Sunday, April 6, 2014

Feminism's PR Problem

I'm a sympathizer with the Feminist movement - let me state that clearly for the record - but I wouldn't call myself a Feminist, if only because I think the term implies some level of activism. I support the goals of Feminism (as I understand them, anyway, i.e. equal opportunities for women in general) but don't actively campaign for change in any appreciable way, so I'll leave the term for those out there on the front lines. As a supporter of the ideals of the movement, I have to admit that it's becoming difficult to watch as it struggles to find a unified voice and a consistent and helpful tone. I'll point out two recent examples of what I think are unmitigated PR disasters on the part of the Feminist movement in order to illustrate exactly why a change in strategy might be advantageous.

Rape Culture

This phrase has been thrown around on social and mainstream media and debated at length, and it seems to have real staying power - proponents of the movement like this phrase and aren't backing away from it. Sadly I think it's a miserable coinage with way more deficiencies than insights, and it's far too flawed for too many reasons to be a catalyst for sweeping positive societal change.

Let me first articulate what I understand to be the general sense and usage of the term "rape culture", in case any of my criticisms of it stem from a basic misunderstanding. "Rape culture" broadly refers to the various ways in which society (particularly Western, and perhaps chiefly American) encourages, ignores, or tacitly endorses sexually aggressive behavior towards women. There are many examples of this, such as victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and probably some other hyphenated buzz-words. To be clear, I don't for a second dismiss the notion that these phenomena do actually occur, are harmful to women, and must be curtailed. My problem is with the phrase "rape culture," which sucks for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it's absurdly hyperbolic. Simply two words that, without very specific context, paint an overly broad and inaccurately dour picture of society. As a culture, we abhor rape. We have laws establishing severe punishments against rapists. I would even contend that it is perhaps the only issue imaginable on which people agree without exception. What sane person would ever argue that rape is acceptable in some situations? The idea is laughable. There are cultures elsewhere in the world that have different views on the permissibility of rape, certainly. To American society on the whole, it's utter anathema. The term "rape culture" is blind to these truths.

It's also unnecessarily provocative. There's no non-confrontational way to accuse someone of contributing to rape culture. While it's not the same as calling someone a rapist, it's still far too close to be an acceptable way to engage someone, particularly if you'd like that person to be sympathetic to your position. People who don't consider themselves to be rapists are not going to respond positively to any intimation that they are a party to the act in any respect.

"Rape culture" shifts the focus from delinquent individuals to society as a whole. Rape is a violent, antisocial, aberrant behavior. People who rape are criminals and need to be held accountable for the decisions they've made. "Rape culture" seems to undermine the idea of individual culpability by providing some sort of larger context that contributed to a rapist eventually committing the act. I don't think asking why does our society produce rapists? is as relevant a question as what's wrong with this person who feels that rape is acceptable?

The issues raised by proponents of the "rape culture" trope are real. There are aspects of society that do not adequately point out appropriate and inappropriate behavior regarding sexual relations between consenting adults. Work does need to be done in order to reduce the instances of inappropriate sexual conduct, especially among college-aged people. The term "rape culture" is not, however, a particularly well-crafted encapsulation of these societal imperfections. It's a hammer for a job requiring a set of surgical instruments.


I'm actually more bothered by this latest PR abortion than "rape culture", as I think it's even more misguided and even less effective. Perhaps you've seen the Twitter hashtag, or this commercial featuring some prominent women:

This video has more than 2 million views at the time of writing, and innumerable others have seen it on television. There is some serious star power behind this one, including Beyonce and Condoleezza Rice. The video recommends banning the use of the word "bossy" because it discourages young girls from taking leadership roles. This entire idea is so profoundly stupid that I'm having difficulties articulating my befuddlement in words. I can sum up my feelings succinctly with a popular internet meme:

Ok, let me try to peel away the layers of bullshit from this onion of ignorance. First, there is absolutely no sense whatsoever in trying to ban the use of a word, especially a word like bossy, which is not vulgar or offensive. It's a normal English word that normal people use every day in normal conversation. Even if every single person in America saw this video, there is no practical hope of people ever collectively deciding to stop using this word, or any word at all. You can't make a 1-minute video and expect 300 million people to alter their behavior or their lexicon.

