Connotations powerfully shape the way we use and choose our words. We are quick to describe ourselves in positive terms and distance ourselves from negative ones. It is easily better to be “decisive” than “bossy,” “spontaneous” rather than “unorganized.” However, sometimes words are not as clear-cut. When contradictory connotations are associated with a single word, we may find ourselves at odds with its usage.
While the word “feminist” is worn as a badge of pride by many, others treat it as a scarlet letter, dodging around the label with qualifiers and even straightforward objections. A pervasive discrepancy exists between those who believe in the denotation of feminism, the advocacy of women’s social, economic and political equality to men, and those who self-identify as feminists.
Comedian Aziz Ansari, of “Parks and Recreation” fame, jokes about this phenomenon.
“If you believe that men and women have equal rights, [and] if someone asks if you’re feminist, you have to say ‘yes’ because that is how words work,” he says, drawing a ludicrous analogy to a skin doctor who refuses to call himself a dermatologist.
Yet why is it that identifying as a feminist is so much more difficult than identifying as a dermatologist? Why is it that so many are tentative and fearful of the label, even when they align with the basic tenets of feminist ideology?
Although Ansari gives a much-needed calling-out of this perplexing gap of understanding, wearing the label of “feminist” is not completely comparable with making a nameplate that says “dermatologist.” One is a hotly debated adjective associated with a deeply Balkanized movement, while the other is a clear-cut professional role defined by a medical degree.
As with any large ideological movement, there will always be demagogues and zealots, and part of the taboo of the feminist label arises from the general public’s skewed perception of “radical” feminists, or those who seem hostile, accusatory or policing. Unfortunately, John and Jane Q. Public, who may not be in touch with activist or social justice issues, could spend a disproportionate amount of time noticing these voices rather than those of everyday, girl-next-door (or guy-next-door) feminists. Thus, they associate these negative impressions with the feminist label and distance themselves from it.
Part of the “radicalism” also has to do with the fact that the movement itself has become increasingly divisive, resulting in different ideas about how the principle behind feminism should manifest. Different labels, such as “womanists” or “humanists,” have come into use as previously identified “feminists” seek to differentiate themselves from certain strands of feminism.
Yet the differences mainly arise over the practice of principle, not the principle itself. By and large, at the basis of feminism still lies the concepts of equality and respect. If we can recognize that and hold the word true to its denotative definition, there is no reason to retreat from the feminist label.
In her paper, “The ‘F’ Word: How the Media Frame Feminism,” Debra Baker Beck of the University of Wyoming remarks that feminism has become “a national ‘dirty word’.” While her paper was written over a decade ago, it seems as if Beck’s words ring just as, if not more, true today.
A popular children’s novelist once wrote that “fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself,” and since J.K. Rowling is never wrong, perhaps it’s time for us to stop fearing the F-word-that-must-not-be-named and be proud to call out our beliefs for what they are.
Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.