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Disentangling feminism from the fad of feminism

Two women sitting at a bus station.

Two women sitting at a bus station. Photo Credit: iStock

Last year was an immense year for feminism.

It appeared onstage with Beyonce, who helpfully let Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie define it for us in her song "Flawless." Taylor Swift said she wasn't one, then realized she was. (Taylor Swift also said many other remarkable things, such as "Have you heard of the Loneliest Whale?. . . It swims through the ocean, and it has a call unlike any other whale's. So it doesn't have anyone to swim with. And everybody feels so sorry for this whale - but what if this whale is having a great time?" but right now we are talking about feminism.)

"Bad Feminist" by Roxane Gay, hit the bestseller lists. We had Katniss and Princess Elsa and Lorde. Feminism was everywhere. Feminist comedy, feminist twitter, feminist activism. We took on issues like pay discrepancies, street harassment and sexual assault on campus. Suddenly, being a feminist was cool and mainstream and expected in ways it hadn't been previously. It got so big that Time magazine offered to "ban" the word, and of course the Feminist Internet was upset about that.

We couldn't possibly ban the word. The year proved we still needed it.

The Sony hack, among other things, let us see the gap that still exists in pay between women and men, even at high levels. Videos showed what it felt like to walk down the street every day as a woman, being aggressively and vigorously "complimented" on all sides. And the year was full of testimonies from women who hadn't been heard before - or, if heard, hadn't been believed. The personal became political, as Lucia Graves notes at the National Journal, in a big way. Personal stories - between the covers of books, or shared online or in the pages of newspapers and magazines - shaped the debate in a way that had not happened before. People, more than before, were willing to listen.

There's still a ways left to go, but it's exciting to see how vital and vigorous - and, increasingly, intersectional, feminism feels in 2014.

But sometimes I worry. That feminism is now so popular that it's become a fad. That it's just another box to check, for celebrities - whose understanding of the term we should not be relying on anyway - and that "Sure, I'm a feminist, but" is the new "I'm not a feminist, but." I'm glad it's "in," but whether or not feminism is "in" is beside the point - you wouldn't suddenly believe in gravity just because Demi Lovato said she did.

We also acquired a new, fun ritual of asking celebrities whether they were feminists, then yelling at the ones who said no, because generally these celebrities also said things like "I am not a feminist, because I like to cook for men" (spoiler alert: this does not mean you are ineligible to be a feminist). It's almost like saying, "I am not a feminist, because I don't think men should be captured and thrown into camps" (not sure where you're getting this idea) or "I am not a feminist because I don't think women are better than men" (also not what being a feminist means) or "I am not a feminist because I hate having hair under my arms and I prefer to recycle my bras, not burn them" (seriously, where is everyone getting this?) or "I am not a feminist because I am literally a fish on a bicycle" (what?) and it was fun to plow through these straw feminists and insist that they were only not feminists because they Didn't Understand.

It is still fun, but I wish this were less of a gotcha question and we would just let our celebrities come to feminism on their own terms. There are better reasons to be a feminist than that Beyonce is a feminist, or that Shailene Woodley isn't. Second-hand celebrity styles can be marvelous, but second-hand, gently-used celebrity opinions are always a little dangerous.

Plain and simple, feminism is a belief in the equality of the sexes, with everything else that implies. Women don't have to be strong female heroines toting around archery equipment, or scientists, or dystopic heroines, or even princesses. They can just be themselves, people, in all their wondrous variety.

You don't have to be a feminist. Don't be a feminist because it was cool in 2014. 2014 was terrible. Be a feminist because people are people. It's simple.


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