On the ‘F’ bomb: Feminism’s “branding problem”

A few days ago, a bunch of men got on Fox News and said stupid stuff about women, which hardly seems worth talking about. However, in case you missed it, here’s my favorite delicious morsel of misogyny from RedState blogger Erick Erickson: “When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and female in society, and the other animals, the male typically is the dominant role.” Ah yes, make me a sandwich woman, because monkeys.

What I think is worth some more reflection, however, is this, Megyn Kelly’s response to her colleagues’ patriarchal views. Kelly launched into a tirade that would make feminists proud (or at least it made them cringe a little less, well some at least), including this bombshell of a question posed to Erick Erickson: “What makes you dominant and me submissive and who died and makes you scientist-in-chief?”

In the midst of her verbal beat-down of Erickson and Lou Dobbs, Kelly suddenly unleashes this seemingly innocuous sentence: “I don’t describe myself as a feminist”. Many feminists are probably OK with that. However, this is indicative of a larger problem in the fight for gender equality. A recent Huffington Post / YouGov poll found that 20% of people in the US identify as “feminists”. Only 23% of women and a mere 16% of men are willing to claim the label “feminist”. This isn’t a recent problem either, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner wrote a book (The F Word: Feminism in Jeopardy – Women, Politics, and the Future) on the subject detailing how the label has been abandoned by young women.

Interestingly, the same poll asked people if they believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals?” 82% of respondents said “yes”.

To recap then, 82% of people agree with the central tenet of feminism; 20% are willing to call themselves “feminists”. Emily Swanson at the Huffington Post described this gap as feminism’s “branding problem”.

So why don’t people call themselves feminists? One oft-cited reason is “feminism” has “fem” meaning woman in it. People have interpreted this to mean that feminism is a movement only concerned with what benefits women (perhaps even at the expense of men). Men therefore aren’t interested for obvious reasons, and women reject the label since afterall they’re interested in equality not in mindless self-benefit.

How did we convince ourselves that feminism means women > men as opposed to women = men, despite the objections of feminists?

Ostensibly, one major reason we have rejected the label is out of simple extrapolation of the word’s meaning based on morphology (that is we looked at the parts that compose the word and figured out its meaning). The major parts here are “femin-” (referring to womanhood) and “-ism”. Our interpretation of the word seems fairly reasonable when we examine other words with this -ism in it.










Such words suggest adherence to or privileging of a particular world view. Collectivism refers to a theory or set of principles that emphasize the needs of the group. Consumerism refers to a similar set of principles that emphasize consumer values like materialism (another -ism). Marxism is a set of principles derived from the work of Marx. Racism is a doctrine that seeks to explain the world by focusing on the social construct of race (for example, racists often claim we can explain criminal behavior by focusing on people’s race).

Noting this tendency in the meaning of words with “-ism”, critics of feminism reason that if the movement is interested in equality for everyone, it should not be called “feminism” because that suggests a focus exclusively or mostly on women. Instead, critics suggest words like “humanism”. These critics often go on to say that other successful movements like the civil rights movement of the 1960s led by figures like Martin Luther King Jr did not espouse group-specific philosophies like “blackism”.

There are a few problems with these arguments, however. First, words come to take on meaning more through processes of cultural association than through some kind of semantic algebra. Feminism has already produced a great deal of discourse; it is already a philosophy with strong cultural associations (although admittedly these are widely quite negative, but more on that in a moment). There are then practical issues with taking up a new label in that new cultural associations have to be forged and there’s no guarantee that these would be positive or that they would reflect what feminists intend their message to be (in fact, I think there’s every reason to suspect that they wouldn’t be and that a new label would suffer from the same stigma as the current one).

The next problem is that suggested words like humanism already have cultural meanings associated with them. In particular, the word “humanism” already has a very long and complex history of meaning. Many of the philosophies associated with the word contrast with various theisms and religions. To take on this word then, feminism would also have to adopt its discursive baggage.

