I am constantly questioning my decisions. Spending an hour or so every day reading every big feminist blog, trying to read the “important” gender studies books, and being critical of the media I consume has left me feeling like I will never be a fully “good” feminist. And even that term is one I don’t completely understand. I have an idea in my head of what a “good” feminist is — thoughtful, compassionate, never judgmental of other women, nuanced in her criticisms of problematic media — but I have little idea of how to become her. And so I am constantly second-guessing myself, constantly feeling like any given decision I have made is either not the “right” one for myself, or somehow reflects badly on my fellow feminists (even if, on the occasion that a woman will prominently do something unacceptable in the name of “feminism,” we’re quick to dismiss her as “not really one of us”).
I have been made at once all too aware of the world around me, and not nearly aware enough of how I should adapt to it.
And let me stop you before you come in with the natural response to these kinds of problems, the good-in-theory catch-all of “But feminism is about supporting all choices!” I am aware that this is the idea and, in its best manifestations, the example of what feminism is. But when arguably the most prominent feminist website is offering a bounty on un-touched photos of arguably the most prominent feminist TV creator, and the “anti-feminist” anthem of the year was initially conceived as “feminist,” it’s clear that we all have some differing opinions on what “supporting all choices” actually means.
It is clear, in practice, that there are some choices which are validated and supported over others. And it is also clear that many manifestations of feminism — whether willfully ignorant of race, or limited in its definition of what a woman really is — leave out huge parts of the conversation. While the very black-and-white dichotomy of “Stay At Home Mom” versus “Working Woman” is something that, on a functional level, we can agree to support both sides of, there are huge ranges of choice that we don’t valorize. We argue and in-fight about the television we enjoy, the music we listen to, the politicians we support, how open we are about our sex lives, and even whether or not we label ourselves with the term “feminist.” We slap this label on countless female celebrities, regardless of whether or not they agree with the implications, because we believe that to not be openly feminist is to be anti-woman.
We have surrounded ourselves with semantics to the point that nearly every decision we make feels like it must be cleared by a nebulous panel of “feminist authorities.”
And worse than this, we have instilled in a lot of compassionate, smart young women a constant, nagging fear that the choices they are making or the things they are enjoying are somehow detrimental to the cause. Whether or not this was our goal — and I doubt any of us would openly state that this was our goal — there are huge swaths of women who now feel that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to live their lives as women, that there are special restrictions and expectations set on them as some sort of representative of feminism as a whole. While a young woman might agonize about her minor decisions at the workplace, or the social education she gives her daughter, men are often free from these deep moments of self-doubt. We have begun to question every moving component of what it means to like Robin Thicke or want to give a girl a Barbie doll, to turn our daily activities into small political warzones.
At the end of the day, feminism — like any other ideology — is an industry. There are websites and books and tenured professors and public speakers who have bills to pay and audiences to expand and attention to grab. We turn to things like putting bounties on one another’s bodies, or running ten consecutive articles arguing about a single scene in Girls, because we have to create interest and relevance and pass everything through the spectrum of our politics. Label ourselves “feminist” even once, and it becomes a full-time job of analysis and nitpicking and getting the last word. It comes, often, at the total omission of other axes of oppression. It allows us to drown in a sea of “Women as the be-all-end-all social marker,” ignoring the myriad other ways our lives might be changed because of where and how we were born.
Personally, I feel that being white and being relatively class-privileged are the two most important markers of my life (having gone from a working class childhood to a comfortable adolescence, I can feel first-hand the huge impact class has on one’s life and surroundings). But that is my life to live, and my realities to work with. If I paid attention to the constant barrage of feminist rhetoric and analysis — which I still do, but am trying to balance with other cultural analysis, for my own benefit — I would only think of myself in terms of my womanhood. I would micromanage each of my decisions, and think of myself as a failure for not fitting into an ever-changing definition of what it means to be a socially aware woman.
I want to do good things in my life. I want to help other women, I want to support and empower and love my friends and sisters. I want my womanhood to be a huge part of my life. But I also want to think of other things, perhaps even go an entire day without thinking of the enormous weight of what it means to interpret everything as a woman. And often it feels like the modern, for-profit incarnation of feminism wants — no, needs — me to be constantly agonizing over these things at the expense of my anxiety. And that, regardless of the choices I make, is a life I am not interested in living. I will be a feminist, but never as a job title.