A reflection on my own experience with feminism, with a healthy dose of sci-fi
As I write this, I’ve just returned from a screening of the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it (actually, I think everyone in the country should watch it); it made me laugh, it made me cry, but most of all, it made me question how I conduct my life. It’s the kind of film that takes such a clear-eyed perspective on the world that you can’t help but come to all sorts of revelations.
For many years, I’ve identified as a feminist. Do I think women and men are equal? Yes. Therefore, I am a feminist. Yes, it’s really that simple. I’ll be completely honest, though: sometimes, being a feminist is exhausting. It’s hard to stand against the societal structures that systematically oppress women, mainly because those structures are incredibly insidious. They’re so engrained in the fabric of our culture that sometimes, you don’t even see them. Not even a 22-year-old well-educated self-proclaimed feminist does.
As the aforementioned documentary discusses in 90 brilliantly crafted minutes, you need look no further than the media to catch a glimpse—a skin-exposed, perfectly airbrushed glimpse—of how American society tacitly accepts female inferiority. God, just look at advertising. Alcohol ads, perfume ads, jewelry ads, even cleaning ads (for fuck’s sake, the 50s were SIXTY YEARS AGO, we do not have to look sexy when or if we clean): everywhere we look, sex sells. But beyond that, it’s what we don’t see that hurts us the most. We don’t see women in strong film roles. We don’t see intelligent, ambitious women receiving praise for their accomplishments. We don’t see some of the strongest real women in America gain recognition for their strength. One of the strongest quotes in the film: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Think about it.
Until tonight, I thought myself pretty well aware of the media’s reduction of women to ultra-sexualized man-craving lustful creatures. I considered myself a critical consumer of media; hell, I can barely even stand to watch television, it’s so infuriating. I’m a reader of Virginia Woolf; I’m one of relatively few women Economics majors at my university; I love Hillary and Wendy and smashing the patriarchy. But tonight, I realized that—in spite of all that—I’ve fallen into the same trap as so many other women. I see myself as inferior.
I’m actually going to digress with one example of how clearly I’ve begun to understand my application of feminism to daily life, using one of my favorite shows. It’s going to hurt, because I love this show and it has so much to offer. But if I’m being honest, the last season of Doctor Who has left me uneasy—which is unsettling, because it’s an incredible show with so many other fabulously progressive aspects (hello, River Song). Anyway, the most disturbing thing about the most recent season is the way in which Clara, the Doctor’s companion, is defined against the men in her life. She is no longer quite the same motivated, driven, slightly rebellious, incredibly empowered woman that she had been with Matt Smith. But with the introduction of Peter Capaldi as a new Doctor and the appearance of a romantic interest, Clara became all about the men; look no further than the finale for that. And that change had some really powerful messages about love and so on, but it got a bit…tired, after awhile. And a bit too familiar. Because Clara began to focus her life on a man instead of on herself—something with which, I think, many women struggle. I know I do.
One of the beauties about storytelling is that you can put yourself in another’s life for a short time. Tonight’s biggest revelation about this show: I cannot see myself as the Doctor. I can only see myself as Clara, or Rose, or Donna, or Martha. I can only see myself as the perennial helper, always trying to save the world but unable to do so without the help of someone more “powerful.” Problematically, this is painfully accurate in how I live my life. I like to do leader-ish things, but I’m always desperate for approval, for guidance, for acknowledgement that yes, I’m doing the right thing, keep up the good work. I think I’m uncomfortable leading because I have subconsciously internalized the message that women can’t lead. Men are powerful. Women take supporting roles. Men get the credit.
How is this acceptable? When I realized that even I buy into it, I was kind of shocked at myself. I’m an intelligent woman who can certainly surpass many of her male peers in matters of intellect; why do I lower my eyes and defer to them when we’re at odds? I’m ambitious, talented, and sensible, so why do I apologize in almost every single one of my interactions with men, as if I’ve overstepped my bounds by coming toe-to-toe with them? The women of America have been burdened with an inferiority complex that the media has perpetuated for decades. It’s high time that ended. Change will be slow, but as we use our voices—as voters and as consumers—we will assert that it is unacceptable to hold women back. It’s unacceptable for women to hold themselves back. We should be able to hop into the TARDIS and wheel through time and space to save the universe, just like the Doctor. Fight the good fight, ladies—and gents—and stand against the discourse that perpetuates gender inequality. It will improve lives all around. We should all be feminists. Feminists, like bow-ties, are cool.
Miss Representation is on Netflix. You should watch it. Also, look up The Representation Project, the group behind the documentary, because gender equality isn’t just about women. It’s an issue for all of us at any locus on the gender spectrum.