On Monday, November 3, 2014, Salma Hayek told People magazine, “I am not a feminist. If men were going through the things women are going through today, I would be fighting for them with just as much passion. I believe in equality.” This was said on the red carpet of the Equality Now’s Make Equality Reality event in Beverly Hills, where she was being honored for being an advocate for global women’s rights through her work with the Chime for Change organization.
When I heard of Ms. Hayek’s denouncement, it was unsettling. According to the Chime for Change organization’s website, their mission is to “focus on using innovative approaches to raise funds and awareness for projects promoting education, health and justice for girls and women.” The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary definition for the term “feminism” is: 1) the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes and 2) organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests. Wouldn’t Ms. Hayek’s work then, according to the definition from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and the mission of the organization that she co-founded, essentially make her a feminist? So, what’s with the denouncement of the word?
Now, Ms. Hayek has a right to call herself whatever she chooses to. That, of course, none of us have the right to take away from her. Let’s try to remember that. But isn’t what she desires, what she works for and fights for, feminist work?
Perhaps, as a woman whom I consider to be spiritual and intellectual kin said, Ms. Hayek denounced the term because the term doesn’t include “both sides of humanity.” Who, in fact, declared that feminism was about equality at all? Maybe Ms. Hayek, doesn’t want to call herself a feminist merely because the word “feminist” brings to mind the angry, anti-male, bra-burning misconceptions of the word. I get why many female celebrities or public personalities denounce the word. To align yourself with the word is to isolate yourself from the public view, or rather, the dominant view. As a public personality, the constant risk behind every action or sound byte is losing the sight or interest of the public, is it not? So why would they claim something that may change public perception of them in a negative way, even if they are doing the work the ideology has set forth as its very mission? What a warped conundrum they face to maintain a positive public image by denying their own work, merely because of the misconceived connotations of the word. Poor them.
Now, let’s be clear…feminism is not just a word or its connotations. Feminism is an ideology and much like any other ideology is subject to evolution, something that most feminists are completely aware of. Taking this into account, why do others so often feel the need to put the feminist ideology into a box, to give it one flat concept to define itself, and a misconceived concept at that? Ms. Hayek’s response is just sheer fact of her miseducation of what feminism is. But these misconceptions are also an attempt to rob feminism of its purpose, an attempt to devalue its true mission. Simply put, it is just another patriarchal response to it.
I am fascinated with how pervasive patriarchal responses to the feminist ideology are and it’s something I consistently analyze in my writing. Ms. Hayek’s denouncement is merely a perpetuation of these misconceptions of what feminism is, perpetuating ideas of it being a females only club, an exclusionary ideology, when in fact it is not. When we say that “feminism” does not include “both sides of humanity,” that misinterpretation is revealed in the very language we use to discuss it. Feminism does indeed include both sides and it is people like Ms. Hayek, who have the position and the professional resume to change these ideas on feminism but yet fail to do so, that perpetuate the idea of feminism being exclusionary and furthermore, through their denouncement, perpetuate the acceptance of these misconceptions.
In an attempt to still acknowledge the work they do or the beliefs they have, many female celebrities and personalities have declared themselves to be “humanists” instead of “feminists.” Humanism’s first steps evolved before the term “feminism” was ever coined and it is an ideology based on the emphasis of the value and agency of human beings. The real difference between humanism and feminism, is that while humanism presents a broader spectrum in its work towards human equality, feminism acknowledges that without the active recognition of women’s empowerment and equality, the common goal may never be attained. Feminism is humanist work with a focus on women’s empowerment and equality.
Consider the birth of the humanist ideology in the same way we have come to consider the words “All men are created equal,” in the Declaration of Independence, and that is very loosely. In its creation, humanism certainly did not emphasize the value and agency of either people of color, the poor, or women. Your human value and agency were important only if you were considered human at all. Similarly, feminism, in its creation, was also exclusionary in both class and racial aspects, and in its evolution, has garnered the work of famed feminists bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua, among others, who all wrote and worked with feminism from the perspective that it initially disregarded. In understanding that both concepts evolved from very exclusionary foundations, why is feminism still regarded as such while humanism is considered the more evolved ideology of the two and so completely embraced?
Is it a matter of semantics after all? The prefix of “human-” in the word “humanism” is much less daunting for the dominant view, whereas the scary “fem-” in “feminism” to so many just connotes hairy vaginas, smoldering bras, no penises allowed, and all the other misconceived imagery of feminism. Can people really be so scared of the prefix in the word that they disregard the ideology’s very purpose? Can women in a particular position, be it a celebrity,a politician,a businesswoman, or a religious leader be so scared of how they are perceived if they use the dreaded “fem-” prefix that they denounce the very work they are doing? If we look at Salma Hayek’s response to People magazine (among other spotlighted females who have denounced the word), then the answer is a resounding yes…. the fear is strong….and rampant….and it’s sticking.
The problem with this fear is that the fear itself is the exclusionary factor, albeit one that is directed TO feminism, and not from. To clarify, the fear is a patriarchal creation designed to discredit and devalue feminist work. And what this fear does is blind people, both women AND men, to the change that feminism desires to attain.
The either/or conundrum for female celebrities is possibly the most unsettling part of this complex patriarchal response. If humanism is the umbrella and feminism is merely a subset of humanism with a focus on female empowerment and equality, why should any woman have to choose either/or? Why not go about it with an and/or perspective? Why not say, I am both humanist and feminist? Or feminist by way of humanism? Why is there such a loaded choice to make?
The either/or is merely painting women into a corner, in this specific case, women in the public sphere, and telling them…you’re either with us or you’re against us, the “us” being the dominant view. Not to mention, that it also tells men who may do the same kind of work, who may work their entire lives for women’s rights and the equality of the sexes, that by identifying as a male feminist that they also negate their maleness and in a patriarchal society, maleness is sacrosanct. This demonization of feminism, this either/or ultimatum given doesn’t only affect women here. What it is, is another tactic to divide and conquer, to negate feminist work, to remind people that anything from a woman’s perspective, let alone an ideology, is not worthy of acknowledging and for one to do so would be detrimental to their perceived womanhood/manhood. The patriarchal responses to the word run real deep, don’t they?
Again, I am not admonishing Ms. Hayek for choosing not to consider herself a feminist. On the contrary, her personal choice to do so is of great importance and should be respected. What I am saying is that she and whoever else denounces the term, really look at what they are denouncing, understand what their denouncement does, and how they, through their denouncement, are essentially part of the problem.
I know I wouldn’t say no if asked. In fact, I refer to myself often as a feminist, a Latina feminist, a Black feminist, a womanist, a humanist, and thanks to Roxane Gay, I have recently called myself a “Bad Feminist.” I wouldn’t denounce the term because in doing so, I would be denouncing the work that I do. To say that I am not, to say that I am something else but not that, would be to deny the very core of what I believe and would only be conforming to the exclusionary practices of the patriarchal hegemony which feminism wishes to break down for us all. The kind of feminism I align my thinking with acknowledges its flawed past, its flawed evolution, and always acknowledges its mission for the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes through the recognition of the empowerment of women. Period. By saying I am not a feminist, would only be continuing the deep silences that feminism essentially wants to dismantle.
I am a feminist and I am so much more than that.
But if I were asked, my response would always be, “Fuck yeah, I’m a feminist!”
Can you dig it?