Am I a Feminist, or Just Bitter?
How do you know when you cross the line between being conscientious and just being bitter? I’m an educated and analytical person, and I’ve considered myself a feminist since I was sixteen, and I don’t want to stop being one. But honestly, it’s just getting so damn hard. I can’t open a newspaper, watch a movie, or even walk down the street without running into examples of subtle or not-so-subtle sexism. And I live in California! I’m not a man-hater, and I don’t usually follow these observations to the level of confrontation, but I come home at the end of each day feeling more and more resentful of the world we’re living in. I see men at my office making more money and being treated with more respect than women who are far more capable; I see brilliant women completely losing their self-confidence just because they’re aging in a healthy and natural way; I see movie franchises built around actresses with little to commend them other than their physical assets, while truly iconic women are forced fade from the spotlight far too soon; and I see even my most liberal colleagues occasionally buying into all of this bullshit.
I talk about it, I write about it, I try my hardest to apply my full intelligence to these issues, but I also stew and fume and get angry. And I don’t think I’m wrong to do so. Or at least, I don’t think my anger is misdirected. I do my best not to blame individuals; I recognize that we’re all human, and this thing is just bigger than all of us. But regardless of how well or poorly I handle it, I do find myself in a nasty mood a good amount of the time.
What I want to know is, how can I be myself, be a feminist, and also be happy? Is there a point at which devotion to any cause, no matter how just, is unhealthy? Sometimes I think the most feminist thing I could do would be ignore it all and try to live outside of that oppressive system in some kind of closed self-made paradise; but it’s too late for me even if that were what I wanted — it’s just not in my nature to turn the other cheek. Yet even my closest friends and my totally feminist boyfriend of 10 years sometimes hint that I should just unwind and enjoy Mad Men with the rest of the world. Are they right, Watson? When do you hang up your hat?
- Woman Wondering
The first thing I noticed while reading your letter is that although you say you’ve been a feminist since you were sixteen, you describe this “bitterness” as a recent phenomenon. My question for you, then, is: what changed since then? Sexism isn’t a new phenomenon — why was it bearable to you in the past when it isn’t now?
I don’t know you, so I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the answer lies in your observation that your once-feminist friends are “completely losing their self-confidence,” “hint[ing] that [you] should just unwind and enjoy Mad Men with the rest of the world.” In other words, the problem might not be your commitment to feminism itself, but your growing sense that your feminist efforts are ineffective. The tone of your letter suggests that a feeling of frustration and helplessness has come over you lately, despite your ostensible success at work, your close-knit group of friends, and your loving partner.
Feminism is partly about identifying and exposing sexist behavior, but it’s also about having faith that intelligent individuals can overcome their own biases and teach others to do it too. And while your critical capacity is intact, your faith seems to be faltering.
You write that you “don’t want to stop being [a feminist]” and it sounds like that’s true. I don’t think you (or any other rational and introspective person, for that matter) can really “go back” after becoming aware of systematic injustices. And I don’t think you’d be happier “hang[ing] up your hat.” You can’t, at this point, really abandon feminism, tempting as it sounds. All you can do is try to recover your old faith in it.
So ignore your friends and focus on that. There’s a lot that sucks about the world, but it’s always been that way; focus on what used to allow you to live in it anyway, what you’ve lost sight of lately. Don’t think about how much remains to be accomplished, but how you’d feel if you couldn’t say, at the end of the day, that you’d done everything you could. Don’t think of it as an uphill struggle; see it as an exercise of your nature, an expression of your identity. Find your optimism again. I know it’s still there.
Dear Watson is TFT’s new weekly advice column. You can write to Watson anonymously at email@example.com.
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