If you’re someone whose social media feed inclines towards progressive politics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen someone making fun of Women Against Feminism. But if you haven’t bothered to visit that popular tumblr yourself, you may be in for a surprise. Because, while there are certainly posts of an explicitly conservative nature and plenty that seem ill-informed, others are harder to dismiss on principle.
In her take-down of Women Against Feminism for The Daily Beast, Emily Shire is barely willing to countenance the possibility that any contributors to the tumblr might know what they’re talking about. “Women Against Feminism is easy—too easy—to lambaste. Many of the reasons these women claim for not needing feminism are embarrassingly bad,” she writes. “It’s not the fact that there is criticism against feminism, but that the criticism is so inane, unintelligent, and useless.”
Predictably, Shire selects examples that make her argument sound understated: “I don’t need feminism because I love masculine men like Christian Grey :-P.” But consider this recently posted statement: “I used to think I was a feminist who still liked a man to pay the tab, hold the door and make ogle me whilst I make muffins in an apron and pearls. BUT it turns out I’m really a new old-school, lady-like woman’s woman who occasionally likes to fend off intruders, win at everything and change a tire on the car. Complicated, huh? That’s why labels are lame.”
Reading this, it’s difficult to tell whether this particular contributor is trying to subvert Women Against Feminism’s more strident voices or is merely trying to advance their ideological position more subtly. Either way, though, the emphasis on the problem with labels stands out. Regardless of their upbringing and their own evolving political beliefs, a great many millennials are wary of the classificatory systems that their elders are keen to impose on them.
It is difficult to say whether this is because of the increasing rigidity of elementary and secondary education in the wake of the backlash against post-1960s permissiveness; the fact that practically every form of social outreach available to young people demands an exercise in self-classification; or simply a reflection of a world in which it is easier than ever before to become aware of oneself as a demographic entity, the place where a complex network of Venn diagrams intersect. But there is no denying that skepticism about any type of stable collective identity is on the rise.
If we take a longer view, however, this seems less like a new phenomenon than the steepening slope of a decades-long trend. Think back to the early days of punk culture, which was animated not only by hostility towards the Establishment in a traditional sense but also the “hippies” of the previous generation who had fought against it. Specifically, those young people who identified as punk had little tolerance for the erasures and elisions that made solidarity in New Social Movements possible. They drew attention to the misfits who had been excluded, whether literally or conceptually, from identity politics and proudly declared themselves to be their heirs.
Admittedly, this emphasis resulted in expressions of solidarity. But to the extent that they were self-consciously opposed to the sort of political fusion that constitutes a bloc, it was an impermanent and unstable sort of togetherness in which contingency was prioritized. One thinks of what early punk shows were like, when everyone out on the floor seemed to be dancing to the beat of a different drummer. And, while aspects of the punk scene evolved in a more communitarian direction, that initial “questioning” spirit proved remarkably resilient, resurfacing in a wide variety of post-punk contexts.
That’s why the agit-prop of Pussy Riot does not represent the antithesis of Women Against Feminism, so much as its latent content. Looking without prejudice at the statements shared on the tumblr — which, it should be noted, are increasingly global in nature — it becomes apparent that, however misinformed contributors may be about the legacy of actually existing feminism, the wariness they exhibit towards collective identity comes from a place too heterogeneous and, yes, “complicated” to reduce to its more reactionary elements. When someone declares, “I don’t need feminism, I just need HUMAN rights”; or “I do not need a movement to speak for me”; or “Labels suck,” it’s a disservice to write that person off as brain-washed or deluded.
To be sure, in a world where the death of patriarchy has been greatly exaggerated, there are forces that will take advantage of statements like these to support misogynous agendas. Every time members of an historically oppressed group declare that they no longer want to play the victim, they run the risk of being victimized. But this doesn’t invalidate their words.
As Immanuel Kant famously wrote, enlightenment is only possible when you have the courage to speak for yourself. What good does it do the contributors to Women Against Feminism to presume that they are too ignorant to exercise their reason in the public sphere? In the end, progressives who are alarmed by the backlash against women — one with very real consequences, even in developed nations like the United States — would be better served by answering this critique earnestly, without condescension. As amusing as the parody tumblr Confused Cats Against Feminism may be, the creative energies being devoted to it would be better served making the case for identifying oneself as a feminist in a world where every form of self-identification seems fraught with danger.
Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. “Hope” photograph from Torino, Italy, courtesy of Joel Schalit. “Afraid” photograph posted anonymously to Women Against Feminism.