Feminism 101: "Feminists Look for Stuff to Get Mad About"

[This is a new series in which I'll be addressing misconceptions or answering questions about feminism and/or feminists. There are certainly old posts that would naturally fall into a Feminism 101 series, like Rape is Not a Compliment, Animal House, or On "Bitch" and Other Misogynist Language, but, increasingly, it's apparent we need a collection of posts on critical theories and prejudices, to which we can point here and elsewhere to succintly deal with recurring themes, so here we go. If you have a topic you'd like to see covered in this series, email me.

Note that I won't tread on Jeff's territory in defining key terms with his "Explainer" series: MRAs, Gender Feminists and Equity Feminists, and Nice GuysTM. If you need something defined, email him.]

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"Feminists Look for Stuff to Get Mad About"

Of all the condescending, dismissive, and factually incorrect accusations used by concern trolls (or hostile trolls) to attempt to silence, shame, or in some other way discourage feminists from addressing sexism in all its manifestations, perhaps none is quite so stupid as the charge that feminists are "looking" for things about which to be offended—as if feminism is a product that will go out of production if there aren't enough buyers and sales are waning because sexism is, like, so over, dude.

This notion is ridiculous for a couple of reasons. For a start, misogyny is so pervasive that no one has to look for it. That said reality is even remotely in doubt is laughable, given that any YouTube comments section on any video featuring a woman will be rife with misogynist swill.

I use YouTube as an example very deliberately, because I want to point out, before moving on, how feminist allies can inadvertently bolster the case of silencers who charge that feminists look for things about which to be offended. Each time I mention YouTube threads, commenters inevitably say either "YouTube commenters are the lowest common denominator" and/or "Just don't read those threads." I'm not sure everyone who says those things has really considered the implications, so let's deal with that first.

The assertion that YouTube threads aren't a legitimate source because they're ostensibly populated by juvenile delinquents or society's dregs isn't actually a sound argument. The same stuff—if more accurately spelled and with fewer Random Capitalizations—can be found in the comments threads of most major progressive political blogs, especially in response to posts about conservative women. (You want to know if there's misogyny among progressive blog readers? Post something about Ann Coulter.) Thanks to blogospheric demographics surveys, we know the average blog user is older, better educated, and wealthier than the average person in the general populace; this is not an issue of maturity or intelligence or class. Treating sexism as though it is indigenous to any singular demographic, or unique combination of traits—or, the flipside of that equation, regarding any demographic as wholly devoid of entrenched misogyny—is both foolhardy and inaccurate. And, more to the point, irrelevant: There are millions of YouTube users and an alarmingly high rate of misogynistic comments. The quality of who is making those comments isn't of much interest to women who must nonetheless suffer their undeniable quantity. Which brings us to…

Telling women that they should merely abstain from reading and/or participating in YouTube threads—or other places online and offline plagued by unfettered misogyny—is akin to telling women their choices are to tolerate sexual harassment in order to participate in it, or segregate themselves and necessarily limit their opportunities in the public sphere. In addition to unfairly punishing women, that's also a tacit endorsement of openly expressed misogyny. No matter how authentic the genuine feelings of concern that may motivate such a recommendation, when someone advises a woman to disengage herself from a public space in which misogyny is rampant, one also necessarily, if unintentionally, communicates the message that her contributions to that space are not valuable enough to fight to protect. By slow increments, every unmonitored space thusly becomes uninhabitable by any woman not willing to suffer—and indulge—misogynist bullies.

[Note: I recognize this experience can be true for GBTQ men, men of color, disabled men, etc., too, depending on the forum.]

So, back to the ubiquity of misogyny. If the nearest comments thread calling Ann Coulter a tranny or Hillary Clinton a "hoe" doesn't convince you, perhaps a 7-part series on the media's insistence on trivializing women's lives by categorizing as "Odd News" stories about women that aren't "odd" in any way aside from the fact that there's a women at their centers will, or a 12-part series on the impossible beauty standards to which women are held will, or a 15-part series on consumable disembodied female bodies will, or a 19-part series on rape jokes will, or a 20-part series on objectionable advertising, most of which focuses on sexism, will, or a 62-part series (make that 63) on sexism being used against Hillary will—to any one of which I could add a new entry every single day, had I the time, energy, and inclination.

The truth is, if I actually spent my days actively paying attention to every example of misogyny around me, I would be a profoundly unhappy woman. Not bitchy or grumpy or short-tempered, but paralyzingly depressed. Women have to train themselves to avoid consciously reacting to every bit of misogynistic detritus permeating the culture through which we all move, lest they go quite insane. I write about the things I can't not write about. If I wrote about all the examples of sexism I see every day, I'd never sleep.

Tangentially, the idea that addressing "the little things," like being told to smile or misogynistic t-shirts, somehow demeans feminism or distracts from "real" or "serious" sexism is utterly, completely, devilishly wrong.

Feminism seeks to address all manner of issues, big and small. That women can (and do) utilize the tenets of feminism in every aspect of their lives does not undermine the history of the feminist movement, but instead does it a great honor. Feminism was never meant to be restricted to suffrage and equal pay, held in reserve like a finite quantity that could run out if it's used for "the little things." Feminism is a renewable resource.

The idea that feminism should be kept under glass, broken only in case of a "real" and "serious" emergency, is predicated on the erroneous assumption that "the little things" happen in a void, as do, presumably, the "real" and "serious" things, when, in reality, they are interwoven strands of the same rope. And as soon as one begins to judge the worthiness of feminists' attention on a sliding scale, even generally-regarded "serious issues" like equal pay are dwarfed by global concerns like sex trafficking or government-sanctioned use of rape as a tool of war. It doesn't have to be one or the other—feminists can multi-task.

And, in a very real way, ignoring "the little things" in favor of "the big stuff" makes the big stuff that much harder to eradicate, because it is the pervasive, ubiquitous, inescapable little things that create the foundation of a sexist culture on which the big stuff is dependent for its survival. It's the little things, the constant drumbeat of inequality and objectification, that inure us to increasingly horrible acts and attitudes toward women.

Irrespective of intent, the recommendation to "ignore the little stuff," so often intertwined with accusations of looking for things about which to get offended, is not just ill-advised, but counter to the ultimate goal of full equality. It's like a knife in my gut when I see feminists accusing other feminists of "hurting the cause" by focusing on "the little stuff," because that's Itthat's the stuff, that's the fertile soil in which everything else takes root and from whence everything else springs, that's the way that the fundamental idea that women are not equal to men is conveyed over and over and over again.

Which, quite frankly, means that if even we had to look for it, we'd be right to do so.

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