We are told we are respected, and yet

Feminism is resurging, says Ellie Mae O’Hagan at Comment is Free. It’s resurging because there is still so god damn much sexist shit going on. In that sense it would be nice if feminism could drop dead because it’s no longer needed.

O’Hagan recently read The Feminine Mystique for the first time.

To my mind, the most amazing and miserable aspect of The Feminine Mystique is how relevant it still is. Women of my generation are still being sold lies to keep us obedient. We are told that we are valued, until we accuse a revered man of rape. We are told we are equal, and yet we still do most of the low-paid and unpaid work. We are told we are respected, and yet we are harassed in the street, objectified and ridiculed in the media, and haunted by words like nag, harridan and hysteric in our personal relationships.

And not just those. Also bitch, cunt, twat, pussy, slut, whore, ho…

And then there’s the new, more friendly, more accommodating kind of feminism.

For every campaign against objectification, we have the Sex and the City brand of feminism, as personified by a burgeoning movement in America calling itself “sexy feminists“, which reassures us that one can believe in gender equality and still pay hefty sums of money to have pubic hair ripped out at the root.

In my mind, if being sexy and funny are the two cornerstones of a new feminist movement, we may as well all pack up and go home now. At its core, feminism should be angry. It should be angry because women are still being taken for a ride. Like the women in The Feminine Mystique, we are being sold a lie of equality in a society where the odds are politically, socially and economically stacked against us.

Feminism’s most basic function should be to emphasise that sexism is not an accident, but an inevitable consequence of a society structured to favour men. Jokes about vaginas and reassurances that we won’t have to give up lipstick are not enough. To put it bluntly, a new feminism should not be afraid to piss people off.

Yes but you see the thing is…feminism is about equal rights for women, and women are women. The first duty of women, because they are women, is to be sexy and funny. That’s because they’re women, you see. Women have to be pleasing in some way. They just do. I’m sorry, I know it seems unfair, but they just do. Because they’re women. Men don’t have to be pleasing in some way, because they’re men, and they can do other things. They have other things to offer – success, or strength, or talent. Men can give us things like Microsoft, or coal, so we don’t care so much if they’re sexy and funny. Women can’t give us anything like that, so they have to make up for it by being pleasing. That’s why we hate older women so much: they can’t be pleasing, so they’re violating this important rule that they have to be pleasing. We wish they would just fuck off and die already.

So if feminism is angry, we’re all going to hate it and attack it, because if there’s anything we don’t want, it’s unpleasing angry women all over the place, telling us not to call them cunts.

Sexy, funny feminism is inspired by the fear that feminism will never get anywhere unless it is likeable. For a long time now, feminists have been told that their message will never spread to the masses if the messenger appears to be an angry man-hating lesbian shouting the odds from a gender studies seminar room. But we need to realise that popular, non-threatening feminism is destined for failure as well. In a patriarchy – and if you are a feminist, you accept that we are living in one – what is popular and non-threatening is what men deem to be acceptable.

Can’t be helped. It’s be pleasing or get out.


  1. says

    This rubs me totally the wrong way, cause it seems to be denigrating the feminists who want to be sexy. What’s wrong with wanting to be sexy but still agreeing with everything about feminism? Do I have to embrace my Y-chromosome (if I transition, I’ll still have a Y-chromosome) or be called out as not a feminist? Do I have to let my leg hair grow back into the thick black bush it was or be called out as not a femist (oh god the thought of that makes me want to barf…)?

  2. shari says

    Ophelia, I am a reader of yours via Almost Diamonds. I read both of you daily now. I am not an atheist, but I follow the dialogues pretty closely. It’s given me very effective ways to smack down sexism. Feminism can’t worry about being ‘nice’ and it can’t worry about being ‘cute’. Or ‘sexy’. But I do find that you need to know your audience – pointing out bigotry and sexism with gentle humor can get a larger audience to listen respectfully and get the message, if that larger audience is That aware.

    For other audiences, the less aware ones, from what I have seen, sexy feminism just invites sexism.

    Easier to not lose the message when half your audience isn’t lost in gazing at your cleavage.

    Thanks for the awesome writing and all the thought provoking. It’s appreciated.

  3. says

    Katherine, I don’t think it’s denigrating feminists who want to be sexy, but it is disagreeing with a program of “sexy feminism.” Surely it’s possible to want to be sexy without being normative about it. Surely the whole idea is quite insulting if closely examined. For a start, it implies that feminism without the adjective isn’t sexy, and in doing that it implies that feminism has some kind of obligation to be sexy. I mean nobody bothers to start “sexy socialism” or “sexy civil rights” so why “sexy feminism”? I think it’s because of this underlying idea that women are obliged to be sexy, so feminism had better say it’s sexy or else everyone will hate it.

  4. says


    I think there are two usages of “sexy” going on here. There’s the “I feel great in my body and/or in this outfit, and I’m turning myself on” kind of sexy, and the “I must conform to an ideal to compete for the male gaze because the only way I can get positive notice is if I’m a sexual object” kind of sexy. It’s the latter that’s incompatible with feminism.

  5. rowanvt says

    @Katherin: Of course you can be sexy if you want. Because that’s an individual thing. However, the comment about leg hair shows you’ve been steeped in the old stereotypes about feminism, and those are very negative ones.

