Recently, I was part of a conversation between several women and one man discussing current attitudes about feminism. The conversation took place in association with the Life Long Work Month Residency program at Portland State University, a program that selects twelve students from the School of Art + Design to take over a gallery in the university’s art building and transform it into the collaborative space they want to see. Throughout the month of January, the activities of this pop-up studio were driven by its participants: former cohorts led workshops, sold original art, made wall and window lettering installations, created publications, and more. This particular conversation was the first of a three-part series, which will continue to address current topics in contemporary art. Click here to learn more.
The conversation started when I sat down at our communal table in the gallery with Grace and Young, two South Korean women studying graphic design at PSU. I started painting my nails. They shared their observations regarding the differences between American and Korean views on feminism, having lived in both countries. Grace told a story about a teenage Korean man she knew from high school. Reflective of his Korean roots, she said he was someone who believed that women belong in the domestic sphere. Young herself only first found out about feminism when she was nineteen, from her older sister who was pursuing a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies in South Korea. Our conversation segued into a discussion about bullying and the perception of homosexual people in Korea. We talked about men as feminists and wondered about the different ways men can engage with feminism.
More students joined us at the table. We each shared our experiences on first hearing of feminism and outlined our reactions to the topic. At this point in the conversation, all but the one man had identified themselves as feminists. He described his lack of knowledge around the topic as the primary reason for his non-feminist identity. He also expressed that he wasn’t sure if he should accept the identity of feminist for fear that he would offend women. He said that because he doesn't have the first-hand experience of being a woman, he felt it might not be fair to identify as a feminist. Many women at the table spoke out against his perspective, arguing that by not identifying as a feminist, he was ultimately contributing in holding women back from earning equal rights. This discussion hit close to home for me as someone who was reluctant to identify as a feminist before I understood what feminism meant to me. We discussed tools for self-education on feminism, and we reflected on the fears men might have when asked to join the movement. We painted our nails. He painted his nails.
A student named Emily shared her definition of feminism as the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. People at the table nodded in agreement with this definition. We talked about Emma Watson and the “He for She” movement, which espouses the notion that men can support the movement for gender equality in order to improve conditions for all people across the gender spectrum. We talked about how to make feminism inviting to everyone, how to break down the fear of the label. We talked about destroying gender roles and defying socially-constructed behaviors and attitudes. We questioned the differences between feminism and humanism. We painted our nails.
Ultimately, we all agreed that societal norms need to change to accommodate women as people - not just as equals to men, moreso as individuals who are in their own right powerful, unique, and respected. When there was an opportunity to have a conversation about feminism, we collectively consented to take that opportunity as a way to spread awareness and encourage solidarity. During this moment of encouragement, someone expressed feelings of anxiety around being judgmental or aggressive towards oppressors. We discussed what it feels like to be the oppressor and the oppressed, and we recognized that to be oppressed is to feel afraid of uncertain consequences. We empowered one another to feel strong enough to be leaders of conversation. This topic lead to a screening of a short Ted Talk titled “A Call to Men” by Tony Porter, an educator and activist who is internationally recognized for his effort to end violence against women. We watched as Porter described the “max box” - a box of masculinity that men are expected to fit into. We painted our nails.
We ended the evening by telling embarrassing stories from middle school. We all shared tales of humiliation and shame, discomfort and social pressure, stories that make us human. We painted our nails.