Exploring the Feminist Guilt
The Guilty Feminist, an award winning podcast hosted by the Deborah Frances White has sparked intriguing conversations amongst feminists all over the globe. The podcast amongst numerous other things aims to bring together feminists from varied identities to discuss contemporary issues. It typically, starts with a prompt, “I am a feminist but __________” rant. For instance, “I am a feminist but I once missed a women’s rights march as I got distracted trying out a face cream”. Inspired by the prompt, I decided to try the same on my friends to spot the guilty. It led to responses such as, “I am a feminist but I feel awful that I don’t want kids” or in Fleabag’s context, “I am a feminist but I would trade 5 years of my life to have an ideal body” or in one of my dear friend’s words, “I am a feminist but I think I am prettier than my ex-boyfriend’s current wife”.
My feminist friends who identify as men also responded to the “I am feminist but________” rant with immense amount of guilt. For instance, “I am a feminist but I find myself saying not all men more often than I should” or “I am a feminist but I feel uncomfortable when my girlfriend reaches for the cheque on restaurant dates” or “I am a feminist but I would never marry a girl taller than me” or “I am a feminist but I worry that wearing pink might make me come across as feminine or gay”
One might naturally criticize such statements as deteriorating the value of feminism or even dismiss them as hypocritical. However, the “I am a feminist but __________” prompt is important in the present day scenario for multiple reasons. We are probably (rather hopefully) living in the period of transition between a staunch patriarchal society and a society that is now taking its baby steps towards gender equality. Thus being the era, we are evidently both, victims of patriarchy and the propagators of feminism. Naturally, we are stuck within the dichotomous pea pod of being a feminist in a society built on patriarchal values and morals. The prompt, helps us assert our feminist ideology while still acknowledging that we are all, irrespective of our gender/sexual identities, also victims of patriarchy in some way. In the midst of the clash between phallocentrism and allocentrism, have emerged the guilty feminists.
Is the “feminist guilt” bad?
Guilt is generally a pro-social emotion. It emerges from self-evaluation, from an understanding that one omitted a duty that he/she/they morally feel obligated to do to another. A study by Graton & Ric found that feelings of guilt resulted in people responding to “reparatory stimuli”. Words such as “help”, “apologise” and “fix” led to their positive response. Another study (Zang et al. ) also led to the understanding that when people were stimulated to think of instances where another person acted towards a moral duty that they themselves could have acted upon, they felt guilty. For instance, when they saw another person help a child cross a busy road, they felt guilty for not doing it themselves. Thus guilt comes from a place of being unable to act in accordance with what one believes to be moral or fair. The Feminist Guilt too is presumably premised on a sense of duty and commitment to an ideology propagating equality rather than lack of it or plain hypocrisy. So, is it bad? Not at all.
Steps to identify and channel the feminist guilt
Step 1: Participate in the “I am a feminist but _________” rant. This will definitely help us understand our own shortcomings.
Step 2: Spot our allies and call them out. Help them understand that their emotions are stranded in the patriarchal island while their feminist rationality has already boarded the ship.
Step 3: Realise that it is okay to have made such statements in the past. Apologise and promote accountability.
Step 4: Don’t be too hard on oneself. Learn and evolve.
Acknowledging our sub-conscious judgments/biases and trying to overcome them does not make us any less of a feminist.
- From Guilt to Reparation: Exploring the Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying the Effects of Guilt by Aurélien Graton and François Ric.
- The Guilty Feminist Podcast by Deborah Frances-White