Feminism – Words Matter

On Thursday 26th May, a celebration of English Studies and Creative Writing at Teesside University was held. The event, aptly named ‘Words Matter’, celebrated the vast range of successful work by students throughout the year. After a warm welcome from soon-to-be graduate Helen Charville, and future PhD students and Teesside alumnus Robyn Ollett, level 5 student, Tracy Casling, presented her fascinating and enlightening paper on the representations of class in This is England ’90. Then, I presented my own paper on feminism; both mine and Tracy’s presentations very much argue that yes, representation, and the words we use to represent, do matter, because of the simple matter that the people we represent are, in actual fact, human beings; our representations in film, TV, literature and the media are not isolated from the ‘real’ world. After a short break, we had the pleasure of watching and listening to both our brilliant creative writing students with the contributions to the Teesside Literary Society’s Through the Cracks anthology, and PhD student Megan Hayes’ truly absorbing research paper; ‘“Becoming more”: Towards a Positive Psychology of Creative Writing’

From the use of derogatory terms such as ‘chav’ to denote social class and status to the ongoing debate surrounding the need for us all to identify as ‘feminists’, the terms we use to describe ourselves and others matter today more than ever. So here is a (rather lengthy) extract of my own presentation, “The F-Word,” in which I emphasise why representations of women and gender, and the words behind them, really do matter.

Definition: The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. It is the belief in the right of women to have social, economic, political, cultural and personal equality with men.

The F-Word
I’d go as far as saying an accurate description of feminism is the belief that everybody should be treated equally regardless of their sex. It seems like a simple enough concept, a harmless enough belief system, but if you say, or type, the words ‘I am a feminist’ the response is often less than heart warming. Somewhere along the line, some people have developed a preconceived notion that all feminists: hate men, are lesbians, constantly feel the need to burn bras and don’t shave, and that’s not even the half of it. Because of the stereotype, there seems to be a number of people who call themselves ‘anti-feminists’, claiming that if what we want is ‘gender equality’ then why not use the word ‘equalist’ instead, or claiming that ‘women are more or less equal now anyway’. It raises the question as to whether it’s important; promoting the word as much as the concept. Quite frankly, yes, it is. The very stereotypes that surround the word feminism are one of the very reasons that make feminism necessary AS feminism. Take the angry, man-hating lesbian feminist who never shaves. Not only is it inaccurate, no one ever said anything about hating men, but it paints further negativity around gay women, women who never shave and implies that women just shouldn’t get angry.

In that sense, the ‘fem’ bit of feminism is so important. Femininity is something that is policed meticulously by society, affecting people of all genders. The fact that sex and gender have become so conflated with one another means that there’s an ideal way for women and men to be, and that ‘male’ and ‘female’ become boxes that we must fit into. The ideal feminine stereotype often denotes passivity and inferiority, and it helps no one, when masculinity becomes the default, the pressures put on men are just as harmful as those put on women, and in turn excludes those whose gender does not conform to his binary. I think Emma Watson sums this up perfectly:

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less ‘macho’ – in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20–49 years of age […]. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.


This is why the feminist stereotype doesn’t add up for me, when we are reminded that men are victims too, the response I have seen is predominantly positive. Any contemporary feminist book, memoir, manual, whatever form they may come in, acknowledges these very same inequalities.

That being said, it seems to be women who have borne the brunt of institutionalised sexism with gender pay gaps, less women in leadership roles, and the general assumption that the ‘boss’ is going to be a man – as was made evident in the earlier slide. Men ARE victims of sexism, but by being the ‘default’ in life, they ARE privileged too.
The following stats were taken from the UK feminista website – and are only a minute selection of the examples the website provides.

  • The full time gender pay gap is 10%, and the average part-time pay gap is 34.5%.
  • Women make up only 17% board directors of FTSE 100 companies.
  • Up to 30,000 women are sacked each year simply for being pregnant and each year an estimated 440,000 women lose out on pay or promotion as a result of pregnancy.

But how and why is this image still upheld? I think our position in the world is often influenced and controlled by media representation whether we are aware of it or not. So when women’s bodies are used, and sometimes abused, to sell anything from jewellery and clothes, to cars and men’s aftershave, we become commodities. When this happens, women’s bodies are no longer their own, and their value is then based their body. Because these images are everywhere, and I mean everywhere – in magazines, on TV, on bus shelters, in music videos – it becomes the norm.

Representation of women in the media upholds this idea that women (and femininity) should be submissive, controlled, feeding into a discourse that allows women to view themselves as objects, and is very much prevalent in contemporary society. We tell people to “man up” when really just mean be courageous or strong, we tell people to “grow a pair” as if not having “a pair” is so detrimental to our wellbeing, and “not being like other girls” becomes the phrase we use when we want to be taken seriously as people.

UntitledA double standard is evident when it comes to the expectations and actions of men and women – I think the next quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, exemplifies this:

We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons. All over the world, there are so many magazine articles and books telling women what to do, how to be and not to be, in order to attract or please men. There are far fewer guides for men about pleasing women.

One critique often aimed at contemporary feminism is that it isn’t diverse enough – even if that were the case, I don’t think ‘getting rid of feminism’ is the answer. As Bridget Christie says: “People don’t like the word feminism – that’s what needs to change, because we’re not going to find a new word.” So make the word mean what you want it to mean. In the feminist book club, the books we have read so far have all been based on experiences, either of the authors themselves or of voices amplified by the authors. I think the most useful/best thing about feminism is that it can constantly progress and change with society. It’s about recognizing the different experiences all kinds of women have and how women are effected by these intersections: queer women, trans women, women of colour, disabled women, but also finding the common ground between us. In keeping with the theme of this whole day then, I want to reiterate that fact that words do matter. Because of the book club, and the degree, I have been able to read about and understand better the experiences of people who, quite simply put, are not me. Thus I am able to see beyond my own privileges and begin to understand how I can use that platform so that ‘my own feminism’ can progress too.

Katie Burton

One thought on “Feminism – Words Matter”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Katie. Like your presentation at Words Matter, this article is thought-provoking and incisive and covers an impressive amount of ground. For someone still finding my own feminism too, this is a great starting point for further conversations.

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