This essay was originally published on October 10, 2013 at hothousemagazine.org.
I’m of the generation that squirms away from labels. We were all raised to be unique, to be a special ray of sunlight, vibrating in a color unlike any that has ever been or ever will be. It is for people like us that the Facebook status “it’s complicated” was invented.
Our squeamishness at being labeled is to our detriment. For the record, I do firmly believe that everyone is as wondrous and spectacular a little unicorn of rainbows as the corniest middle-school guidance counselor would try to make you believe. And, precisely because of our individualities, we need to embrace some labels, so as to explode the entrenched cultural definition of those labels and get back to the work of saving the world.
A recent article from Salon.com was forwarded to me. The author, Tom Jacobs, presents the findings that people have negative connotations with the words “environmentalist” and “Feminist.” Apparently, mainstream Western culture finds the words extremist, alarmist, and otherwise unpleasant. The gist of the piece was that, perhaps, activists need to think twice before referring to themselves as any of these pesky, uncomfortable “ists.” We need to define ourselves otherwise, and learn to play nice.
Yes, it would be a terrible, scary, bad shame if the average person were put a little off their ease by the nasty, dirty people—say, strident Feminists or bleeding-heart Environmentalists—who find detrimental holes in the dominant power structures of the world. Might wake some folks up out of their culturally induced coma and start to cause some real structural change around here. (SAVE YOURSELVES!!!!!! The people who believe in equity and potlucks are coming!!!!!!)
The additional insult that we should be “nice” is condescending and rude. It infantilizes and undercuts the rightness of the causes activists labor in service to. Because the powerful forces, the ones that institutionalize sexism to the point where workplace sexual harassment prevention training is an accepted norm (but we still have trouble reporting it, and check out mainstream media portrayals of women and tell me that’s not sexual harassment), the ones that have business plans of killing the planet—no one gets snippy with them and says that they’re “just not playing nice.”
I think of The Witch in Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” excoriating the dithering, finger-pointing characters that “you’re not good/you’re not bad/you’re just…nice/I’m not good/I’m not nice/I’m just right.” Niceness should never be the goal. Rightness, though, I can get behind that.
It’s like we’re afraid of their power, afraid to upset them. That needs to stop. They are afraid of our “alternative lifestyles.” That’s why we’re trained to see strong, opinionated women as shrieking harpies, who would be less hysterical if they just had sex, with a man. That’s why we’re trained to belittle passionate people who want to make the world more habitable for all as dirty, stoned, out-of-touch hippies.
I spent a few years thinking I wasn’t a Feminist, because I didn’t find myself in the culturally accepted norm of what a Feminist looks like. To wit, I like men, I have a sense of humor, I shave at least my armpits, and I wear a bra more days than not. As for being an Environmentalist, I shied away from that label on both sides—I wear shoes and eat meat and have never contemplated dreads, but I also am not the kind of Environmentalist who has a collection of pristine fleece jackets embroidered with logos and acronyms from a variety of non-profit and corporate partner and lobbying retreats, and smugs about in a Prius.
In reality, there is no way I could not be both a strident Feminist and a bleeding-heart Environmentalist. As the fantastic Caitlin Moran writes in her book “How to Be a Woman” the test for seeing if you are a Feminist is this simple: “put your hands in your underpants. A) Do you have a vagina? and B) Do you want to be in charge of it?”
I would argue (and thanks to Feminism, I CAN argue) that it could be expanded a bit—“does having said vagina prevent you from having a brain and speaking?”—but I’m willing to go with Moran’s test as a first round.
As for the Environmentalist, I think that the test is even easier. “A) Take a deep breath. B) Do you want that air to be clean?” Maybe add an essay question: “C) Should that air be clean for everyone? Why or why not?”
The hitch in my own claiming my identity was that I fell into the easy trap of thinking that the narrow cultural stereotype was all there was. I was seeking to fit myself to the definition, where I did not see my self reflected. What I wish I had done earlier was to figure out that the definition must be stretched to include me.
I have a suspicious mind. And so, I suspect that there are very powerful forces (namely, male-dominated corporations) at play that perpetuate these stereotypes and drive people away from these very diverse and very powerful identities. Both Environmentalists and Feminists are portrayed very, very narrowly in pop culture.
Because these labels are like the nuclear option against the status quo. And, as a Feminist and Environmentalist, I can quite clearly explain to you all the ways in which the status quo is killing our planet and limiting the lives of a good portion of the population. (It’s not nice, what they do.) Feminists and Environmentalists, we do want change in the accepted norm, we do want to help people wake up and find better, happier ways forward. The Norm would be shitting its pants in fear, if everyone could get together and realize that the stereotypes we are fed, that we eat up, are dangerously limiting, and possibly intentionally so. We define the labels, the labels do not define us.
The sooner we can proudly know ourselves, define ourselves by our loves and our passions, take back our identities, the sooner we can start to kick some Norm ass. It is not complicated.
Bethany Taylor obtained a MS in Environmental Writing from the University of Montana in 2010 and promptly hightailed it home to New England. Her writing appears at granitebunny.blogspot.com, hothousemagazine.org, Launcht.com, Appalachia, and anywhere else that’ll take her. She is thrilled to write for WVE and fully supports their efforts to create a safe, fair, clean and happy world for everyone.