This month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking Feminine Mystique. This week, in commemoration, the hashtag “SayThankYouToAFeminist” started trending on Twitter. Users earnestly thanked people—their mothers, their sisters, their favorite Nation writers. Then came the backlash: Some invoked the failings of feminism; others made stupid jokes, like thanking “feminists” for a sandwich. Then came the back-backlash: “Don’t you see that your idiotic jokes are making our point?”—which doesn’t make sense, really, but you get the idea.
I can’t imagine what Betty Friedan would make of all this, in part because I studiously avoided her. If she appeared on TV, I turned it off. I refused to buy her books. I ignored her articles, especially if they were accompanied by an author photo. Here’s why: Friedan looked remarkably like my paternal grandmother, Yetta, a terminally bitter sourpuss who obsessively rubbed her squat fingers on her patent-pleather purses, making a noise that drove me insane. She was also humorless and demanding. No matter how my grandfather scurried when she bleated his name, nothing was ever done to her satisfaction. Poor Betty Friedan got lumped in with Yetta. How unfair.
And yet the parallels continue. My late grandmother’s unpleasant persona has been inherited by a descendant of Betty Friedan: the fantastical, mythical creature today’s America calls The Feminist. Now, technically speaking, the word “feminist” simply means one who practices “feminism,” which is “a theory of equality between men and women.” But words get encrusted with those barnacles of associations and expanded frames of reference and we lose track. Now when I hear the word “binder,” I get a picture in my head of Mitt Romney perusing resumes, which is definitely not part of the dictionary definition. And after 30 Rock, I can’t read the word “lemon” without hearing Alec Baldwin say it. I’m not sure which political campaigns or TV shows encrusted the word “feminist,” but however it happened, we sure do find ourselves in a mess, friends.
Today’s “feminist”—The Feminist—is a dour woman who is unrelenting about women’s rights; an unattractive activist without quality underwear, often a lesbian; a crabby, frowning shrew who disapproves of lip gloss and eschews the razor blade.
At urbandictionary.com, where regular ol’ people submit definitions, “feminist” is defined by what it isn’t:
A feminist is not a man-hater
Feminists ARE NOT Nazis, or women who can’t get laid
a feminist is not a bra burning, man hating psycho
True feminists are NOT all a bunch of man-bashing, hairy women
Do a Google image search for “feminist,” and you’ll find this image on the first page of results. It’s from a 2003 issue of Maxim:
There are also plenty of photos of people wearing t-shirts that say, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” a lovely but completely pointless effort at linguistic reclamation. It’s just too late. At this point, if I were filling out a dating profile on a website, I would not call myself a feminist—and I led anti-pornography workshops at Oberlin College, for god’s sake.
So we have to get rid of the word, particularly because what “feminists” espouse is such low-hanging fruit, it’s not even worthy of its own term. If someone says, “I think men and women should be treated equally,” the only appropriate response is to look at them as if they’ve just said, “We breathe air in and out.” Okay then.
If I were going to SayThankYouToAFeminist on Twitter, I’d choose someone who has a lot of the stereotypical features of The Feminist: unshaven armpits, no makeup, an overly serious mien. His name is Barack Obama and he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and legislation that will make health-care costs equal for men and women. But I wouldn’t call him a “feminist.” I’d just call him a sensible human being. So what if he’s a man? It’s time to get away from gendered political movements anyway. Binary gender is so 20th century.
So let’s scrap “feminist”—it’s no longer a useful construct. If I had ever been able to confront the reality of Betty Friedan’s existence, I might be able to guess her feelings on the matter. As it stands, though, I only have Yetta Spikol to go by. New hashtag: SayThankYouToYetta. Trending soon.