What is a feminist supposed to look like? How is a feminist supposed to act?
I recently finished reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, which concludes with a so-called “bad feminist manifesto”. In her manifesto, Gay dissects myths about what feminists are supposed to be — “militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humourless” — by describing all the ways in which she does not fit these labels. She discusses her love for rap music with lyrics that degrade women and obsession with the color pink. Something about this essay resonated deeply with me, because as much as I consider myself a feminist, I also do not always feel like I practice it perfectly.
I decided to write my own manifesto, and encourage others to do the same, to expose just how multi-faceted and complicated feminists can be. Because Roxane Gay is not a bad feminist at all. She is a very good one in fact.
My “bad” feminist manifesto...
For much of my childhood, I sort of wanted to be a boy. I played around with baseball hats, tucking my hair into them to see how I would look with short hair to match my brothers. I renounced all things I deemed “girly”, looking down on them with scorn. Skirts, dresses, and the color pink became a symbol of weakness, because that was what women wore. I bought into the idea of strength coming from masculinity, and I wanted to be strong.
I like being a girl now, but I still feel stronger when I lean into boyish tendencies.
I have trouble assigning the label “woman” to myself even though I am out of college and living on my own. I recognize that to use the world “girl” is infantilizing and chips away at my power. I have allowed myself to be infantilized by ex-boyfriends. I sat in their laps instead of claiming a seat of my own. I made them open my jam jars.
I enjoy cooking for others and I take pride in my ability to feed the men I date. I fret about how they will like the taste of dinner. I know most of them could probably care less whether I use freshly minced garlic or garlic powder. I always try to get the freshly minced garlic.
I also listen to music with lyrics that degrade women. I love some of these songs. I cannot help it that the best dancing songs talk about women’s butts and boobs and bodies in ways that dehumanize them.
I’m a fan of early Chris Brown songs despite knowing he physically assaulted Rihanna. I am supposed to shun him for it, but instead I put “Wall to Wall” on the stereo and bust my moves. My friends scorn my music taste, but the song reminds me of when I was in fifth grade, gawky, and learning how to dance for the first time.
I talk too much but I do not speak up at all. This is probably my biggest problem. With my friends and family, I am a nonstop, sassy chatterbox. I need to remind myself to let other people speak just as much as I do, and I require discipline to be a good listener.
At work, I am mute. A male boss asked me in a meeting if I agreed with his idea, and my “yes” response started in a squeak and ended with a whisper. I was mortified. At my first job, I remember being surprised because my boss told me that I spoke too quietly. Many of my bosses have repeated the same sentiment thereafter.
I have been told my whole life that I am too loud. I guess I overcompensated for that. Now, I need to give myself mental pep talks in order to speak out loud in a professional setting at all, especially when talking with a superior.
I do not call out men on the street. The ones who tell me that I should take off my clothes when I walk by; the ones who ask for my number; the ones who shout things that I often can not even understand legibly, but the meaning gets through all the same.
Secretly? I kind of like getting the attention. Just as much as it makes me feel scared and unsafe, it lets me know I am attractive. I am mortified for how this admission might set back years of fighting against street harassment. Catcalling is not okay, and it often has been a very negative experience for me.
When I cut off all my hair, I stopped getting cat called. Yet, instead of feeling relieved, I started worrying about whether I was still attractive. I know I should not, but I have been brought up by society to seek male approval and attention for my appearance.
And boy! My appearance really matters. I should value myself for my high intelligence, my boldness (outside of work), and my quirky sense of humor, but a disgusting amount of my self-worth is measured by the inches on my waist. I want clavicles that could hold guacamole and do not mind when my spine sticks out of my back like a tiny mountain range. Instead of appreciating my muscular legs that came as a result of years of track and swimming, I constantly criticize them as “chunky”. But these standards only apply to me. I support body confidence and beauty at all sizes. I tell my friends that they are beautiful, and that they should have more confidence.
My big secret is that I worry about my size just as much as the friends I reassure. I look at photos of me with friends and lament the fact that I am usually not the skinniest one in the group. I know it is wrong, but I have a competitive nature, and that extends to fitting society’s standards of beauty.
When it comes to my dating life, my descriptions of my ex-boyfriends horrify my friends. More horrifying still is the way I allowed myself to be treated. There were men with criminal records, men who texted me in masturbatory harassment fashion long after we had broken up, and your run-of-the-mill sexists. I once dated a man that talked about his car in better terms than he talked about me. “Isn’t she a beauty?” he would ask. I was standing right there. He was looking at the car.
I drew lines in the sand that I thought meant I respected myself: I would not tolerate cheaters or anyone that physically abused me. I never realized my lines should include a whole host of other things.
I did not attend college parties because ex-boyfriends did not trust me enough to go without hooking up with someone else. They said they did not trust the men, but now I know the truth. I played “mom” to ex-boyfriends: cooking for them, cleaning their dishes, re-writing poorly drafted essays, doing their laundry, and yes, even tying their shoes. That was a low point.
