Misunderstanding feminism after all these years

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dear feminists

Nicole Arbour

Q: How many feminists does it take to plug in a light bulb?

A: That’s not funny!

This is the favourite joke of an activist friend of mine, who enjoys the irony of laughing at people who think modern feminists have no sense of humour.

This stereotypical idea of the humourless feminist of course comes from the inability of many of us to find something to laugh about when we hear jokes about the suffering of ordinary women, whether it’s through domestic violence, rape, employment discrimination or any of the myriad expressions of gender bias, discrimination and violent oppression women face around the world, every day.

“It’s just a joke!” the teller will respond, as if labelling it a joke somehow removes its ability to harm others, as if laughing at the expense of the victims of the types of trauma that have driven many to despair, depression and suicide would be liberating if only those damn feminists could just loosen up a little.

“Your dad just died of cancer? So sorry. But, hey, that reminds me of this great dead-dad joke I heard the other day. Did you hear hear the one about the girl whose dad was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. On his death bed, he said, ‘Don’t worry, hon. Thanks to the cancer, I keep forgetting you were adopted!’

“Hahaha. Hey, why are you crying? It’s just a joke, you humourless bitch.”

***

Lise Thériault

Lise Thériault

The stereotype is just one of many that are used with regularity to dismiss modern feminism as an enclave of castrating dykes whose sole agenda is to declare war on anyone with a penis. This is a little like equating American democracy with the Bundy Militia. Feminism, like democracy or any other broad political philosophy, encompasses a very wide range of beliefs, some of them the polar opposite of those held by other feminists.

Which is why it was bizarre to hear Quebec’s minister for the status of women,  Lise Thériault, tell a Presse Canadienne reporter last week that she was “much more egalitarian than feminist,” as if the two were mutually exclusive.

In fact, the definition of feminism has gender equality as its cornerstone, so it was a little like hearing the health minister say he was much more of a healer than a physician, or the labour minister say he favoured employment over jobs.

Thériault would later try to walk her words back down the rabbit hole, explaining she was a feminist “in my own way” — as if every other feminist had surrendered their individuality to some totalitarian ideology that threatens to impose unisex washrooms and ban the grooming of body hair.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “feminism is sometimes presented as a fight led by women against men.”

Which is exactly the way Thériault presented it by disassociating herself from the label and saying she preferred equality. Rather than trying to attack the stereotype, the minister perpetuated it by suggesting that “feminists” don’t believe in egalitarian principles.

That’s a pretty poor message for the minister responsible for the status of women to send out on the eve of International Women’s Day.

We can only hope it was just a bad joke.  ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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