The Shriver Report – Dare to say the “F” Word

Special Edition

Dare to say the “F” Word


Beyonce once said, “Who rule the world? Girls!”

She followed that song some months later with the article entitled “Gender Equality is a Myth,” pointing out the pervasive inequalities that women in the world still face today.

Let’s face it: admitting that injustices exist in our society, economy, and media when it comes to women isn’t always fun, it isn’t always comfortable, and it isn’t always easy. But it is 100% necessary. When we tell ourselves that there’s no problem, that a baby girl born today has absolutely the same opportunities as a baby boy, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to fix the problems that exist. So I have a challenge for you.

I want you to be brave enough to say the F-word.

Yes, that’s right. The F-word. Feminism, that is.

Okay, so feminism might not be as stigmatized as a certain four-letter word, but it has gotten a bad rap. I can remember a time I was debating someone on the equal pay act and within moments I saw a derisive look and then it was the condemning question, “You’re a feminist, aren’t you?” I was proud to respond, “Yes I am.”

Believe it or not, my feminist convictions started with princesses. Growing up, I loved their fancy tiaras and elaborate dresses, convoluted names and inherited power. Now, this could have easily gone in the other direction—the influence of too many princesses getting rescued by Prince Charmings on white horses could have made me buy into this image of feminine as weak—except for the fact that I loved history, too. So in the pages of books, I did find my role models, just maybe not the role models most people would expect. I found Elizabeth the First to be cooler than Cinderella, because being imprisoned in the Tower of London with the possibility of your sister calling for your execution seems a lot tougher than throwing down a glass slipper. Like most monarchs, Elizabeth the First wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t afraid to defy conventions. She resisted the idea that a queen couldn’t rule alone and that she had to marry someone to give birth to an heir.

So the lesson that being a bookworm taught me was that for every Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, there was a Catherine the Great or Joan of Arc or Eleanor Roosevelt. And when I started writing my own stories, I determined that there had to be some characters who didn’t fit the stereotype of the “good little girl.” One of my characters snuck laxative-poisoned grapefruits behind enemy lines to incapacitate soldiers with explosive diarrhea. “Why would a girl do that?” some might ask. “Why not?” I thought.

That came naturally to me, because that was around the same time I decided I was a feminist.

But I wonder why those three little words, “I’m a feminist,” can be so hard for girls and guys to say. When it is said, it’s often followed by some sort of apologetic qualifier. “I’m a feminist, but…” Why the “but?” Feminists aren’t scary, man-hating ladies in severe shoulder-padded pantsuits who look like they emerged from the 1960s.

What is feminism, actually? The dictionary definition: feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

Did you expect it to be something scary?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer, delivered a great TED Talk titled “Why We Should All Be Feminists” (you’ve heard an excerpt from her talk if you’ve heard Beyonce’s “Flawless”) telling girls not to “shrink” themselves. If we find ourselves doing this, we have to make a conscious effort to stop. We need to make it cool, not scary or weird, to say the F-word. To say: “I’m a feminist.”

And society has, in many ways, conditioned us to think that feminism is done. There are artificial constructions of token “girl power” everywhere—yet excessive segregation and limitation in the merchandise we’re offered, media we consume, and more. If we go on a shopping trip, a simple jaunt down the toys aisle can tell you that something is wrong. It’s easy to see what’s for girls and what’s for boys. The boys get star wars figurines and superheroes, and the girls get Barbies with feet made for high heels. These images speak more to the profit margins of companies than the self-esteem of today’s girls.

If there is any silver lining to growing up in an environment that tells us appearance is everything, it’s this: we should know how to make something look good. But instead of lipstick or foundation on our skin, we can use feminism to give society a makeover.

Girls are taking action. The SPARK Summit petition asking that Seventeen Magazine provide girls with images of real girls, unaltered by Photoshopping, led to Seventeen vowing to change their ways. High school students Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis successfully pushed for a female moderator in the presidential debates.

Media activists looking at images of women on stock image sites, like Corbis and Getty Images, realized that more often than not women were being portrayed in stereotypical situations—cooking, cleaning, or inexplicably “laughing alone with salad.” So they set out to tell the stories of more women, launching the Lean In collection on Getty Images. The pictures show women who are skateboarders, runners, veterans, mothers, architects, and surgeons.

Ultimately, by staying silent, apologizing for speaking up, or criticizing those who do, we’re falling into a waiting-for-Prince-Charming trap: the idea that someone else will come along and do the heavy lifting to rescue us. But by fighting for ourselves, not being afraid to speak up, and using media to amplify our voices, we can do the rescuing ourselves—because progress doesn’t work the way of fairy tales. Progress is a story we ourselves get to write.

Together, let’s dare to say the F-word: feminism. Are you a feminist? I am.


This is an abbreviated version of a talk Adora gave at a Girls Inc conference. You can view the speech here.



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Adora Svitak is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Since the age of four, Adora Svitak has been exploring what she can do with the written word: everything from championing literacy and youth voice to advocating feminism and empowerment for girls and women around the world. In 2010, she delivered the speech "What Adults Can Learn from Kids" at the prestigious TED conference. That video received over two million views and has been translated into over 40 different languages.
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