Gemma is a final year English student. She loves shopping, going out with friends, and a quiet night of TV whenever she can tear herself away from her books.
Gemma thinks it's about time people changed their opinion of feminists.
The day I told my boyfriend that I was a feminist, he immediately looked panic-stricken. Did this mean I was now a lesbian? Should he brace himself for a fully loaded attack on men? Many women I know admit to similar responses, the most irritating being when people dismiss all gender-related comments as 'rants' (irony noted). The response to male feminists is even worse; a passing comment supporting female equality has the potential to draw his sexuality and masculinity into question. This isn't just a problem of stereotypes; it also highlights the problem that people who present an opinion on issues relating to women are often not taken seriously, and their points of view are frequently dismissed. Why should people who care about women's position in society be silenced by damaging generalisations?
In the UK, we claim to promote freedom of speech, yet we have a life of many taboos. Why are feminists frequently subjected to ridicule when expressing their views on important issues? For over a century, feminists have been confronted with a variety of stereotypes, the most common in recent decades being the image of the short-haired, ugly, hormonal, man-hater. Search for images of feminists on the internet and the results are fairly predictable. One of my favourite stereotypes is the common belief that feminists are women who haven't had good sex for a while, and subsequently that having good sex would result in rapid dissipation of their firmly held beliefs. Of course this must be true; after all, we've all heard about women's fickle nature. Somehow I'm not convinced.
I come into frequent contact with stereotypes of feminism at university. One of my lecturers specialises in Women's Studies and feminist issues. I'm always angry to find that wherever I may be sitting in the lecture hall, as soon as she enters, the room will suddenly be filled with the typical: "Oh no, it's that bloody man-hating lesbian again". Her well researched and evidenced arguments often have a poor reception from students who've already decided that she will spend the next hour turning us against men. Having taken one of her courses, I can confirm that she is certainly not a man-hater. It frustrates me that a group of intelligent people so openly criticises a woman who simply conducts research into the portrayal of women in literature.
Looking at the bigger picture, the media industry often seems to take a hostile view of feminist topics. A prime example of this is the development of Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones's Diary from book to screen. Fielding's novel is a powerful feminist attack on the pressures women face to fit an ideal of beauty and body image, and to conform to the roles of wife and mother. However, the film adaptation largely avoids these strong feminist overtones, instead offering a far more predictable romance in which image-obsessed thirty-something Bridget is no longer mocked, but rather admired. Quite clearly, feminism doesn't sell.
"The common barrier for many people in declaring themselves as a feminist is a fear that they will automatically descend into an underground world of man-hating."
It seems that a huge problem with the perception of feminism and the prevalence of stereotypes is simply a lack of knowledge about the subject. Many women actually share common views with feminists, such as anger over unequal pay and frustration at the portrayal of women in the media. Despite this, there's not only a reluctance to adopt the label 'feminist', but also a reluctance to openly hold a view on women's rights for fear of being lumped with the sex-starved stereotype.
However, there are women who are trying to change this. The journalist Dawn Porter has made a series of fascinating programmes in her attempt to encourage positive body image, among other things. It's women like Dawn who are successfully challenging stereotypes of feminism and encouraging a much more positive attitude towards issues that affect us all.
At the moment, the common barrier for many people in declaring themselves as a feminist is a fear that they will automatically descend into an underground world of man-hating. Several students on my course seem to believe that taking a course in feminism would involve some level of brainwashing. All feminists differ to some extent in their views. Being a feminist doesn't mean you have to ascribe to a certain set of rules; it's more a case of asserting your opinion on certain areas of sexual inequality and gender issues. People need to start realising the ridiculousness of these stereotypes which, when you really think about it, isn't hard to do. Even if women don't feel able to embrace feminism as a label, they should at least have the courage to openly criticise areas where women are treated unfairly, without worrying about judgements regarding their sexuality, hormone levels or length of time since they last had mind-blowing sex.
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