Three Feminists On Dirty Words, Pop Culture, And The Language Of Choice

Yesterday the Planned Parenthood NYC Action Fund brought together Jessica Valenti of Feministing, Lynn Harris of Broadsheet, and longtime reproductive rights activist and writer Gloria Feldt to discuss everything from feminist pop culture to whether "feminism" is a dirty word.

The evening seemed to focus on how we talk about feminism, perhaps because it's what all three panelists (that's not them in the pic) do in their jobs, but also because issues of language and rhetoric are a really important part of being a feminist in the larger world. The conversation touched on blog comments — which all three agreed were like a more public version of 1970s consciousness-raising groups — before zeroing in on the word "feminist" itself. Valenti said she embraced the word, and that there was no point in picking another, less loaded term because "I think any word you use to talk about women's rights is going to become a dirty word." Feldt concurred: "the first thing people do to you when they want to diminish you is they diminish you with language."

Unfortunately, the panelists seemed to feel that a successful diminution had occurred in the linguistic fight between words "pro-choice" and "pro-life." Harris said she had stopped using the term "pro-choice" in writing because "we lost that rhetorical war" — because anti-abortion advocates had successfully cast "life" as representing the moral high ground, and "choice" as somehow frivolous. I get what she was saying — I, in fact, stopped using "pro-life" in writing a while ago, in response to a consciousness-raising comment on this blog, no less. But I still use "pro-choice," because even though the opposition tries to frame the term as superficial — like choosing between different flavors of gum — I think it still stands powerfully for a woman's right to self-determination and autonomy. And I think that any substitute term — Harris mentioned "pro-abortion rights" and "pro-reproductive rights" — will be demonized just as "pro-choice" has been. To paraphrase Valenti, any word you use to talk about a woman's control over her own body is going to become, for some people, a dirty word.

In some ways, the highlight of the evening for me was when a college student asked how she could explain her views to her non-feminist friends without "coming off as a caricature of myself." I'm a lot older than her, and this is something I still struggle with. It's also something I feel a little bit guilty about — now that I'm a professional feminist, maybe I shouldn't be worrying about how I come off. But Valenti took her question seriously, saying it was actually one she was asked all the time. She told the young woman that "pop culture is a great entry point for these conversations," and she's right — as a shared language, movies and TV and even gossip can be a way not only for feminists to start a conversation with not-yet-feminists, but for young people still experimenting with feminism to hone their views. When I first started blogging, I wrote a lot about Kate Moss and the Olsen twins, and although most of what I wrote looks sophomoric now (and sometimes, unfortunately, mean), it was a way for me to get comfortable having opinions and making them public. I still don't like making a harsh distinction between "fluffy" and "serious" subjects, and I think Valenti's right that an ostensibly superficial conversation about some celebrity or movie can actually lead into a real discussion of values.

Harris, too, had a suggestion for the student — "be yourself." She apologized for the cheesiness of her tip, but she had a good point — teaching your friends about feminism can be as much about modeling behavior as it is about explicitly explaining your political views. Just by admitting that you're mad when you're mad, and not saying you agree when you don't, and refusing to body-snark on yourself and other women, and generally standing up for what you know is right, whether it involves women or not, you can show everyone you know that (to quote a T-shirt Valenti name-checks in Full Frontal Feminism) "this is what a feminist looks like" — and you'll make feminism look pretty good. In fact, even though I still have it from time to time, I do think the worry about looking like "a caricature" comes from feminism's enemies, from people who think a woman criticizing anything is cartoonish and shrill. For these people, just as "feminism" and "pro-choice" are dirty words, speaking up may be a dirty act, no matter how you do it. But for, I hope, a larger number of people, women and men, speaking up is just something they aren't familiar with yet, something they haven't quite learned to do. I hope the college student who so handily voiced my worries last night keeps on showing them how.

Planned Parenthood NYC Action Fund [Official Site]