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Words Mean Things: Feminism

Words Mean Things: Feminism

At the end of the year, Merriam-Webster’s traditionally announces it’s “word of the year.” The word of the year for 2017 was “feminism.”

M-W had sound logic in choosing the word over other contenders. Most people would agree 2017 was something of a never-ending shitshow. From Trump’s takeover in January of last year, we’ve had to endure the repercussions around the world: North Korea sabre-rattling more than ever (and the US president rattling back), literal Nazis and the KKK running amok on US soil, the internet crawling with trolls itching for a fight, people yelling about fake news, and the enormous fallout following the ousting of Harvey Weinstein.

A picture of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, which picked "feminism" as their word of 2017.

Who knew dictionaries were so damn political?

Hollywood seems to have started a purge. The Democratic Party is rallying behind it. Twitter and other social media were alight with #Metoo. Some people had to drop out altogether.

Yes, 2017 was a little hard to take. So how did feminism become the top word of the year?


Oh, how the mighty fall. Harvey Weinstein may not be a household name, but he’s been around Hollywood forever. He’s probably involved in some of your favorite TV and movies. (I was shocked to read his name in the credits of Lord of the Rings when I rewatched in December 2017.)

The problem? Weinstein used his Hollywood clout and prestigious position to sexually harass, exploit, and assault and rape women in Hollywood for decades. Other men – including Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino – knew about it. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t do anything.

So for years, Weinstein got away with this sort of behavior. He harmed many women, some of them who are household names today: Uma Thurman, Angelina Jolie. The list goes on and on.

The Fallout

Weinstein’s accusers were many and many were high-profile. Some could cite multiple instances of abuse. Men came out of the woodwork to support and corroborate stories. (Which is another kind of problem in and of itself.)

Some people wondered how this could have possibly went on, how it could have happened under everyone’s noses for so long. As part of a response to this, people (and women in particular) began to tell a broader narrative about how prevalent sexual abuse, harassment, and assault are in our society.

How powerful men use their influence to gain access to women, and how society seems to hold these men up as sorts of idols for other men. From politicians in Congress to teachers at school to the actors on your TV screen to the men making your favorite music, sexual predators are everywhere. And they teach others how to be predators.

Women, on the other hand, are taught to be complicit. To sit down and shut up. To accept what happened, to be quiet.

Weinstein and the #Metoo movement ended that silence.

Accusations on Accusations

Soon, you couldn’t look anywhere without accusations of sexual misconduct being levied against some powerful man. ABC ousted Matt Lauer. Kevin Spacey was accused of exploiting young men he worked with.

The accusations proliferated everywhere: sports, Hollywood, politics, business. Even the book world wasn’t immune.

This was followed by lots of hand-wringing from men and news outlets like the Washington Post. “How do you know it’s okay to hug someone?” an editorial asked.

You ask them, the internet answered, and if they say no, you don’t hug them.

What’s Feminism Got to Do with It?

Over the years, feminism has become something of a “dirty” word in many circles. I’ve met many young women who don’t believe they need feminism. They seem to think feminists are all crazy, bra-burning matriarchists. Apparently, we’re in the streets, marching for the downfall of the patriarchy, asking for all men to be launched into orbit or something.

This is radical feminism, which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. There are other, tamer versions of feminism.

Pushing for the equal treatment of men and women, calling for an end of sexual misconduct and abuse, is a form of feminism.

What’s It Mean?

The most basic definition of the word, from M-W themselves, is a belief in the equal treatment of men and women. I’ve seen variants on this. It’s equitable treatment, or ensuring they have equal rights. It’s gender parity or something.

Essentially, being a feminist means believing men and women are all human beings. We should all be treated that way. Some people have suggested the term “feminist” and “feminism” are outmoded, and we need something that more accurately reflects the focus on the equality of the sexes. Maybe we’re “humanists.”

The point of the matter is, at the current moment, “feminism” is the term we have to describe believing in gender equality and equal rights for all people, regardless of their sex or gender.

It’s Not All Roses

Of course, feminism itself, as I noted, isn’t a unified front. We have radical feminism and we have several different branches. It’s worth noting there are feminist groups who hate on transgender people, believe trans folks are undermining efforts to gain equality for women. They’ll argue trans women aren’t “real” women.

