The F word: Does ‘Feminist’ Need Rebranding? Ask Teens

broadsheet-logo-salon.gifThis week’s Salon broadsheet celebrates womens’ history month with some media must-sees, including the ‘f-word’ video making the rounds that asks, “What do America Ferrera, Larry David, and Amy Brenneman have in common?” (btw, Salon’s femme icon at left is holding a pen, not a cig)

Produced by the Feminist Majority Foundation, the video debunks myths with inclusiveness, certainty and a commanding refrain, “This is what a feminist looks like.”

The video is a straightforward clarion call exemplifying the cross-section of cultural and demographic ideals that make us all able to ‘relate’ to the ‘F’ word on a much more visceral, inclusive level.

It’s gleaned a slew of comments in Salon’s letters section and quite a stir in viral video campaigning, though the phrase itself has been plastered on tees and debated in pop politics for quite some time.

So I started thinking…what IS it about the “F” word that makes some people (even me) squirm?

letter-f.jpgIn my ad agency days as a “freelancer” I wrote a magazine feature called ‘the F word’ about “freelancers” being constantly miscast as “unemployed mavericks or in-between jobs.” The assumptions were automatic. Stigmatizing. Foolish. And false…Especially among those of us who spent decades as indie agencies/hired guns self-employed “on purpose.”

Similarly, the word “feminist” lands on me the same way…

It’s sadly been used in a pejorative sense too often, so I always found it to be a bit of a loaded term with lots of baggage.

To me, anything misinterpreted so frequently as a ‘them vs. us’ misguided gender polarization never quite made sense to me as a branding terminology gal.

Very thankful the new video addresses some of that squeamishness head on…

geena-davis-cic.jpgIn fact, I remember when actress Geena Davis, long known as a champion of gender equity in media unabashedly (and repeatedly) used the word ‘feminist’ in her speech at the Hollywood TBIO (Turn Beauty Inside Out) conference I attended in 2005. (back when New Moon co-sponsored the Sisterhood of the Travelin’ Pants panelists before the June premiere)

Geena Davis talked about being ostracized and pigeon-holed by the feminist label among colleagues, yet she clung to it righteously.

I distinctly remember shifting in my seat at the “mind on the media” event that day, wondering what feminist trailblazers and pioneers would think of my advertising mind churning,

“Hmn—anything that brings me this much discomfort needs a branding overhaul and a new name.”

I felt as if I were ‘odd girl out’ wanting to ‘toss the word feminist and start anew,’ but the ‘F’ word just wasn’t working for me on the ‘brand equity’ and ‘perceived value’ marketing front.

To me, it was pragmatic…‘At what point does a word do a disservice? (As a name generation queen, it would’ve never passed muster for first round client approvals in ‘freshening’ a brand)

When a word is relentlessly repositioned, landing on both genders anywhere from defensiveness and denial to activist anger, attitude, or apathy, it seems a case of ‘trying too hard.’

And then the lightbulb came on…

feminist-tee.jpgHmn. Just because I’M in the demographic cusp between boomer and gen X, with a healthy disdain for labels, it doesn’t mean YOUTH feel the same way.

Maybe girls don’t have a problem with the word feminist at ALL?

Or maybe it’s getting so deeply buried by the cacophony of noise from ‘hottie, bimbo, boy toy, what is sexy, pink think’ messages that girls aren’t even hearing the phrase uttered at all?

At a time when it seems like we’re Packaging Girlhood with reckless abandon, going backwards in pop culture’s female objectification and erosion of girls’ self-worth…A revitalization of “what a feminist looks like” could be just the ticket to help empower girls with vibrance, energy and new interpretations of their own authentic selves…

new-moon-new-image.pngTo take the temperature of the NEXT generation and see where that word lands with youth, I went to the girls’ editorial board and staffers at New Moon Girl Media, known for ‘bringing girls voices to the world.’

I thought about going to our own partner orgs or groups I’ve worked with already like Girls Are Champions, or Girls Economic Power Day, or Girls For A Change, but decided to go straight to the source of a self-ascribed ‘feminist’ publication. (the teens were even featured recently in Ms. magazine for their ten years of youth created ‘girlpower’)

girls-editorial-board-nmm.jpgNew Moon has recently taken on a huge ‘rebranding’ themselves of their ‘girl created’ magazine with a fresh look and appeal for the digital age, complete with fan group on Facebook.

We’ll hear more tomorrow from their teen staffers (at left) on body image, role models, and their perception of the media/marketing machine…

But first, let’s see what these teen feminists have to say about ‘the F word.’

Jessi Fulton, age 13, Girls Web Editorial Board member says:

“I think the spirit of feminism embodies all women, when women embrace themselves for who they are and try to better the lives and others then I would say they are a feminist.

Personally, I love being a feminist and the people who know me don’t act as if it’s negative, but that it’s just me LOVING myself. I feel like anyone who has a bad connotation of feminism has been misled…Make it what you want, don’t try to be someone your not.”

Yowza! Is that girl really 13? We need her on our Shaping Youth Teen Advisory Board!

Marly, also 13, from the New Moon girls’ media tribe said:

“I don’t know. I’ve never actually said to anyone, “I’m a feminist”, but I’m not sexist either. I don’t think people would think badly of the word “feminism.” I don’t know because in my school and where I live, no one really puts down girls and women.”

