My good friend and colleague Milo Yiannopoulos said in an interview about his views on GamerGate: “I’m anti-feminist, if by ‘feminist’ you mean shrieking misandrists.” He is not alone in his perception of feminism. Many people see feminists as hyperbolic mean-spirited angry people who think all flirtation is sexual harassment and all sex with men is rape. This common perception has prompted backlash movements, and lead to celebrity after celebrity separating herself from the term “feminist.”
To a progressive liberal like myself, the statement “I’m anti-feminist, if by ‘feminist’ you mean shrieking misandrists” sounds patently absurd. It’s the equivalent of saying: “I’m anti-Christian, if by ‘Christian’ you mean Ku Klux Klan member.” I simply don’t believe that most feminists, or even a significant number, fall into the “man-hating” category.
But I can understand why it seems that way to some people.
Take a look at “10 hours of walking in NYC as a woman“: a video that has recently gained a lot of attention on Youtube and across the media. It shows excerpts of a woman’s stroll through New York City, and highlights examples of strangers speaking to her on the street, complimenting her, telling her to have a nice day, asking for her phone number, sometimes even creepily following her for several blocks. The text on the final screen reads: “100+ instances of verbal street harassment took place within 10 hours, involving people of all backgrounds. This doesn’t include the countless winks, whistles, etc.”
Although it is well-intentioned, this video does serious damage to the cause of feminism. Why? Because it includes “how are you doing today?” and “What’s up beautiful?” as examples of harassment, with no explanation of why. It presents a truly creepy and stalkerish scene of a man following the woman for 5 minutes, and then sucks all of the power and impact out of that scene by mixing it in with a person saying “How you doing?” as if they are functionally the same. To most people this is patently absurd. As a result, most people viewing this video will come away from it with an even stronger belief that “feminism” means “stupid hyperbolic man-hating.”
Is it absurd to claim that “How you doing?” is harassment?
Maybe, maybe not. Once you get beyond the first glance, this is an incredibly nuanced issue. The key question is whether or not it makes the person being complimented feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Is it reasonable for a woman to feel unsafe when she is in broad daylight on a busy street just because someone says “Have a nice day?” In the abstract, probably not. But under certain circumstances, it might very well be. The question needs to be addressed in a broader scope, and with much more context. It is a conversation worth having.
But that is not what this video does. Even if it has the best of intentions (as I think it does), this video makes a terrible strategic error. By simply putting the idea out there, without qualification, that saying “Have a good day!” is an example of verbal harassment, the video automatically becomes face-value ridiculous to most casual viewers. And as a result, you get:
“I’m anti-feminist, if by ‘feminist’ you mean shrieking misandrists who believe that all flirtation is harassment.”
A friend of mine, a young man who is in college, once said to me that he is completely passive when it comes to dating, and simply hopes that women will approach him, because (in his words): “I’ve been told by my feminist allies that hitting on women in any way is misogynistic, and contributing to rape culture.” He, and others like him, might be coming into contact with radical feminists of the man-hating variety; but I think it is more likely that he is a victim of feminism’s messaging problem.
In an effort to point out that predatory masculinity is a real problem in our culture (which it is), too many memes, videos, posters, speeches and think-pieces that get published on the web jump right to listing out behaviors that are a problem without explaining why they are a problem.
When you explain why, you can open a dialogue. You can say: Sometimes, in certain contexts, a woman will feel unsafe when approached by a stranger even if it is simply to give a compliment. Then a discussion can follow. Why does she feel unsafe? What would make her feel safer? What can a man do differently to approach her in a way that doesn’t make her uncomfortable? And so on.
But simply telling men “DON’T EVER GIVE A WOMAN UNWANTED ATTENTION!” is like telling a chronic over-eater “JUST EAT LESS!” It may be good advice, in the abstract, but it will never work.
You have to explain how to do it. You have to help the person to understand why he is being asked to change his behavior, and what specific practical things he can do differently instead. Without that level of dialogue, “feminism” will never overcome its image of being all about “shrieking misandrists,” and will have a difficult time motivating productive change.
Of course, the responsibility doesn’t lie only with people who identify themselves as feminists. It would be nice if journalists and celebrities (and anyone, really) who identify themselves as anti-feminist would take the time to read up on the long and complex history of the feminist movement. They should actually know how diverse the term “feminist” has become over the years, and use that knowledge to inform the public discourse. There are many different types of feminist, after all, with many different approaches and views. More people who say they are “against feminism” should know that, and talk about it openly when they discuss the issue.
But self-identified feminists must also take responsibility for the failure of their messaging. It’s tough to have a nuanced and complex dialogue in a soundbyte Youtube universe, to be sure. But if the end result continues to be “10 hours of walking in NYC as a woman“, feminism will have a difficult time ever making progress.