I think there’s a fundamental conversation that we tend to skip over when we talk to someone—anyone—about feminism, and I think the lack of that conversation causes untold problems in the way we talk about these vital issues.
The very first question we should ask when talking to someone about feminism is: Do you believe that men and women are equal in society now?
It’s true that women in America are at the peak of social, economic, intellectual, and personal freedom that history has ever shown us (I am quite far from a history expert, especially worldwide, so feel free to correct me, but this is at least common knowledge). And it’s true that even in a society of complete equality, tragedies and violence and insults and differing levels of success will never go away.
But I think a lot of people believe that we are in that society of complete equality right now—or pretty darn close to it.
The point of this post isn’t really to talk about whether or not we’re equal (I think my own opinion on the matter should be fairly clear from the fact that this post exists at all). My point is that when you open a dialogue with someone who believes things are, more or less, fine—you will never get anywhere with them. At least not until you can get them to acknowledge that a fundamental inequality exists in society.
First, the viewpoint that we’re equal now means all complaints of “feminism” are exaggerations. Cue eye rolls and dramatic groans. Yet another hysterical “crazy” female, probably on her period, ragging on men. Cue the “not all men.”
It sounds like I’m making fun of people who think like this, and I’m not. There are intelligent reasons to believe that we are an equal society, and that posting dramatic articles about how a song lyric or an ad campaign or a movie role signals abuse of women is just tilting at windmills.
And I truly believe the first step in a solution is A) respect your opponents (I wish those spewing vile hate speech would learn this, I suppose on both sides though it certainly seems nastier from one particular side, or portion of one side) and B) distance this discussion from the individual.
When someone makes a rape joke, the anger and frustration that pours out is not necessarily (and not entirely) directed at that individual someone. It may not even be at the joke itself. There is a place in humor for shock, for grotesquerie, for extremity; there is a place in humor for darkness. Just as there is a reasonable place in entertainment (video games, TV shows) to confront issues of violence and horror—making a game with a rape sequence is no more advocating for rape than a movie about a serial killer is advocating for murder.
The problem is that all of these things exist in the context of a world that is NOT EQUAL (as well as the sheer amount of this sort of material, and the occasional cavalier tone in which it’s handled, but those are separate—though related—issues).
If you truly believe that this world is already equal—and more importantly (but often less acknowledged) are invested in the idea that this world is equal—then there’s little I can say to convince you. Anything I will say is probably made up, an exaggeration, just because it happened to one person doesn’t mean it happens to everyone, making a big deal out of it only makes it worse, something men deal with too, is just for attention…
But even given all the strides we’ve made, we still live in a world where men make more money; where men hold a majority of political positions; where almost all directors are men, and most movies are made about men (and the movies about women are ‘just for women’). Where women are sluts for saying yes, and prudes for saying no; where women are killed for not wanting to have sex with men, and blamed for not giving them a chance; where women who don’t fit the standards of beauty are practically invisible in mainstream media, and if they are visible, that’s what they’re known for or asked about; where being “girly” is an insult, and being “manly” is praise.
Where the worst thing a man can be is feminine (most insults directed at men, especially the ones they react most strongly to, imply that they sleep with men and are thus feminine).
This is where part B of the above is important: this is not an individual man’s fault. Any man, even one saying heinous things—he is responsible for the harm he causes with his words and actions, and he is perpetuating the situation above, but he is also a “victim” of that same system. He is regurgitating what the system has taught him. And yes, every individual man (and woman) can stop the cycle by monitoring his own actions, but no individual can fix it alone—so it’s not fair to blame any individual for it either.
So how can we fix this? The first thing we have to do is acknowledge it—and that’s what I’m talking about here. A singer who puts out a song about dubious consent might quickly say it’s a joke, or just an artistic expression, and on the individual level he may be right—and in an equal world, individual insults and crimes would be either A) unfortunate facts of imperfect humanity or B) just a joke.
But in an unequal world, no joke is just a joke. When we can acknowledge it’s an unequal world, we can start to examine our own actions and try to put out more positive material into the world. Once it is an equal world, making unfortunate jokes or implications in our entertainment would be just an isolated incident that doesn’t perpetuate harmful ideals in society.
And here’s the kicker—when society’s equal, that joke might not be funny anymore. And trust me, that’s a good thing. (Because it’s not really that funny now.)