    It’s the general idea of a ‘sexy feminism’ that is the problem. Because ‘feminism’ isn’t sexy to the masses. It’s scary ugly old harridans with hairy legs and armpits who hate men and want to oppress them. ‘Sexy feminism’ says “Oh no, guys, it’s okay! We’re not like those other feminists, see? We’re pretty, we’re attractive and we play nice.” It’s the Chill Girl of feminism. And this is a major problem because it means nothing will be done. It’s a cosmetic update for the surface of society while fixing none of the problems.

  6. says


    This is the line that bothered me (although admittedly I’d never get a Brazilian… ouch… I still do get my legs waxed):

    “sexy feminism” […] reassures us that one can believe in gender equality and still pay hefty sums of money to have pubic hair ripped out at the root.

    I agree that feminism should be about women not having to conform to the specific standard that society finds appealing (whatever that is this week) to be taken seriously. At the same time, though, women should be free to conform to whatever specific standard society finds appealing if it’s their choice.

    That line reads that if you believe in gender equality, you can’t pay for a Brazilian or you’re playing a double standard.

  7. mythbri says

    People – even feminists! – can be funny and angry at the same time. 😉 Amanda Marcotte does a great job with that.

  8. says

    We’d just like to chime in as the link behind that “sexy feminist” bit — and, of course, we love link love, so we’re not complaining! And we did know it would be a topic of debate when we called ourselves Sexy Feminist. But just for the record, we don’t think being angry — which we often are about patriarchal BS in our world — is mutually exclusive from being sexy or funny. We also use “sexy” in a strictly being-sexy-for-ourselves way, as in “feminism is inherently sexy.” It’s sexy for women, and it’s sexy for men who are smart enough to realize it.

  9. lydia says

    one thing that is very telling to socialized power inequality is the huge disporportion gendered slurs. There are hundreds of anti-women slurs, dozens of slurs against non-normative men or trans individuals (demeaning female attributes), but only a few (dick, prick and cad – any others?) that are specifically only anti-male. Same goes for anti-minority terms (so many!) vs anti-white. Also, many insults to men contain some admiration or compliment, where most insults to women are just cruel.

  10. Antares42 says

    Women can’t give us anything like that, so they have to make up for it by being pleasing. That’s why we hate older women so much: they can’t be pleasing, so they’re violating this important rule that they have to be pleasing. We wish they would just fuck off and die already.

    As a guy, I can assure you that there are many men out there that do not think this way at all. I know I am one. I have nothing but respect for my female peers and superiors in academia. When they make mistakes (it happens, to me and to them), I explicitly don’t think that “of course, that’s because they’re women. They shouldn’t be here anyway.”

    And to be very clear, I write this not to disprove your point, which all to often is valid, but to signal that there is hope. You are not alone.

  11. screechymonkey says

    Speaking of that word, there’s a piece just up at Slate on it.

    Despite the source, it is not some faux-contrarian take on the subject.

  12. jose says

    Support for the sexy looks to me like the lite version of support for the islamic veil.

    But women should be free to put it on if they want! Sure: help them be free first, and once they’re free, step back and let them decide. To just say well, everybody can do whatever they want and that’s all there is to it, is to ignore why there is feminism in the first place. You know. Oppression.

    To be honest it just feels like a coping strategy. A “life gives you lemons”, etc. reaction. Glossing over the fact, trying to turn it around or to reclaim it (although you never owned it to begin with), instead of getting rid of it. A bit like when other workers tell me how being poor dignifies life because you focus on what’s really important, blahblah. Not to say no worker can truly feel disdain for money, but you get the point.

  13. Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says

    I have no issue with sexy, in any of its many forms, provided they are actually what pleases the person who’s doing it. However, my feminism, and my politics, have no need to wrap every point in media-approved sexy. My conviction that the oppression of women needs to end is not going to end with a giggle and a “but I looooove giving blowjobs!”. My acknowledgment that patriarchy is a thing is not going to be delivered gently, meekly in a soft ego-sparing nest of my femmeness. I am femme, and I am so both as personal art, and as a political stand of its own, not an enthusiastically consumerist and uncritical refusal to rock the boat.

  14. Cyranothe2nd, ladyporn afficianado says

    @ Jose–well said! Women aren’t “free” so long as there are massive social stigmas for not conforming.

  15. says

    Sexy, funny feminism is inspired by the fear that feminism will never get anywhere unless it is likeable.

    what the fuck. why is it always this. why is it always about being liked by the majority that’s propping up the oppression in the first place.

    MLK and the Civil Rights movement had horrible approval ratings for a long time. the majority — the white, privileged majority — wanted them to settle down and stop making a fuss. this was the entire point of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, to point out that the fuss was meant to force the powers that be into action. it worked. and now we venerate the fuck out of King.

    and then we turn around and start telling people they need to give into the petty complaints of the oppressors because that’s the only way anything will get done, kicking up a fuss just causes trouble and makes people not like us. go along to get along, and all that. it’s complete and total fucking bullshit and needs to stop right the fuck now =/

  16. says

    @my 20:

    To clarify:

    I feel like what I’m being told (and correct me if I’m wildly misinterpreting the words I’ve read) is that if what I want to do to feel attractive corresponds to societal standards of appeal, then I can’t be a feminist. If I want to wear makeup, wax my legs, put on a skirt, or lament the fact I’m a male-bodied trans-woman and hence have no curves that I don’t believe in gender equality.

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