We might think that re-branding feminism under a new term that would not have the same stigma that the word feminism has attracted (whatever that term might be) is worth all of the potential struggles that advocates would face. After all, companies frequently put resources toward “rebranding”. However, this reasoning confuses the source of the stigma and fails to recognize the extent to which this stigma is not unique to feminism but rather is both (a)  something that all social movements that seek to better the position of marginalized groups face as well as (b) an extension of stereotypes already used against women.

As I mentioned before critics often point out that Martin Luther King Jr. did not espouse “blackism”; he was a leader in the “civil rights movement”. True as this may be, this is a selective interpretation of King’s message. Featured prominently in King’s speeches were the disadvantages that faced “the Negro community” (the word “Negro” is now not commonly used but King used this phrase, for example in this speech), and it is quite clear that he was frequently advocating for rights denied to African Americans at the time by a society dominated by White Americans. He also worked beside organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) an organization that specifically advocates for the continued social, economic, and political empowerment of African Americans.

Both King and the NAACP did so (and still do so, in the case of the NAACP) not for the sake of giving unequal share of power to African Americans but rather as a means of correcting already existing disparities for African Americans. The same is true of other initiatives such as “Black History Month”. However, such attempts to correct historic inequities are frequently the target of criticisms such as those leveled at feminism, namely that they ignore the interests of other groups, particularly dominant groups. In the case of African Americans, there are questions like “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” or “Why isn’t there a National Association for the Advancement of White People?” For feminism, the question is “why does feminism have ‘fem’ in it?”. Such questions are a subtle way of suggesting that these groups are themselves sexist or racist.

The other aspect of feminism’s branding problem and why a name change is often suggested is the stereotype the word conjures up: “the man-hating bitch”. Once again, however, these suggestions inaccurately assume that the source of the problem rests in the name feminism or in things feminists have done (not that there isn’t a mean feminist somewhere out there). Rather these accusations that feminists are man-hating bitches are a manifestation of the types of roles women are allowed to play in public discourse. In her work on women in the workplace, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, argued that there were four stereotypes people use to interpret  women’s personalities and actions: (1) the mother, (2) the seductress, (3) the pet, and (4) the iron maiden. The final one of these, the iron maiden, is essentially the man-hating bitch. Kanter observed that when women insisted on equal rights or resisted sexism in their places of work, they were placed into the iron maiden category. Co-workers acted as though they were militant in everything they did and pretended as though their insistence on equal rights was actually an unreasonable request for some type of hyper-polite behavior. Feminism as a movement has been placed in the iron maiden category but not because of its name but rather because it makes the apparently unreasonable request that women should be treated as equals.

Feminism as a movement and a word does obviously have perception problems, but these are hardly the same type of “branding problems” faced by a corporation that does ineffective marketing or that just generally does unethical things (like letting oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico). Rather this “branding problem” stems from tactics used against other marginalized groups to brand them as perpetrators of the very ideologies they oppose (for example, racism and sexism) as well as from stereotypes of women who expect equal treatment as man-hating bitches. Women then have little choice but to say “I’m not a feminist”, since “feminist” has been conveniently re-defined to mean “man-hating bitch”. Far from being feminism’s fault though, the associations the word has taken on are really all part of the very conflict that feminism is trying to fight.

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Posted in Ideology and social change
One comment on “On the ‘F’ bomb: Feminism’s “branding problem”
  1. Chandra says:

    “Ah yes, make me a sandwich woman, because monkeys.” – Thanks for the best laugh I’ve had all day.

    I blogged about this recently myself, as someone who is uncomfortable with the label, though I don’t outright reject it myself. http://paintingthegreyarea.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/dont-call-them-baby-sweetheart-honey-or-feminist/

    To sum up, a few of points I’d like to add to this discussion: 1) feminism does, in fact, also work to improve the lot of men, since men are also constrained and harmed by patriarchal expectations; 2) “feminism” actually can’t be understood as a single ideology, as there are countless interpretations and splinter ideologies; and 3) several of those splinter ideologies have very troubling associations with racism, transphobia, etc.

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