Why the world of feminism is strange, hard and messy

June 23, 2014
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A Facebook post about Emma Watson proved to Kristen Daly that the world of feminism is strange, hard and messy – and in the words of columnist Tim Blair, full of “frightbats”. Yet she wouldn’t have it any other way.

If Emma Watson happens to be reading this, I want her to know that I’m sorry. A few weeks ago I screwed her over. And I can’t really get over it.

Like everyone else on the internet, I saw that picture she tweeted of her lovely, cherry-cheeked self donning a tell-tale graduation robe and mortarboard. My heart instantly skipped a beat – and not only due to her beauty, captured forever in the iPhone-enabled portrait of our times. Emma and I, you see, are both ’90 babies, and we clearly both respect the pursuit of higher education. Granted, I evaded the same degree of scrutiny she faced when navigating the hallowed halls of Brown University, but I still know what it’s like to work damn hard for a degree – and to swell with pride when that piece of paper is finally in hand.

I get it, Emma, you clever clogs! I even graduated in the same fortnight as you! And when I posted your selfie to a popular Facebook group, I totally devised a witty caption to reflect your many enviable qualities, right? Right?

My stomach swirled with unease even before I clicked ‘submit’, but I stupidly passed this feeling off as the stage fright that comes with posting something 20,000 people will see. Why did I even post it in the first place? And why that caption? I suppose I was genuinely excited to see her pass this milestone: I wished to celebrate her accomplishments as a bright, brave, worldly young woman. Yet I chose to emphasise the first aspect of that picture that hit my brain… how good she happened to look that day.

This post on my Facebook may have won about three likes and a Bling Ring gif (on a good day). When posted on Monash Uni StalkerSpace – a community noticeboard full of students with, um, stalkerish tendencies, and lots of generally unpleasant folk – it attracted almost 1300 likes and a truckload of comments. I was horrified by many of these, which tended to be of the sleazy, ‘10/10 would bang’ variety – but I was even more horrified by those comments that were all like, ‘girl gets a degree from an Ivy League college and people can only comment on her looks’. I was horrified because they were right. I was horrified because I’m usually the one shaking my fist at my computer and expressing that exact sentiment.

It all made even less sense when I recalled what I was doing at 4am that same morning: lying wide awake, obsessing over an exchange I had with a stranger a few nights earlier on George Street in Sydney. Despite his considerable level of drunkenness, I decided to engage this fellow in the conversation he so keenly initiated. Why not? Yet after a few minutes of benign chit-chat, he hailed a taxi and offered to take me home. I laughed a little and politely declined. He insisted. I said no again. A minute later, just when I thought the coast was clear, his taxi cruised up beside me and exasperated dude asked again if he could take me “home”. By that time I was hot-footing it out of there… but he kept trailing me up the street. Finally he gave up.

Yes, I’m aware the now-famous #YesAllWomen hashtag was borne from a tragedy that eclipses a minor run-in with a drunken dude in the Sydney CBD. Yet at 4am, while the quiet calm of a new day allowed my mind to roam, that hashtag provided a perfect vehicle for the anguish that wells up inside me whenever I feel targeted, provoked, objectified – as a woman. “#YesAllWomen feel belittled & sad when a man befriends them, then insists on taking them ‘home’ while chasing them up the street in a taxi,” I tweeted. “Surely men can see why our default mode with them is cautious.”

If tweeting my emotions makes me a “frightbat”, as columnist Tim Blair bizarrely dubbed several high-profile feminists last week, so bloody be it – I don’t give a monkey’s arse what he thinks. What does bother me is the all-encompassing struggle to reconcile our failures and complexities as humans with the huge, demanding, sprawling thing that is feminism. I know, for instance, that I don’t face the same struggles as the women who bravely expose themselves, or are unwillingly exposed, to the full force of misogyny on a systemic basis. But are we not able to recognise their hardship, while also seeing that all feminists strain under the weight of an ideal that contradicts everything our culture teaches us? We grill pop stars, politicians and other influential figures for failing to grasp the basics: we tell them feminism is, at its root, about nothing more than gender equality. Is there not a space for upholding this sentiment, while also recognising its failure to capture how messy the fight can be?

For me, being a feminist means constantly confronting strange, paradoxical narratives like this. One minute men are exploiting the vulnerability my gender bestows upon me. The next, I’m inadvertently using a dumb Facebook post to inflict a similar pain on another woman. One moment I’m quietly praising an article on a well-known feminist site for eschewing an overt display of emotion. The next I’m remembering that exercising emotion is, for many feminists, one of their most brave, politically subversive and worthwhile projects.

Perhaps all I really know is that pursuing gender equality is honourable, and the belief structure that underpins that pursuit should be as innate and natural as blinking – yet it sure doesn’t feel that way sometimes. We have to work hard at it, understand how language works in different contexts (pro tip: don’t wax lyrical about a girl’s appearance on Monash StalkerSpace) and avoid easy, Twitter-worthy platitudes.

We all have to apologise sometimes too – even when the Tim Blairs of this world refuse to. So Emma Watson, girl, I am truly sorry. I aim to be better next time.

Kristen Daly

Kristen Daly is Monash University Alumni and ex-editor of student publication Esperanto. She is a lifestyle writer, Daria wannabe and tweets at @kristendaly.