Those of us who devote our energies to the feminist project of gender equality do so with the knowledge that this is not always the easiest of journeys. The backlash Susan Faludi wrote of in 1991 is as fastidious now as it ever has been, and long predates the release of her eponymous text.
And while the accessibility of the internet and social media has allowed for a greater diversity of dialogue than ever before, this backlash that inevitably accompanies it is skilled at finding new and creative ways to manifest.
In the past, it was popular to just dismiss feminism and its goals as the rantings of deeply unhappy women. We were unhappy because we were ugly, and this ugliness made us undesirable in the eyes of men, which further compounded our unhappiness. While it’s no surprise that the male opponents of feminism would consider their sexual approval to be central to women’s self worth and value, the wicked mirth now enthusiastically expressed in response to such earnest sexism has somewhat lessened its former sting.
Perhaps as a result of this, one of the current tactics of those people operating the backlash machine is to disguise their fear of feminist women (and actually, just women in general) under the critique of “superficiality”.
Feminists today are petty, frivolous and perpetually “triggered”, this argument goes. While our foremothers fought for equal rights in the workplace, all we do now is complain about “mansplaining” while trying to “free the nipple”.
Not only does this ignore the huge wealth of activism being done by modern feminists to target men’s violence against women, domestic homicide, rape and reproductive servitude (please note this recent news item about a teenager in El Salvador who was recently sentenced to 30 years in prison after the pregnancy she sustained from rape resulted in a stillbirth), it also wholly dismisses the vibrant activism of women of colour in regions traditionally pointed to by anti-feminists as examples of “real oppression”.
But still, teenage boys who’ve gleaned their entire feminist education from angry YouTube videos now swing between attempting to sexually degrade the feminist women they troll online and pompously stating that the movement is awash with “fake feminists” and that “real feminists” would be rolling in their graves over it.
Men who hate women – especially the women who refuse to hate themselves – have decided a neat trick would be to pretend there’s some point in history where they’d have been marching alongside suffragettes and women’s liberationists. Indeed, they claim that it is they – those men who call women pigs and whores and sluts – who know and value what ‘real feminism’ is and care that it’s being disrespected by vapid airheads who don’t appreciate how lucky they have it in 2017.
The reality, of course, is that what these men know and respect of what they call “real feminism” could fit on the head of a pin.
Leaving aside for a moment their limited historical knowledge of the broad church of feminism, it’s hard to imagine the same men who sneer disparagingly at “third wave feminists” (a wave that’s been over for at least a decade, by the way) taking to the streets in solidarity with suffragettes who, after chaining themselves to public buildings, were often imprisoned and force-fed to counter their hunger strikes.
Equally difficult to envisage are the same men who claim feminism is “cancer” supporting marches for equal pay or petitions to change legislation that declared it impossible for men bestowed with conjugal rights to rape their wives.
What is this “real feminism” they think they support? And do they not realise that the feminism of today is (regrettably, in some ways) more disposed towards being nice to men than it has even been before?
But subterfuge has always been part of the backlash’s arsenal. Where the misogynists and garden variety sexists of yesteryear dismissed outright the concerns and political aspirations of the historical feminist movement, today’s cohort of broflakes point to it as an example of authenticity.
They might still call us disgusting, ugly she-beasts whom no man would dare touch (hooray!) but they make sure to also include the assertion that we are making a mockery of all that our foremothers worked for.
Yeah. I’m really sure the boilersuit wearing, hunger striking, consciousness raising, votes-for-women, politically radical, sometimes separatist feminists of ye olden days would just hate how women now use memes to laugh at angry men online.
But it’s not just how the backlash is reinventing itself. There’s also a deep hypocrisy in the issues men’s rights activists in particular claim to be upset about.
Consider the kvetching done about “dangerous jobs”. Men do most of them, we are told, and this makes them more oppressed. You feminists want equality?! Fine! Go work on an oil rig!
And yet, any attempts to bring more women into these industries is met with more opposition. Quotas? What happened to merit! It should be the best person for the job! Feminists need to stop trying to infiltrate our workplaces!
Then there’s the ignorance of the family court system. It doesn’t matter that family law is more disposed towards fathers now than it has ever been – what matters is propelling the narrative that men are being demonised all over the country and kept from their kids.
There’s no doubt the family court sometimes fails. It’s an imperfect system. But it’s interesting that the same men who bellyache about how oppressive family law is never seem to be in favour of fighting for workplace equality – the same workplace equality that would make it less likely as a rule that mothers would move to part time or casual work (or no work at all) and therefore not be groomed as the default option for primary parenting in the majority of cases.
No, once again they tend to be the same men who defend workplace inequality as either the fault of women or a “suitable” arrangement because men are the ones (apparently) who financially support the family.
It’s also no great secret that the majority of men’s genuine grievances with their place in the world would disappear if they got on board with feminism. This is the greatest mystery. Because in working so vigorously against women, they also work so hard against themselves.
These men are more comfortable with a system in which they can offset the disadvantage they sometimes experience by wielding power over women than working towards a society that shares both the power and its burdens for the greater good.
And in the end, this is what those old battleaxes would be rolling in their graves over. It’s not the methods that feminists use to fight today, it’s that our fight is still hindered by the same toxic opposition as ever before. It’s the fact that we can have come so far to have changed so very little.