I had sex even when I did not feel like it, because saying “no” would never be heard the first time, and after a while, it got exhausting to dodge the question. If I just got the sex over with, I could move on to other things-- stuff I actually wanted to do like watch movies, go to the museum, go on dates, or even just eat dinner. I did not even have to fake “it” every time. It got to a point where my orgasm did not matter to my partner, and subsequently to me.
I still keep a collection of Seventeen magazines at the bottom of my childhood bed. Years of knowledge on how to make men like me and how to put on makeup have accumulated in my brain. I probably could have spent that time learning useful things with which to fight the patriarchy, but I wanted to fit in.
I spend an obscene amount of time planning a fictitious wedding. I hate when straight women get ahead of themselves and declare every man they date to be the mythological “one” as if every man we find could be some special unicorn. Most are not. That is the point: not every person you date is designated to be your spouse.
I do not know when I’ll get married.
I do know I’ll have an angel food cake for my wedding cake, with strawberries. I know the reception will top every party I’ve ever thrown. I know my wedding dress has to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever worn in my life. I haven’t nailed down the venue yet, but I’ve got some years to figure that out I suppose.
I know these things. Yet, I do not know exactly where I am going with my career. I cannot tell you what I want my area of expertise in journalism to be. I vaguely know that I want to cover foreign affairs, that I am interested in gender and migration, and that I am trying to learn how to speak Spanish, Arabic, and Afrikaans over the course of my lifetime.
But, the fact remains that I know more about my fictional wedding than I know about my career. Thanks to the abundance of wedding shows, wedding Barbies, and general hype about my someday “special day”, I have been prepping for the former since I was five. The latter? Not so much.
Sometimes my career choice feels like an insurmountable obstacle and I do not know where to start on tackling it. It is bad enough that female journalists are less recognized and underestimated for international affairs reporting. It’s bad enough that I can count the amount of female war correspondents I know on my hands. But, how in the heck am I supposed to have a family?
I want kids. At least two, maybe four. Maybe I will have a few, maybe I will adopt some. I think it is amazing that cis-women can physically grow another human being inside of us, but that takes time. I cannot imagine taking time off of work to care for children, but I also want to be a good mother someday. I want to show my kids how to make paper boats and climb trees. I cannot do that if I’m across an ocean with a camera and notepad.
I joke that I will need to marry someone who can take care of the kids while I report. But truthfully, I have no idea how I will do it someday without feeling split in two.
But I do not have to worry about that yet. Back to the wedding — I will probably have sunflower bouquets and I want the groom to wear a dark blue suit. My brother will be my man-of-honor. My bridal party will be a fierce girl squad.
I admire most of my friends for being stronger feminists than I consider myself. I give them finger snaps when they tell me about how they chased down a cat-caller to lecture him about respecting women. I applaud them when they go into classrooms and teach young boys what it means to treat women equally. I look at them in awe when they put on their combat boots and kick down every societal norm.
But once again, I apply different standards to myself than I apply to them. I am much harsher and more critical of myself than I am of others. Perhaps it is ingrained in me to look for my flaws before society can point them out to me.
My friends say that they consider me a good feminist, so I imagine that this essay could come as a surprise to them.
My feminism is an egg: a smooth, strong and well-rounded shell encapsulating a complete mess.
True, I have three jobs to try and prove myself. I started supporting myself straight after college and I am fiercely independent. I pay for myself and solve my own problems. I have read Judith Butler and have studied gender theory. I am part of professional organizations where women support other women. I believe women are stronger when united, and I believe at my core in equality.
I bucked some of society’s norms when it comes to women. I love hockey, and always gave the dirtiest hip checks when playing with four men — my brothers and my father — who are over six feet tall. I cut off all my hair, twice, and donated it to an organization for women with cancer. I explained mansplaining to my brothers. I have a poster of Rosie the Riveter in my bedroom. I am not afraid to push guys away from my friends or tell them to fuck off in the clubs.
I am not shy about my body, and I own my sexuality. I recognize that power does not and should not only stem from sexuality, but I also believe we should never be ashamed of our sex lives. I promote body positivity and self-care to my friends. I rage against the patriarchy. I report Uber drivers and men in the workplace who behave inappropriately. I listen to my friends when they open up about sexual assault or harassment, and try to comfort them. I opened up about my own experiences.
I try to write in a way that sheds light on issues that women face. I cover problems such as the evolution of feminism in the Czech Republic or inadequate housing provided for homeless women last winter in Hartford. But, when facing such a widespread and systematic problem, it can be easy to feel like I am not doing enough for the cause of equality. But, I am tired of feeling like an inadequate feminist.
I believe that feminism should support all women. I am realizing now that this includes myself.
Amanda is a journalist currently working at CNN, but previously worked at the Hartford Courant, MSNBC, theRepublican-American, WNYU 89.1 F.M., Prague.tv, The PragueCast, and Scholastic News. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and a B.S. in Media, Culture & Communications from NYU. When she is not chasing down a story, Amanda is an avid traveler, a dancer, and a lover of all things outdoors. Visit her website for more.