I’m not sure if it came from Naomi Wolf’s critique of "victim feminism" or if it’s simply another painful part of the backlash, designed as an attempt to further weaken and silence women’s voices and experiences, but somewhere in there we’ve managed to develop an understanding that to be feminist means you must be flawless.
I imagine most of us have encountered people who’ve tried to take away your feminist card because they decided that your thoughts or behaviours or actions didn’t fit with their understanding of what a feminist should be like in real life. And I’m not talking about actions that perpetuate patriarchal oppression or misogynist behaviour -- I suppose you could (at least temporarily) lose your feminist card for that -- I’m talking about the idea that somehow feminists are or should be able to avoid the regular old life crap that everyone else has to deal with. That we don’t make mistakes or bad choices or end up in less-than-feminist relationships. That we don’t experience the same feelings of heartache or sadness or pain or depression that everyone else does. Because we are supposedly "strong women", displaying or admitting that we are weak or vulnerable at times is often used against us.
The Is This Feminist tumblr gets at this concept in a particular kind of way, mocking the idea that every single move a feminist makes must be judged as either a feminist or an insufficiently feminist action, including laundry and drinking alone. But what I’m talking about goes beyond all that, is much more painful and is far more difficult to overcome.
I’m a feminist, yes. But I’m not perfect. I still make mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes. I still feel hurt and angry and sad. I still fall in love, I still feel heartbroken and I am still vulnerable. I am a feminist and I’ve still been victimized, I’ve been lied to, betrayed, threatened and abused. I’ve been cheated on, I’ve been called a cunt, a whore, a slut and a bitch. And even though I’m a feminist these things still hurt. No matter how feminist you are, you are not impermeable. I make bad choices sometimes, I say things I don’t mean and sometimes I act like an asshole. I’m not perfect. And yet still -- I still get to be a feminist.
Recently a woman I hardly know felt it necessary to shame me for having feelings that differentiate me from a coffee table or a sociopath. I went through a painful breakup this year. It was very complicated and very horrible. I know I’m not the only person on earth to have experienced this and I know I’m not the only person on the planet who felt unsure about how to cope or who fell into a long depression as a result. I’m not the only person who has felt heartbreak and not been able to quickly move on, place everything tidily away in the past and come out unscathed. It has been a difficult year and I’m not ashamed to admit that. But somehow, this person felt that this experience, these feelings and the difficulties I’ve had coping were particularly shameful because I "pretended" to be a feminist.
It wasn’t just that I had been hurt that was so pathetic and wrong, but it was because I purported to be a feminist that made this pain particularly shameful. As a feminist, I was supposed to be "strong," "independent" and know everything. Weakness, love, sadness, heartbreak and, yes, even a little instability and irrationality were not, according to this woman, things that feminists were allowed to feel. If we did fail so badly at being appropriately "strong" and unfeeling feminists, if we admit to not knowing all the answers and perhaps flailing a little bit in the process, there is something wrong with us, we should be ashamed, and we are clearly not truly feminists.
Feminists know all the answers. Feminists are always strong. Feminists don’t flail.
I’ve heard this kind of thing before -- from men and women in my past who felt that there was something terribly wrong with me that, as a feminist, I could end up in an abusive relationship. That it was either unbelievable or that it was a failing on my part -- that I was living a charade. These people acted as though I’d been caught in a lie: “Aha! You aren’t a feminist after all! You have a flaw. You allowed yourself to be abused. Give back your feminist card!”
There was a great post over at Feministe this past week about when feminists face abuse and the extra helping of shame and embarrassment that comes along with that experience. The author, Lila, writes:
“How could a self-proclaimed feminist come to this point? This is what abused feminists hear every time they speak out, and this is what they learn to ask themselves. The same women who march at SlutWalks become dedicated victim-blamers. They learn not to talk about it because admitting to it challenges their feminism.”
In other words, this kind of imposed shame is a silencing technique. And women do it to other women all the time. As feminists we aren’t supposed to admit that we make bad choices sometimes, that we fall for abusers sometimes, that we’ve been manipulated, or lied to, or fucked over or hurt. We are supposed to somehow be above all that. We are psychics and we are gods. We don’t get to be real, sometimes fucked up, sometimes shitty, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes confused, human beings.
Lila asks herself the same questions I’ve asked myself:
“How did you come to this point? You, the self-proclaimed feminist? The one who always talks about independence, and red flags, and women’s rights? The one people turn to advice to? The one no one would ever believe this could happen to?”
We all have the inner voices that participate (enthusiastically at that!) in this attacking and shaming and victim-blaming. We already have to fight, as women and as feminists, to stop blaming ourselves and hating ourselves for being victims, for being vulnerable, for being imperfect, for ending up in situations that don’t feel particularly feminist. We don’t need other women to do the shaming for us. I don’t need to hear from anyone what they think I should be feeling and why it is particularly pathetic that, as a feminist, I would somehow fall in love with the wrong person. I’m already right there with you.
Being a feminist doesn’t mean that I am always strong, always independent, that I always make the right choices or that I know everything. I can pretty much guarantee that I will continue to make mistakes for the rest of my life. I hope to learn from those mistakes and not make the same ones again, but I can’t even guarantee that much. If being a feminist means that I can’t feel pain, or that I can’t be hurt, that I can’t feel angry and out of control and depressed and heartbroken, then I will never be able to call myself a feminist. I am a feminist, but I am also a human being. And I wish that women would stop shaming each other for that.
If feminism is going to be a movement that any woman feels comfortable aligning herself with, we’re going to have to give each other a break and start admitting that we are flawed. Every single one of us. We need to stop telling other women that, as feminists, we can never be hurt, never make mistakes, never be vulnerable and never be weak. I’m not always strong. I’m not even strong half of the time. And I’m certainly not perfect.
Feminists aren’t perfect. We are people.