Efforts to reclaim #HowToSpotAFeminist miss the point

This past week, the hashtag #HowToSpotAFeminist has been in full-bloom across the Twitterverse. Originated on The Blaze, a conservative radio show out of Los Angeles, the host aimed to make feminists the butt of misogynist jokes and was quickly latched onto by MRAs and anti-feminist men everywhere, who characterized feminists as hairy, smelly, hysterical, etc. You know the drill.

But what would you expect from a phrase that positions women as wild animals to be observed and men as the ones holding the binoculars? Shortly after the hashtag began to pick up steam, many women (and progressive, “nice guys”) took it upon themselves to turn the hashtag on its head, tweeting gems such as:


Rather than ignoring or decrying misogynistic insults, contemporary feminism tends, these days, to try to “reclaim” them (#SlutPride!).

Huffington Post said feminists were making the hashtag into an opportunity to “spread awareness” and “take down stereotypes about what a feminist looks and acts like.”

Brilliant. Because we all know that it’s negative stereotypes about what feminists look and act like that are holding back women’s liberation. If we all were just more pleasant to look at and be around, patriarchy would surely crumble, right? Let’s call Playboy and tell them we want to set up a photo shoot.

But wait! What about the men? Not to worry, the hashtag ensured men didn’t feel excluded. Some of the most popular #HowToSpotAFeminist tweets were the ones that pointed out that men can be feminists, too.

As a result, the most prominent theme that emerged from this conversation is the idea that anyone and everyone is a feminist. In fact, even if you claim not to be a feminist, if you believe in the vague idea of “equality,” you actually are one… No matter what you say or do.

The supposedly “glorious” reclamation of the #HowToSpotAFeminist hashtag actually did less to defend and celebrate feminists than it did to erode the category itself. I suppose it’s true that one cannot “spot” a feminist when anyone and everyone is a feminist. But if we ensure no one can mock us by saying we have hairy armpits, what does that achieve and at what cost?

The reclamation of #HowToSpotAFeminist unfolded much in the same way the #FeministsAreUgly hashtag did. Originally started by men, the hashtag played on the old anti-feminist idea that women only become feminists because they fail at being sexually attractive to men, and that’s why they’re so angry. Women (and dudes) responded to #FeministsAreUgly by posting pictures of celebrity “feminists,” such as Beyoncé, Emma Watson, and Taylor Swift.

I was heartbroken to also see many young women posting selfies in bikinis and their underwear in an effort to prove the hashtag’s claim wrong.

In reality, unfortunately, being perceived as “hot,” “pleasant,” or “normal” (as defined by patriarchy) won’t advance the feminist cause a single bit. It is not our duty to make ourselves palatable to men. Feminism is a political practice that says women should be valued as people beyond their physical attractiveness or ability to properly perform femininity. Feminism allows a woman to have a voice instead of just a pretty face.

There are tons of feminists who aren’t conventionally attractive and who are angry, hairy, and unpleasant, and that’s okay! In fact, that’s the point. We don’t need a pretty poster-child for our movement. It’s not a brand to be bought or sold; nor is it a fashion statement. The principles of feminism can (and do) speak for themselves.

But what about men’s ability to understand it, some ask? Again, not the point. Feminism is a movement for women, by women. Though we seem to have lost sight of that in recent years… Making feminism palatable to men may be well-intended, but points us in the wrong direction.

A perfect example of this male-centric approach is the US government’s anti-rape campaign, “It’s On Us.” President Obama addressed the men of the nation, urging them to go online and take the pledge to not rape. “It’s on us,” he said. “All of us — to create a culture where violence isn’t tolerated.” The campaign operates under the idea that if the individual attitudes of men were to change, a large-scale cultural shift would follow. Similarly, contemporary feminism has taken the stance that we need to change men’s hearts and minds, one-by-one, eventually resulting in a change in our social systems.

By this logic, it indeed makes sense for feminists to be appealing and make use of sexy celebrity mascots in order to seduce individual men into allyship. But in reality, it’s more likely this tactic will just bury feminism in a mass of busy work till the end of time. Trying to change the minds of each man through individual education/seduction is like picking up the pieces of a broken vase and trying to glue them back together instead of stopping the elephants that are stampeding through the vase store and breaking them in the first place!

It’s the material institutions that maintain female oppression we need to identify and dismantle. If Obama is so concerned with the safety and well being of women and girls, why doesn’t he create some legislation to help them? Or he could just enforce the laws already in place, cracking down on child porn, for example. When men steal and post teenage girls’ sexually explicit photos online, they’re forced to claim them as their “Intellectual Property” in order to have any possibility of legal recourse. Why not make some small, material effort, instead of these bullshit attempts to “raise awareness”?

We don’t need to appease men. We don’t need to make the movement out to be a sexy club full of cool kids or convince men they will benefit from feminism. We actually don’t need men in our movement, because we’re half of the goddamn human population, and we’re crucial to the most basic functions that keep the world running.

In 1975, 90 per cent of the women in Iceland went on strike. The entire country fell to a standstill. Men were helpless without women. Feminists demanded tangible legislative change and, decades later, the country has some of the highest rates of gender equality in the world. History tells us that women’s liberation will not be won through the acquisition of male allies, but through female solidarity and material political action.

Similarly, feminism will never flourish though the forceful silencing of feminist voices that are unappealing to men. Engaging in witch-hunts and sacrificing a few women at the alter of mainstream, male-approved “feminism” will not benefit the greater whole.

