Time magazine has found itself in some hot water for its annual poll of words to ban in 2015. The poll featured overused words like “basic,” “kale” and “ratchet.” Alongside those terms, though, was “feminist,” which caused a small uproar and prompted Time to quickly remove the word from the poll and apologize for its initial inclusion. In the apology, the Time representative stated, “While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost, and we regret that its inclusion has become a distraction from the important debate over equality and justice.” I don’t agree with how this was handled at all, on both Time’s and the activists’ side.
First, Time should have stuck to its guns and kept the word in the poll. I’ve already stated my view on publicly demanded apologies: more often than not, they reek of insincerity and the desire to save face, and said insincere apologies being demanded shows quite a lot of entitlement on the part of the public. The fact that the whole of “Time magazine,” in all of its vagueness, was made to apologize only emphasizes that point. Time isn’t the most reputable magazine in the world, but it has some clout, and that it bent under pressure so quickly and over something so trivial does nothing but reflect badly on it.
But neither side of the argument came out of this controversy unblemished. If Time came across as spineless, the feminist movement came across as the overbearing people-police that its critics often accuse it of being. If this was supposed to be a fight to improve and de-stigmatize the name of feminism, it has backfired spectacularly.
The word “feminist” was put on the list because it became a “thing” that every celebrity was made to weigh in on — which it was; that assessment isn’t inaccurate. Like religion and gay marriage before it, feminism very much became the “it” thing for people to talk about and choose a side on. And like bandwagon stances on religion and gay marriage, the movement will tally up how many people agree with it at the end of the year, and then die down, only to be mentioned in the odd interview here or there. So the reason it was on the list — being “overplayed” the same way “basic” and “ratchet” were — is a fair criticism to make. Arguable, but fair. I don’t really believe Time’s excuse for why they put the word on the poll. I doubt anyone wanted to invite any discussion about anything, let alone such a polarizing topic as feminism — but that’s of course what you have to say when you’re trying to help PR.
The main criticism of “feminist” being put on the poll was that it drew attention away from and stigmatized a movement made to empower women and promote equality. I know that feminists are a varied group, like all other groups, and that there are probably plenty of self-proclaimed feminists who didn’t care about this controversy at all. That being said, this reaction falls in line with how many feminists have reacted to things that make feminism “look bad.” There’s an odd notion that feminism — and “feminism” specifically, not gender equality, but feminism — as a movement needs to be constantly protected from anything resembling disparagement, and it is very counterproductive in its application. This is the same uproar that happens every time a celebrity, female or otherwise, says they’re not a feminist but they believe in gender equality. Believing in gender equality doesn’t matter: if they’re not specifically a feminist, there is bound to be at least some controversy.
At the end of the day, this situation seems to be all about PR. Time doesn’t want to look politically incorrect and the feminist movement doesn’t want to be associated with negativity. I can understand that feminists want to be taken seriously, but this is not the way to go about doing that. The idea of gender equality is not being mocked and stigmatized here: it’s a joke making light of how society makes things obnoxiously topical for short bursts of time. It says nothing about the merit of the topic in and of itself. And I can understand how people would be annoyed with feminism at this moment in time, to the point where it was apparently winning the race before it was pulled from the poll. A man helped land a rocket on a comet, and the thing some feminists chose to focus on was that he was wearing the wrong shirt while making scientific history. I can understand people being a bit burnt out on the topic. And even if it was intended to make fun of feminism and not just its recent explosion into pop culture, I’m inclined to ask what something that pretty much amounts to censorship would really do to help the cause.
At the end of the day, this is not something that should prompt feminist outrage any more than hipsters and vegans should be outraged by something making fun of their liking of kale. Taking “feminist” off the poll doesn’t make people find it any less annoying, it just counterintuitively gives the impression that the feminist movement is one that a) is utterly humorless and b) opts for coercive censorship when anyone even vaguely says something bad about it. And that right there is worse press for feminism than anything Time has done.