally had waited to see a female astronaut before she decided to become one, Ride never would have gone to space. I wanted to be that story for someone. THAT was what a feminist looked like in my young eyes.
In a lot of the talk about feminism, I heard often about accomplishments. I heard about the wage gap. I heard about women not being in positions of power. I heard about the ways that women are held back by bias or harassment or lack of representation. I heard that women needed to be more active and powerful in politics and large corporations, that we needed more women like Marie Curie or Sheryl Sandberg or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Women who fought for their right to a space at the table in the field that they loved. I heard about the importance of highly visible role models, and the way that feminism will never advance if we don’t have women in positions of power. I rarely heard about average people, my mom or her friends. I more often heard stories of individual, exceptional women.
And so I learned that feminism meant being successful. Successful enough that your name is still known today. Successful enough that you have power over other people, often power in a traditionally capitalistic sense of the word if not in the governmental sense. Successful enough that other people could see you and want to be you. So successful that you are in fact exceptional.
This belief has been incredibly damaging in my life, and so I want to identify it, identify what’s wrong with it and try to understand how we can do better.
Definitionally, not everyone can be exceptional. I firmly believe that everyone can be a feminist. The actions, thoughts, and attitudes of feminism are difficult, but they are things that everyone can strive for. But more than that, it takes away the societal responsibility for improving circumstances and says that some super women have to fix things.
More than that, it creates a nice, impossible standard for young women. It might be a very different kind of impossible standard than traditional beauty standards or expectations of submissiveness and passivity, but it is just as difficult to attain. I have found throughout my life that I hold myself to expectations of perfection in a conviction that that is the only way to make a difference and give my life meaning and purpose. Now partially that’s my own issue, but I see some direct parallels with a feminism that doesn’t allow for nuance. If the way to be a feminist is to somehow, through sheer will or awesomeness, break through barriers that no one else has ever been able to break, you’re going to have some high expectations for yourself. It’s easy to assume that individual effort and ability are what counts when it comes to being successful, but let’s not forget that there are so many other factors at play (family support, random chance or luck, connections, timing, all the wide variety of axes of privilege and oppression, etc.).
When we hold up individual women as responsible for the great strides of the past, we imply that individual women should become great enough, all on their own, to make great strides into the future. Of course the truth is that making the world a more just and equitable place takes all kinds, and changing the world requires lots of people working together and supporting each other. It takes luck and privilege and a lot of circumstances aligning in the right ways, just as much as it does the hard work and talent of the people involved. It’s damaging to any individual who wants to make a difference if they assume they have to do it on their own, or that they should ignore their own needs, circumstances, and preferences in order to live up to some idealized vision of the Feminist Woman.
I want to think about other kinds of feminist inspiration we can have for each other. Inspiration that doesn’t create a damaging picture of how much any individual should be capable of by themselves. Let’s try this on for size:
I have a friend who has serious social anxiety and agoraphobia. The other day she contacted me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go to coffee over Facebook. This is bravery. This is creating connections that sustain us. This is using the technology available to make the world work for us.
Every time I have an open, honest conversation with my partner about consent, preferences, and sexuality, I am prioritizing my own needs and sexual health. That is feminism. I’m an inspiring bitch.
When I see a female friend get honestly angry with someone else and express their boundaries in a clear fashion, I am seeing feminism at work.
When my friends demand their proper pronouns, or someone politely asks about pronouns, I am witnessing change.
These are not grand narratives. They are everyday moments that are often uncomfortable and don’t have huge payouts. But every time you question your sexist relative, speak honestly of your own experience, engage in self care, or ask for what you want, you are being inspiring to me. Sure, we also need the big changemakers, the people who bulldoze barriers in a powerful way. But we need all the rest of us doing a thousand small things every day to make those changes stick. That’s just as inspiring to me.