Defining Feminism: Why it Works, and Why it Doesn’t

Defining Feminism: Why it Works, and Why it Doesn’t


Feminism has gone through many waves, and begun to mean many things to many people. For many women in my generation, it has a freshness to it, associated with people like Lena Dunham, Roxane Gay and of course, Beyoncé. For many other women, it has a glint of cynicism, a feeling of divisiveness for divisiveness’ sake, associated with academics or bra burners. Gay talks about the plurality of feminism in her book, Bad Feminist, wherein she argues that there are so many qualifications and behaviors expected of feminists that it’s impossible to fulfill them all, and as a result she’s comfortable being labeled a “bad feminist,” but, still, a feminist.

Possibly because of this complexity, the latest effort in feminism seems to be in defining it more plainly, more simply for people who don’t understand it or reject it. Shailene Woodley, Lady Gaga and the many other celebrities who say they’re not feminists because they “love men,” are letting us know loud and clear that feminist still means “someone who hates men” to plenty of people.

As a result, Beyoncé and her feminist muse, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (watch her awesome speech on the matter) and many columnists are spreading the definition of feminism above: A person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. There’s no man hating in that. You have to admit, it’s pretty sensible, and hardly radical. In fact, it’s easy to get behind.

Now, the dialog has become a bit smoother. Some celebrity charged with answering whether or not she’s a feminist says, “No, I love men too much,” and then the Internet can remind them that feminism just means the above, and are they against that? No? Well then they’re a feminist.

We’re defining the word, and clearing up the misconception, thus making feminism mean something more clear and less divisive. Simple. Except words don’t work that way. Words are slippery, ever-changing entities that change over time, often defying what was in the dictionary last year. Words don’t get to keep the meaning given to them by their creator (sorry GIF creator who just tried to tell us how to pronounce it), but become public domain, where they are colored by our associations, or misuses and our corruptions. Words can mean both their definition and their opposite. This is, after all, a nation that just added a new definition of “literally” to the dictionary, explaining that it also means “figuratively.”

We can’t police and control the meaning of a word. It’s just not how language works. No matter how much we try to simplify and define feminism to mean something that everybody can get behind, it’s going to be defined by how people use it and what people associate with it. The good news is, we’re doing a lot to reclaim and transform those associations. Dialogs like #yesallwomen, speeches like Adichie’s and stories like the ones in Gay’s book and Lean Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl are changing the conversation by making it start with empathy.

Feminism will always mean many things to many people, and you’re allowed to have your own definition. But the more we can be actively adding meaning to it in a good, empowering way, a way that might take a little bravery or make men think you sound “uncool,” the more we’re reclaiming it for good.

Remember: words derive meaning from how those around us use them. If feminism is a dirty word to you, you might be hanging around with jerks.

Becky Lang