The 'pseudo'-feminism problem: Why people are compelled to brand others as fake and turn ideology into a skill

If feminism is an ideology, why are we so intent on treating it like a skill? How do you decide the perfect way to practice an ideology, when multiple points of view exist, each with their own justifications and flaws?

Aditi Murti March 11, 2019 09:38:36 IST
The 'pseudo'-feminism problem: Why people are compelled to brand others as fake and turn ideology into a skill
  • There’s no particular way to ‘avoid’ being a pseudo-feminist, because there’s no way to define it beyond saying that it resembles, but isn’t feminism.

  • To perform virtue, there must be someone sullied to compare yourself against, and what better way to assert your commitment to feminism than brand someone a faker.

  • If feminism is an ideology, why are we so intent on treating it like a skill?

I was 17 when my Twitter mentions was hit with a tidal wave of vicious, sexist abuse for the very first time.

It was the February of 2015, when the then Information and Broadcast minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore found himself in a bit of a soup. During his address at the Indian Women’s Press Corps, he’d suggested that women might find it easier to analyze news, rather than go reporting in conflict-ridden areas. Naturally, the unfairness of telling women to self-censor ambition, rather than step up as a state to protect those doing their job invited quite a bit of internet outrage, including mine.

What I didn’t expect was a direct reply from the man himself, chastising me for believing the media’s 'story-spinning', simultaneously burying my mentions with righteous, angry supporters. The furore was such that multiple media channels retracted the story and apologised, without caring to fact-check beyond Rathod’s own account. Amid these murky waters, I questioned if I’d done the right thing by opining before fact-checking — a dilemma that would stick with me for a long time, even though it was later proved that actual recordings from the event were in sync with the initial report, and Rathod had indeed messed up.

Meanwhile, my mentions remained in shambles for two days, receiving everything from violent threats from anonymous accounts, to much older women chastising me for speaking to elders ‘impolitely’. Scrolling through the digital detritus, a pattern emerged, almost like a collective voice chanting ‘Behave!’ at me, as if I were a child who’d misbehaved.

At the heart of it was a singular recurring phrase — ‘pseudo’-feminist.

Five years on, I’ve painstakingly learnt the value of fact-checking before speaking. Yet, the sting of being called a pseudo-feminist remained fresh, because I sincerely did believe in the utopian feminist imagination all those pretty buzzwords could conjure. Equality! Empowerment! Upliftment! All of that and a side of Smashing The Patriarchy! too, please and thank you. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered: Was one error all it took? Are you just faking it if you mess up once?

We all know that feminist discourse is an inescapable fragment of the social media experience. Everyone has an opinion to offer and aggressively defend, regardless of expertise or knowledge. If you aren’t parroting this week’s version of The Right Thing, you’re just faking it for the clout. Consequently, a large part of the performance of modern virtue online is to brand those who don’t fall in line as ‘bad’ or ‘pseudo-feminists’.

Responsible for much exhaustion and resignation in women with a considerably large social following, the phrase counts among its victims, Swara Bhaskar (for thinking that killing yourself to save your 'honour' shouldn’t be valourised); Deepika Padukone (for suggesting that women can choose polyamory and open relationships); and everyone who ever said #MeToo, because everyone is a feminist till people they associate with are outed as predators. Commoners aren’t exempt, of course. Women who identify as feminist have been called fakers for everything, from being pro-hijab to light self-deprecation, to just existing.

Here’s a question: Who died and made you the holy guardians of feminism anyway?

The pseudofeminism problem Why people are compelled to brand others as fake and turn ideology into a skill

If you had to think of ways to waste an enormous amount of time, tweeting the Oxford Dictionary definition of feminism to any provocateur who follows you is pretty high up on that list. Especially when most of our hallowed resources of feminist education, that is, Tumblr, Twitter and comedians' Snapchat stories, are dubious at best. Yet, the witch hunt for 'pseudo'-feminists, 'fake' feminists, 'feminazis' and anyone else who has ‘missed the main point of feminism’ remains popular enough to capture the imagination and interest of amateur platforms like blogs, Twitter, Reddit, Quora, slam poetry circles and even established content channels like Scoopwhoop.

There’s no particular way to ‘avoid’ being a pseudo-feminist, because there’s no way to define it beyond saying that it resembles, but isn’t feminism. Unlike savarna feminism or trans exclusionary radical feminism, which are deeply flawed for clear reasons, pseudo-feminism is nothing but an empty little buzzword that’s loaded only via interaction. We just know that all pseudo-feminists have violated the holy trinity of good feminist behavior — by displacing old, infirm uncles from public transport seats, letting men pick up the bill for dates, and tarnishing the reputations of perfectly respectable men via a good ol’ generalisation.

