“Feminist” on Time’s Word Ban List: Not Necessarily a Bad Thing?

by / 1 Comment / 160 View / November 21, 2014

Last week, the Internet went hysterical in protest of Time Magazine’s ban list. Penned by Katy Steinmetz, the list is a yearly feature that calls for readers to vote for the word that  they would like to see banned. Winning words of previous years include OMG, YOLO, and twerk.

This year on the list was the word feminist alongside other words like kale, influencer, “om nom nom,” turnt and “yassssss.” These words represent the zeitgeist of the language of different cultures in America and ultimately the way that we talk about them.

Kale brings to mind the trope of the health-conscious, yoga-mat toting 20-something. Turnt on the other hand, which was a word that initially gained traction among urban inner-city youth in recent times, eventually was appropriated by youth’s suburban  counterparts and used to describe anything from drinking to even simply having fun.  In many ways, almost all the words that are on the “ban” list could be considered problematic. But in attempting to ban these words, even if symbolically, we overlook the complex  cultural and historical roots of these words, especially words like turnt and yassss (and even last year’s winner: twerk).

When I initially learned that feminist was on the ban list, I was intrigued. Having taken Women’s Studies classes in the past and being involved with a number of advocacy related organizations, I’m all too familiar with not only women’s rights activism and issues, but the stereotype of feminist, the negative connotations that surround feminism, and ultimately the way that feminist is used as an insult.

Feminism is a movement. It is the ideology that women should have the same rights and social standings of a man. In the early 1900’s, feminism fought for the right for women to vote. Now, one major concern is access to family-planning measures like birth control and abortion access. And as with every big social movement—everyone has their own interpretation of what feminism means to them.

Feminists saw “feminist” on the ban list and understood it a direct attack on the feminism movement. But was it?

Nancy Gibbs, lead editor of  Time Magazine, eventually added an Editor’s Note at the beginning of the article stating:

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.

The poll by Time Magazine in many ways is used as an agent for debate. That’s why comments sections were created. That’s why there’s the common phrase “I came for the article, but stayed for the comments.”  Can we extricate feminist from the valid and much needed social movement that it represents? Would it help the movement for equality? Or marginalize women even further?

Although the word queer was once negatively used to refer to non-heterosexual people, it is becoming an increasingly popular way to identify oneself as.  And in the process, it is shedding it’s negative image of the past. Can feminist overcome the negative connotations that surround it?  Feminist is not only a word used to identify oneself as a person who believes in equality between the sexes, but it also functions as a joke, an insult, a punchline, and a word that  is used flippantly to refer to activists.

While Time’s poll may have been poorly executed, in the words of the editor, it brings up a strong point: the nuance of language and the way we talk about serious issues. In the fight for equality, acknowledging the nuance in our language is important as the language we use is not only a tool of power but also a way to fight against oppressive structures—feminist, and the politics of how we use language, is a lot more nuanced than we think.

References: Image Credit: Rexy Rockit

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  • Halifax Steppenwulf

    Ummm… You do know that the word feminist was voted to the top of that list as a prank by 4Chan, right? They’ve actually done things like this to Time polls before, like when they voted moot, the founder of 4Chan, as the most influential person of the year in 2009.