I’ve considered rejecting the label “feminist” myself for these reasons. I haven’t come up with anything better yet, so I’m careful to define my feminism as an inclusive brand. Human beings are human beings and ought to be treated that way, no matter what we’re packing between our legs.

There are legitimate reasons to have issues with feminism, and that’s not wrong. Nonetheless, rejecting it because you believe people are already “equal” is probably silly–especially when something like the prevalence of sexual exploitation and abuse in North American society comes to light.

How Is This Women’s Lib?

There are huge issues in gender equality. Some people deny there’s a pay gap (there is), and even if there wasn’t, there’s still plenty of inequalities in the way we assign and remunerate work. Take, for example, childcare and the care of elderly relatives. What about cleaning the house or cooking?

“Women’s work” is still largely unpaid and still largely a woman’s responsibility, even when she’s engaged in wage labor. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning your house or making delicious food for your family, surely. But it disproportionately falls to women.

Similarly, women most often occupy certain occupations, such as seamstress in the low-wage (borderline slave-labor) garment industry. Where are the men clamoring to work in this shitty job? We can argue there also aren’t women lining up to work as garbage collectors. Our ideas of “men’s work” and “women’s work” still influence us – and they influence how certain jobs and industries pay.

Sexual harassment and abuse is another way the world of work is incredibly unequal. I shouldn’t ever feel like I have to put up with a co-worker hitting on me, or that I need to perform sexual favors for my boss to get a promotion.

Many women do.

Changing Culture

This is part of a larger conversation about how North American culture needs to radically revise its position on women (femininity) and men (masculinity). One of the best things I’ve seen related to this dialogue is scathing (and often hilarious) critiques of toxic masculinity.

If you pause and think about it, it’s ridiculous. Men can’t use particular soaps, because they’re not manly enough. Emojis might be girly. Oh no.

Why are we so bound up and concerned about the “pussification” of society? Is a guy expressing his emotions really so offputting? I mean, I’d much rather have my partner tell me he’s upset about work than come home and start whaling on me. When we teach men they can’t express emotions, except for rage and anger, we harm them — and we harm everyone else around them.

Our culture, we’ve realized, needs to change how we conceptualize not just “men” and “women,” but masculinity and femininity. Is there really something wrong with enjoying make-up? Not at all. What about enjoying a “girly” hobby like knitting or crochet or — heaven forbid — reading?

My partner likes making cakes. It’s great! Should I tell him to stop because it’s girly? Because it’s not masculine enough?

This extends deeper, into other aspects of behavior. Men learn from other men – from men like Harvey Weinstein, in powerful positions – what’s okay and what’s not. When President Trump brags about grabbing women by the pussies, other men learn to think this is an acceptable way to behave.

It’s not, and I shouldn’t even need to tell you why.

Changing the Dialogue

Just by refusing to stay silent any longer, women are changing the dialogue about sexual harassment – and about femininity. Women are typically thought to be passive, docile, quiet, and demure.

Women in 2017 decided we were sick of being silent. We got loud. And we started toppling the powerful men who had been abusing people, harming people, for far too long. The movement outed men who were hurting people.

Don’t make any mistake about that. Oh, poor Harvey Weinstein and his career. No. Men don’t get to cry about “harm” when they’re hurting people. Physically, mentally, and emotionally.

It’s a card people trot out frequently in rape and sexual assault cases. Think about the poor man and how you’re harming his future! What about the woman who was just traumatized for the rest of her life? What about the people around her, who now need to help her cope with this as best she can?

Already Better

The new year has shown us a foundation determined to make the most of this opportunity, to capitalize on the fallout of the Weinstein outing. But there were other signs change was already underway in 2017. We had films about women in science, about their contributions to society. In Canada, we decided to put Viola Desmond on the $10 bill.

We saw new laws here in Canada, directly related to this information, designed to protect actors from Harvey Weinstein-esque behaviors and predation. Weinstein didn’t become another Jian Ghomeshi case.

Women pushed hard for gender equality in 2017. People of all genders joined in to push for recognition of everyone’s equal rights as a human being. It’s little wonder M-W picked “feminism” as their word of the year.

We still have a lot of work to do Maybe 2018 will be another year of feminism. We could make it happen.

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