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Synthesis - Columns

From 2008 to 2015 I wrote a weekly column for Synthesis Weekly under the name Zooey Mae. What started as an outlet to review graphic novels and comic books evolved over the years to cover everything from pop culture to whatever menial event was happening in my life. Looking back, I think I spent much too much time regaling Chico with tales of my allergies. 

Nerd | Hipster | Feminist

Originally published in Synthesis Weekly: October 2014

Ahh, words. What else could have the potential to emotionally destroy a person in one moment, then raise them up to feel invincible in the next? Well, meth. Probably meth. But words too! Words are so fascinating to me, especially the evolution of them. The way we humans bring them into our lexicon at their inception, and through a process of use, reuse and misuse, their meaning can change dramatically. The implications a word can have, simply based on their most common usage, instills in me the belief that we humans, we users of language, have a responsibility to the words themselves.

Although the bank of total words available to us is quite large, the number of them we actually use is, by comparison, depressingly small. Certainly the advent of the Internet has not helped this, with social media largely running off user generated content that’s been categorized and made searchable based on (largely) overused buzzwords. When words are overused in this way, with people stretching and bending them to fit their desired definitions (or even the definitions they wrongly believe are correct), the meanings of these words become… debatable. When you can ask twenty different people for their definition of a word and you get twenty different definitions, you begin to have an interesting problem.

The scenario described above has surely happened countless times before, but the most recent and notable words I’ve seen this happen with have been “nerd,” “hipster,” and of course, “feminist.” I myself have been called all three of these things many times, in utterances meant as mere observations, compliments, and insults. Personally, I feel that when a word is appropriated then overused over and over, it starts to lose meaning. I suppose I wouldn’t mind if “nerd” and “hipster” were to disappear, and the rumbling skirmish over what exactly the definition of these are doesn’t really bother, or even affect me much. But the stretching and changing of the meaning of the word “feminist” has been difficult for me to watch. The image of a feminist as a man-hating female who’s bent on ultimately raising women up to be the gender overlords is not one I’m comfortable with. A study done by HuffPost/YouGov found that only 20% of Americans identify as feminists, although 82% believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” It seems what the word “feminism” has is a branding problem. And certainly one that’s difficult to combat, with most people getting their “news” in 140-character blips on Twitter, or simply by word of mouth. By now we’ve all seen Women Against Feminism, the nausea-inducing Tumblr campaign of ill-informed women who have unfortunately succumbed to the false illustration of feminism that I detailed above. (If you haven’t yet seen this campaign, visit womenagainstfeminism.tumblr.com and prepare yourself for anger and sadness.) It’s depressing really, because nearly all the messages on those self-made signs have to do with the sign holder not “needing” feminism because they believe in equality for both sexes, not just women, which is the entire goddamn point of the feminist movement in the first place. And even the fact that these idiots are allowed to broadcast their baseless, asinine beliefs as women is due in no small part to… yep. Feminism.

Part of me questions whether the feminist movement should simply abandon the word, make efforts to distance themselves from the false connotations and try to think up a new title for a fresh start. But I know that’s not a great solution, because you can’t really ever totally control who gets to take the reins in deciding how the meaning of a title will develop. And besides, all it would take is one bozo from Fox News, or one activism neophyte from Women Against Feminism to derail the whole goddamn train. I take comfort in knowing that words which stay in use—and certainly one which is heavily used—can continue to evolve and develop. I can only hope that in the future, feminists will manage to wrestle the word back from the ill-informed and under-educated masses. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Arielle Mullen