Each woman, each opinion, each voice is a part of the feminist process. Every woman, by virtue of being one, has the capacity to gain a feminist consciousness, yet it often comes in increments through a long and tortuous process that involves changing one’s mind again and again. Women that are too “radical,” “unpleasant,” or disagreeable do not tarnish the face of feminism, because feminism should not be concerned with appearances. We may disagree, but those are conversations, critiques, and debates that should happen between women in a non-violent manner.

Let’s stop worrying about how we’re perceived by men and start making some plans amongst ourselves.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • hartjangling

    I only wish ‘spotting’ feminists were as easy as they make it out to be; it’d be a hell of a lot easier to organize!

  • During the Red Scare, reactionaries made a video called “How to Spot a Communist”, feel free to look it up yourself. The video referenced the actual viewpoints of self-proclaimed communists at the time (e.g. supporting the Soviet Union) and not superficial traits (e.g. physical appearance, manner of speaking, whether or not they liked vodka, LOL.) The reactionaries implied that behaviours which I would regard as basic acts of decency or resistance (such as protesting against the oppression of black people) made one a communist. Did communists try to “reclaim” the term by arguing that communists were actually nice and sweet and (most importantly) obedient hard workers? Did they argue that any vague sense of human equality made one a communist? Did they modify their ideology to make it more appealing to the capitalist class? No, they were radical and proud. Yes, liberals were (and will be) liberals and reactionaries will be reactionaries, but that does not mean we have to be.

    The liberal response to #howtospotafeminist reminds me of the ridiculous “this is what a feminist looks like” slogan. I was disappointed to see an old socialist party of mine selling badges with that slogan, because I realised that while anyone could technically wear those badges (or use the slogan in other ways) the implied meaning was “I’m a feminist, but don’t worry I conform to prettiness norms, I shave my legs and everything, I wouldn’t dare say or do anything that was the least bit intimidating to anyone, please approve of me and my movement”. The people behind the slogan (and this latest nonsense) blabber on about how it is wrong to tell women what to do with their bodies or fail to mention every possible sub-group that might be effected by a given issue, yet they have no problem acting as if women/feminists who spends hours each day prettifying themselves do not exist or claiming that these women need to change their behaviours for the sake of making the movement look good.

    Shave your legs and plaster your faces with make up if you feel you must, but do not implicitly denigrate women who don’t. To my knowledge, no radical feminist has actually told a woman that she cannot be part of the feminist movement if she prettifies herself. Criticising behaviours does not equal excluding people, but by equating feminism with pretty, feminine women (Emma Watson does not strike me as particularly feminine, but the other celebrities are) they are implying that less prettified women do not belong in their brand of feminism. The “this is what a feminist looks like” slogan suggests that there is one way that feminists should look. It is (unjustifiably) prejudiced and superficial. How about turning “this is what a feminist THINKS like” into a slogan instead.

    • jane

      I didn’t follow a lot of your argument i.e. I wasn’t sure what you were trying to say but I loved your last paragraph. “This is what a feminist THINKS like” …. I love it

      • I’m sorry if my argument was not entirely clear. Here is a summary.

        1. Movements that are not majority female (e.g. communism) are not judged based on the physical appearance of their members (or other superficial traits.)

        2. Communists do not modify their ideology (or their political activism) to appease reactionaries, so why should feminists?

        3. The “this is what a feminist looks like” slogan strikes me as wimpy and capitulating, because it is supposed to be used by prettiness conforming women to suggest that feminists are not actually a threat to prettiness* norms. It also implies that there is only one “look” that feminists can have and implicitly excludes women who conform to prettiness standards.

        4. When liberals attack or ignore women who reject prettiness norms (e.g. by not shaving their legs or wearing makeup) they are being hypocrites, for their own ideology states that people should never be judged for their choices and that every subset of humanity must have their existence constantly acknowledged.

        *I use the word “prettiness” in place of beauty, because I feel it is the more appropriate term. “Beauty” can be used to suggest that something is profound or has artistic value. There is nothing “beautiful” about prettiness norms, in this sense. Sorry if my idiosyncratic language creates confusion.

        Hope that makes things clearer and remember #thisiswhatafeministTHINKSlike (I am not into Twitter and hashtags, but someone else can it into one if they want, LOL)

  • C.K. Egbert

    Great analysis! It’s time we give up on the idea that we need to prove that we are sexy and love men in order to be taken seriously.

  • Ellesar

    I am sick to death of how we look and behave being used to shame us because we are feminists. I cannot think of any other group where this tactic is used to undermine and ridicule with the intention of weakening resolve.

    When I was younger I was ‘acceptable’ in my appearance, but my behaviour wasn’t. Now I am old and fat I do not look right for fuckability, but fit the norms of the plump middle aged woman who isn’t a threat – I try not to let this become how I am seen, but I am less fiery than I used to be. But I really hate that it is still something that controls so many women.

    It has taken me years to move beyond it, to REALLY not give a shit how people perceive and assess my appearance. If I have an argument with a man – even a brief exchange and my appearance is used against me, or I get the usual slurs based on my apparent sexual promiscuity (I notice that these become less frequent as I age).

    We are so much more than how we look.

  • Diana

    Don’t they see the irony in trying to discredit feminists by talking about our looks…?

    Like the other day when someone said to a lesbian separatist that no man will want to marry her.

    • Priscila

      HAHAHAHAHAH I’m laughing really out loud at this 😀