Juliet, age 14, replied:

“I’d like to believe that I am a feminist, as I am fully (obviously) for the women movement. I don’t think anyone I know has that strong of an opinion towards the word.”

Hmn…so you see where the generation gap comes into play?

I asked my own tween daughter this question, and pretty much got this:

“Huh? No one even talks like that mom, what’s your point?” accompanied by the all too familiar shoulder shrug and quizzical ‘you must be from another planet’ glance…

Meanwhile, former Managing Editor of New Moon magazine, Lacey Louwagie, (an adult) replied:

“Oh boy; in general, the girls I’ve encountered through my work with New Moon HATE labels and balk against the idea that a girl can be put in one category, or that one category automatically entails belonging to another category (i.e.: likes baseball – tomboy; or wears makeup — boy crazy), and I love to see this resistance to being easily defined.

At the same time, girls *do* self label quite frequently: “I’m a band geek,” “I’m a feminist,” etc., which also seems healthy.

It’s helpful to carve out a place for yourself by the use of labels, but it’s also important to remember you’re not stuck in that place you’ve carved out for yourself.

We really get into dangerous territory when others are doing the labeling FOR the girl, and I notice that there only seem to be about four “types” of girls out there, according to mainstream media: the sporty girl, the chic girl, the arty girl, the smart girl.

I’ve met girls who run the gamut in their relationship with the word “feminism” during my five and a half years as an editor for New Moon.

New Moon always allows the girl the opportunity to self-label; we never make the assumption that a girl who works with us accepts the feminist label just because New Moon is a feminist publication.

I’ve met girls who work with New Moon and don’t consider themselves feminist; I’ve met girls who do consider themselves feminist and get a lot of flak for it; and I’ve met girls who consider themselves feminist without many negative repercussions.

As for me, I’m of the school that believes it’s the patriarchy’s distortion of feminism that has made girls and women reluctant to adopt the label, and I think that we need to embrace and reclaim it big-time.

Part of that means having the bravery to be an “out” feminist if you do identify with the word, and showing the world our diversity. But with that said, I would never pressure another, especially a girl, to adopt the label for herself, even if her belief system seems in line with feminism to me. That’s a call I can’t make for anyone else.”

“What does a feminist look like” from your point of view?

The Sepia Mutiny blog had a post that poignantly captures life with “a feminist mom and a chauvinist dad” (quite moving)

The Fawcett Society of the U.K. offers a comprehensive ‘snapshot’ and some of the feedback/commentary on Feministe about the irony of appearance-based cues dominating the conversation (e.g. what a movement ‘looks like’) is a point well taken too.

Rather than get embroiled in “the oppression Olympics,” (as comedian Wanda Sykes video clip on the Crocodile Caucus addresses on the Ellen show last week) I’ll close with a quick summation of the stereotyped ‘image’ conundrum of ‘the F word’ in a heartfelt comment left by ‘Tracy’ on Elaine Vigneault’s blog which spoke to the value of putting the video out there for all…Tracy said:

“A couple years ago I saw a picture of Amy Brenneman at some kind of women’s rights rally, and she was wearing a T-shirt that said, “This is what a feminist looks like.” It floored me because until that time (maybe I live a sheltered life), I associated “feminist” with a kind of scary-looking woman (even though I did support feminism, at least the idea of it). Anyway, it was great to see Brenneman showing people that anyone can be a feminist – even someone gorgeous.

Awhile later I saw a different version of that shirt at an online store. It said, “This is what a vegetarian looks like.” At that point I had become vegetarian (maybe even vegan), and I had to have that shirt. Because like feminists, the stereotypical vegetarian is kind of weird-looking, right? And I also wanted not only to publicize veg*anism, but to have strangers think, “Hey, she’s thin [and sexy – come on, you know it’s true 🙂 ]. Maybe I should try this vegetarianism thing.”

Fascinating. ‘Even someone gorgeous.” —The labeling conundrums and myth-bashing goes on, yet new stereotypes pop up to the surface as others are laid to rest. (the thin/sexy line above is duly noted, btw) Stay tuned for more of ‘all girls week’…

salon-red.jpgMeanwhile, don’t miss Salon’s pop culture tidbits on Women’s History month, including the Amelia Bloomer Project book picks of worthy female heroines, written ‘by and for women,’ honoring those “who give life to books that encourage readers young and old to push the envelope and challenge what it means to be a woman, regardless of ethnicity or social-economic background.”

Also worth a peek:

Salon’s pithy analysis of the recent NYT review positioning TV ‘reality’ starlet Heidi Montag of The Hills as a “feminist hero” and role model for girls…(somehow the NYT headline, “Career Climbing with Claws Bared” skewered that notion for me on stereotypes alone)

Carol Lloyd’s interesting read asking if there’s a gender divide in literary form, headlined, “Fiction’s a girl thing, boys heart history” (w/her own analysis of Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s essay Monday in the NYT titled, “Just the Facts Ma’am”).

And the controversial “menaissance” suggestion of a U.K. study about men’s longing for a rebirth of masculinity. Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory already got some flak for her glib comments and clarifies in a CurrentTV video here.

Hmn, see? This is what I mean, these gender monikers tend to launch emotional flamethrowers in a blame game of misinterpretation that adds fuel to a fire with sweeping generalizations and dominance/submission accusations with loaded terms on power and control…


What does a feminist ‘look like’ to you?

I like the New Moon youth voices; they’re somehow unsullied by baggage, open-hearted, candid, and real.


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