I must admit, though, that I am categorically opposed to banning any word for any reason. Words convey meaning, and by removing a word, we limit the ability to express ourselves in spoken or written language. While it's certainly true that there are extremely offensive words that should be used with extreme caution and at the risk of severe consequences, there is no rationale for completely forbidding the use of a word. I'm speaking here about extremely offensive discriminatory slurs, which does not describe bossy in the slightest.

Bossy is a word with a specific meaning, and if we arbitrarily decide to remove it from our language, we become incapable of clearly expressing that idea. Here's what the word means, according to

given to ordering people about; overly authoritative; domineering.

We have words for things so that we can describe those things accurately when necessary. There exist in this world people who are overly authoritative and domineering, and we can rightly call these people bossy. That's what they are, that's what the word means. There's also the apparently unappreciated irony of issuing such a strong prohibition in such a, you know, bossy way.  I'd say forbidding people from using a word is overly authoritative, wouldn't you? Perhaps if you'd like to dissuade people from using the word bossy you might go about it in, say, a less bossy way? Did the writers of this ad really not even consider how hilariously hypocritical this is? 

Then there's the justification for the campaign: "By middle school, girls are less interested in leadership than boys, and that's because they worry about being called bossy." Ok. This sentence contains two statements, both reported as facts, with the latter explaining the former.  If you're going to tell me that I can't use a word anymore, you'd better have some god damn conclusive evidence that directly correlates being called bossy as a child with not wanting to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Not evidence that discouraging young girls from being assertive leads to this consequence, but that being called bossy does. I've tried unsuccessfully to find the study that apparently gave rise to this whole ridiculous campaign. It was reportedly done by the Girl Scouts of America, but I don't see anything relevant on their publications list. If anyone knows what perhaps legitimate work has been bastardized for this commercial, let me know. 

Does it really matter anyway, though? What sort of study could even substantiate a claim like this? Surely the number of girls who abandoned their ambitions specifically because someone called them bossy when they were children must be incalculably small. How many middle school girls would you even have to ask before someone gave that specific answer, that she willfully modified her behavior solely out of fear of being called bossy? And I'm to believe that this is so pervasive a problem that it warrants banning the use of a word? The simpletons who came up with this ad must imagine that I'm even denser than they are.  

Let's have another look at that definition, shall we? Given to ordering people about; overly authoritative; domineering. Do those sound like strong leadership qualities? No, of course not. Bossy people are not leaders, they're bullies. They're insecure, antisocial brats who don't know how to interact with other human beings in a positive and productive way. Bossy children, if the word is being applied correctly, should not be fast-tracked to management positions. They should be educated about how to engage with others without being assholes. 

Here's what this incomprehensibly poorly conceived campaign is actually trying to say: "Hey guys, let's all recognize positive leadership qualities in children and make sure we encourage rather than stifle them, especially in girls." Unfortunately that was too long to be an effective Twitter hashtag, so some marketing genius boiled it down to #BanBossy, ensuring not only that the message would be overshadowed by its own preposterousness, but also that Feminist initiatives would continue to come across as aggressive and confrontational.

So here are just two recent examples of why Feminism needs to fire its PR team and try again with a novel approach. I certainly don't profess to have all the answers, but I think these examples can provide some good advice on what not to do, namely implicate innocent people in an unspeakable crime and attempt to remove perfectly useful words from the English language for completely misguided reasons. The most frustrating thing about all of this is that at the core of both of these campaigns is not just an important message, but a message that most people would absolutely sympathize with, if only it could be offered in a way that didn't immediately cause aversion and reactionary opposition.

If I were pressed on exactly how to go about accomplishing the goals of Feminism in a more effective way, I would say that there is no magic bullet, no catch phrase or hashtag that is going to change the world. Instead, efforts need to target the roots of problems rather than simply treat the symptoms, the superficial manifestations of deep-rooted cultural tendencies. Education and raising awareness are indispensable parts of the solution; they must, however, be framed in a consistently positive, non-confrontational way in order to be taken seriously.