Take, for example, this sketch by Blush Channel, quite literally titled 'Fake Feminists Be Like'. It begins, helpfully, with the Urban Dictionary definition of pseudo-feminist, that iterates how these women have missed the main point of feminism, which (spoiler alert!) is equality. Then, we get a randomised list of hyper-pantomimed feminist stereotypes, slowly increasing in absurdity as the sketch progresses. There’s a woman who likes jargon, a woman who let the man pay the bill, an online-only activist and a random hateful woman. The video is the sort of campy humor that a self declared metro intellectual and Quora hobbyist would enjoy, which makes one wonder why it found home in a channel that claims to celebrate unapologetic women. In case you’re wondering, the next two suggested videos were ‘Feminist Cringe Compilation’ and how right-leaning psychologist 'Jordan Peterson calmly dismantles feminism’.

An interesting statement the writers put in at the beginning of this whole mess is the phrase, ‘tera feminism mere feminism se safed kaise?’, or how is your feminism purer than mine? The same statement technically drives the mindset of those holding the pseudo-smiting pitchforks.

To perform virtue, there must be someone sullied to compare yourself against, and what better way to assert your commitment to feminism than brand someone a faker.

Of course, that isn’t the only reason to brand someone a pseudo-feminist. For the more conservative sort, quite similar to the people who flooded my mentions years ago, trotting out the pseudo-feminism argument is a fun little way to shut women up. Outright sexism is unfashionable, but the insidious usage of watered down, manipulated feminist ‘terms’ as a stand in for traditional virtues is definitely still trendy. Effective too, considering how women are still coded to subtly seek approval from society.

A prime example of the above traditionalist thought process is the reserved seats debacle, written about here, here and, well, here. Even though public transport is an inherently unfriendly space for women, they’re still expected to not assert their right to seats reserved for them. The debate around who deserves a seat on the bus operates without a single mention of how both arguments exist on completely different planes. Which is surprising, because it doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to link women standing in public transport and men, including the infirm and old types, wanting to cop a feel.

If a large part of pseudo-feminism vs feminism is dependent upon respectability, there must be an ideal definition of virtue to aspire towards. A blog post on Medium, in reference to the ideal feminist woman says, "These are women who can handle their jobs, or take on the responsibility of their households or manage to do both. They don’t need a feminist tag to get by. They can wait in line for their turn and can offer their seat in the bus to an old man, if needed. They are the women who can stand up to society and openly fight for justice against their rapists, knowing that their small acts of heroism have given hope to thousands of women who have been vilified by society for being raped… These are feminists in the true sense of the word."

Towards the end of her article, the writer also goes on to ask, ‘So the next time you throw that word around unthinkingly, ask yourself, are you even worthy of using that term?’, immediately branding the women who do not believe in and practice respectable feminism as unworthy, irrelevant and pseudo.

Which begs the question, if feminism is an ideology, why are we so intent on treating it like a skill?

How do you decide the perfect way to practice an ideology, when multiple points of view exist, each with their own justifications and flaws?

Though feminism and its critique must co-exist, what is branded 'pseudo'-feminism is nothing but a straw-man set up to self-congratulate or dissociate from the bitter, grey parts of a much loved movement. This will always be terrible to say aloud, but the feminism you believe in did also birth corporate pop feminism, white feminism, savarna feminism, TERFism and whatever your least favourite film star believes in. If they believe they are feminists, then they are. There is no 'main point'; like any other ideology, it shifts by virtue of the mind wielding it. The only valuable critique is to constantly compare and hold feminism to an altruistic, empathetic and inclusive standard, for it to function ideally towards eliminating discrimination.

That an urban, moneyed and educated class would go out of its way to invent problems like pseudo-feminism to uphold myopic social mores is embarrassing at least and terrifying at worst. It took years for the Indian internet’s posturing intellectuals to sit up and take notice of caste and class as valid players in intersectional feminism, (we sure love buzzwords we know nothing about!) because everyone was busy calling each other out over stereotypical identity archetypes peddled by the Indian diaspora’s understanding of Indian culture.

The sheer neglect, active pushback and rampant plagiarism that the Indian liberal elite reserves for anti-caste activism is flawed feminism enough to rage against. A far better use of our time would be to focus on how to remedy that.

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