Thanks to popular culture, the mere mention of the word "feminist" can conjure up many images. We imagine the jackboot-wearing bra-burner of the 1960s, with a profound hatred of all things masculine. We hear U.S. Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin hailed as an exemplary feminist. We think of the Spice Girls-induced "girl power" craze of the 1990s. We think of the pro-choice movement, the woman's suffrage movements and Taking Back the Night. Many will often wonder why feminism exists at all since women have achieved most of their goals already. Many struggle to define exactly what constitutes being feminist, based on these many conflicted images with which we are constantly presented.
So what does a feminist look like?
To start, a feminist holds a certain set of beliefs that are the core of the movement. While feminism itself is a very diverse ideology, with several often-opposing stances on various issues, most feminists will judge men and women not based on their gender, but rather as human beings. This means that, for a feminist, gender roles and physical appearance hold little to no importance in the face of other human qualities. This also dispels the myth that feminists hate men. Masculinity, like femininity or any gender identification, holds no moral weight. Anyone can choose to identify as whichever one they please. However, a feminist will take issue when the two types are pitted against each other-- masculine being cold, hostile and dominant and feminine being weak, irrational and submissive.
One common myth about feminism claims that gender issues affect only women, and further, only those who subscribe to feminism. Many social problems, such as poverty, unemployment and violence, disproportionately affect yet are in no way limited to women. Many feminist activists are involved in the struggle against these problems, to create a better future for women and men alike. Working against enforced gender roles plays a vital role in the fight against homophobia and transphobia. How often have we heard male homosexuals and transsexuals being accused of apparent femininity?
Another common misconception is that any powerful or famous woman can be considered a "feminist." This is simply untrue, and can be likened to labelling every rich, famous westerner a "capitalist," whether or not they subscribe to the ideology themselves. Many have associated Palin with feminism. While we can surely thank feminism for enabling a woman to attain such a position, does this necessarily mean that Palin, who endorses severe restrictions on a woman's reproductive rights and strives towards a return to traditional gender roles, is in any way a feminist? We constantly hear pop stars such as the Pussycat Dolls preach messages of female empowerment, while acting in a consistently sexualized manner and singing about their own sexual availability. Irrespective of the personal politics of these figures, the fact that the only form of empowerment being discussed is overt sexuality leads one to question just how feminist these messages really are.
A feminist, simply put, is someone who subscribes to feminist beliefs, regardless of age, appearance, ethnic background and especially regardless of gender. Who knows, you just might be more of a feminist than you realize.