Let’s get real: The dangers of the “badass feminist” myth

My twelve-year-old niece told me she is a feminist, and I’m equally ecstatic and terrified.

A few weeks ago, when L.C. reached out to me with some questions about feminism, my heart swelled with pride. Never mind that all the credit should go to her parents, not me. As we chatted about whether women who opposed feminism were like soccer fans rooting against their own team, I marvelled at how much she already knew about who she is and what she stands for.

Words I didn’t know existed when I was her age rolled off her tongue with remarkable ease. Sure, I’d heard the word “patriarchy” a couple of times, but it would never have occurred to me to say I was “a feminist, obviously”.

I guess wonderful things happen when feminist inspiration is just one click away. My niece can access dozens of blogs, podcasts and YouTube channels designed to help her realize that she can change the world.

Last Christmas, most of L.C.’s gift list was books about girls who started out just like her and went on to achieve extraordinary things. How cool is that? At her age, I was sitting in the heat of Douala, sweat dripping on the pages of books that told the stories of adventurous white boys who went sledding in the cold winter and of good little girls and their very French misfortunes. I’m amazed by how much can change in just one generation.

“Wonderful things happen when feminist inspiration is just one click away”

What gives me the most joy is to think that L.C. already feels comfortable to reach out and ask questions about the things that are not quite making sense to her. As a teenager, whenever my head buzzed with questions — like why the usually flamboyant women I looked up to seemed to shrink in the presence of their husbands — I knew better than to ask them aloud.

I love that she’s ready to come out of her shell and ask. As the family’s resident feminist, I must be ready to listen, answer, and mentor her the best that I can.

The problem is, I’m scared I might ruin the whole thing.

I might I scare her off if I tell her that feminism is both an uplifting ideal and a gut-wrenching practice. Will she understand if I explain how exhausting it is to spell out the same basic concepts over and over to people who are only pretending to care so they can spit their pre-cooked “feminism is un-African” or “not all men” rebuttal?

Will she believe me when I tell her how many of the politicians I’ve met at the African Union responded to my articulate plea for policy change with a “do you have plans for tonight”?

“Feminism is both an uplifting ideal and a gut-wrenching practice”

Will it dim the spark in her eyes if I tell her that her role models are no super-heroines? Will she be disappointed to find out that, even as we muster enough strength to stare down patriarchy in the face and march it off our streets, we often struggle to uphold our feminist values in our own personal lives?

Will it break her to hear that there is no Black girl magic, just Black girls who work their asses off to claim rights others take for granted?

Photo by  Heather Ford  on  Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that being a feminist is all gloom. Feminism gives me life. Every time we push discrimination back by just one step, I feel euphoric. Every girl who escapes from the claws of violence is cause for celebration. Every conversation with a feminist sister makes me feel powerful.

Feminism is not for the faint of heart, so of course, we need to have the thickest of skins. There is nothing I admire more than the resilience of a women’s rights advocate — and I want to pass on that fortitude to my niece.

We need to stand our ground and demand respect from the same elders who have taught us that it’s disrespectful to even look them in the eyes. We need to be strong as we shut down all the trolls that patrol the internet. We need to be bolder every day because patriarchy is doing just that.

Every week, yet another woman goes viral for an eloquent speech, a witty tweet or a small (or big!) act of patriarchy-smashing bravery, and I am here for it. We need to be badass bitches and own it. 

But there is another side to the story, and L.C. needs to hear it.

“We need to be badass bitches and own it. But there is another side to the story”

One day she will be harassed on Twitter and she won’t have the strength to laugh it off. One day, her teacher will say something racist or sexist in class and she won’t have the courage to call him out. One day, she will look at her reflection in the mirror and the body positivity movement will bring no comfort.

One day, someone will grab her butt, and she will stand there in stunned silence. One day, God forbid, she will tweet #MeToo but she won’t have the courage to name her assailant. I want her to know that all of this could happen and that none of it would make her any less of a feminist.

I can’t think of a better era for a twelve-year-old Black girl to embrace feminism, in great part because feminist role models are all over the internet. Yet, in the same way Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us against the danger of a single story about Africa, I sometimes worry that we are creating a single story of what a feminist looks like. Boss lady. Fearless. Queen. Badass.

“I sometimes worry that we are creating a single story of what a feminist looks like. Boss lady. Fearless. Queen. Badass.”

My twelve-year-old niece is a feminist, and if I am to be her mentor, I must let her know that badass is overrated. I will tell her that activism is not a performance and that she doesn’t have to be extraordinary to be worthy of being called a feminist.

As long as she is doing her best to speak out against injustice, to support other women, and to walk the feminist talk even when no one is watching, then she’s doing great.

I will tell her again and again, until she believes it without a doubt — and until I do, too.

Do you ever feel the pressure to act a certain way so you can earn your feminist stripes? What advice would you give a budding feminist? I want to hear from you! Let me know in the comments below, and join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook @EyalaBlog.