Activism, Feminism, recent

Please Stop Calling Yourself a ‘Feminist Badass’

I am the feminist who gets accused of “pearl clutching” in response to flagrant and reflexive uses of the word “fuck” and endless repeats of the word “vagina.” I don’t own a pair of pearls. But I’ll tell you why this vernacular makes me cringe. It’s not that it’s embarrassing as much as it’s a way of gesturing at being radical without really being radical at all. It’s a kind of shorthand edginess, which means it’s a shortcut to edginess. It’s essentially the ideological version of buying the Ramones’ Hey Ho Let’s Go: Greatest Hits and no other Ramones records and still calling yourself the biggest Ramones fan in the world.

Saying “fuck” all the time is meant to convey a resistance to stuffy idiomatic convention. Saying “vagina” again and again is meant to convey body positivity; it’s a standoff with shame. Or at least it’s supposed to be. More often it isn’t. Saying these words all the time doesn’t convey edginess as much as lack of imagination. Posting “fuck Trump” on Facebook every five minutes doesn’t convey political resistance as much as verbal atrophy. Calling yourself a badass doesn’t convey anything other than the distinct impression that you are, in fact, the opposite of a badass.

Let’s consider the case—or at least the memeification—of the badass for a moment. The badass is—and in many ways remains—the face of fourth-wave feminist sanctimonium, the symbol of all that is righteous and unassailable about modern womanhood. She is the state-of-the-art version of liberated femaleness, the ne plus ultra of self-sovereignty and zero fuck giving. The best thing about the badass club is that just about any female possessed of a scintilla of self-sufficiency can qualify. Once upon a time, when the word was rarely used, you more or less had to escape captivity in North Korea or sit in a Greenpeace raft in the Southern Ocean facing down the harpoon of a Japanese whaling ship in order to be designated a badass. Today, no such bells and whistles are required. A woman need only take it upon herself to educate a man on the ways in which he is mansplaining, wear a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt, or just say the word “vagina” a lot, and she, too, will be conferred badass status.

If that’s still too much, it’s entirely acceptable to just proclaim yourself a badass and be done with it. This can be accomplished on Twitter with a #badass hashtag—“Sometimes just getting through the day as a woman feels like competing in an Ironman triathlon #badass”—or in real life by looking in the mirror and congratulating yourself for holding down a job or paying your rent on time. Because, Lord knows, getting out of bed and going to work every day requires more than just a modicum of personal drive; it means facing down the patriarchy at every turn.

There are at least two major categories of badass. There’s the hip indie version and the slick corporate version. Like the word “feminist” itself, “badass” has been sanitized, branded and commodified. It can now be found on coffee mugs and key chains, and as entire boards on the kinds of Pinterest accounts that also have boards for skinny jeans and nameplate necklaces (“badass” itself being an especially popular name on such plates). I would not be at all surprised to sort through the offerings at a fitness-studio boutique and find, among workout clothing bearing phrases like “Spiritual Gangster,” an $80 tank top reading “Badass.” The author Jen Sincero has a massively successful franchise built around her breakout self-help book, You Are a Badass, which admittedly I read one night in a single sitting and then lay awake for hours in a kind of sugar coma of amorphous ambition to change my life. (I awoke the next morning so sleepy that I hit the snooze button several times before finally rising from my perpetually unmade bed and facing my perpetually unchanged life.)

When they are not opining on Twitter about the gender wage gap or posting makeup-free (“because DGAF!”) selfies on Instagram, badasses take to the streets. They pull out their phones and snap photos of men who take up too much room on subway seats, then post the photos on social networking accounts created for the very purpose of shaming such men. They capture video of street harassers, which they share on social media to a chorus of exuberant and indignant approval. They start Tumblr blogs like Straight White Boys Texting, which gathers particularly gross and inappropriate text messages from men (often in the context of dating apps) and displays them for badasses all over the world to see and pillory. If anyone suggests that this sort of mockery and dismissal amounts to sexism against men, they let out a collective howl of laughter in the form of “ironic misandry.” That would include quips like “boys suck,” “kill all men,” and, most notably, “I bathe in male tears,” a phrase that has made its way onto coffee mugs, T-shirts, and needlepoint pillows and has been called the contemporary version of the 1980s catchphrase “This is what a feminist looks like.”

The “male tears” meme emerged sometime around 2012 as a response to men’s rights activists who accused feminists of misandry, and the term gained further viral traction when feminist writer Jessica Valenti (who’s technically a Gen Xer but has legions of millennial fans) fought back against some Twitter bullies by tweeting a photo of herself wearing a shirt that read “I bathe in male tears.” The idea behind this meme is that it’s not an earnest bashing of men but an in-joke among social-media-savvy women. It represents a kind of radical indifference to men and anyone else who just doesn’t get it. Writing about this phenomenon in Slate in 2014, Amanda Hess conceded that she was “too shy for message T-shirts and too square for Instagram memes,” but was still grateful to have ironic misandry as one of many tools for dealing with culturally ingrained misogyny.

“Some sexist provocations are too tiresome to counter with a full-throated feminist argument,” Hess wrote. “Sometimes, all you need is a GIF.”

Hess, who has written stories that I admire a great deal, is about fifteen years younger than I am. I couldn’t agree more with the first sentence of that quote and couldn’t agree less with the last. When it comes to tiresome sexist provocations, we’d all do well to shut our mouths and throats and (how’s this for an idea?) our ears.

As I see it, the eye-roll GIF is the most cavalier and snot-nosed form of retort since “talk to the hand.” If you disagree with someone on ideological grounds, the reasonable response is to either lay out your own argument or, if the provocation is indeed too tiresome, disengage altogether. Disengaging does not make you, as they say now, “complicit in oppression” (or, as we used to say, “part of the problem”). It suggests you have better things to do, which, let’s face it, is the kind of suggestion that drives Twitter trolls and ideological opponents berserk. I can’t for the life of me see why a GIF of Emma Stone rolling her eyes in disgust is considered a substitute for a counterargument. I don’t see how saying “fuck” all the time makes you sound tough when it’s actually laziness incarnate.

While we’re here, let’s talk about “fuck” for a moment. Any self-respecting badass knows that it’s mandatory to use it, or some variation of it, at least every six and a half seconds. And why not? What an indispensable multitasker of a word it’s become! No longer relegated to that marginalized category once known as profanity, “fuck” now wears many syntactical hats and is a staple of the badass vocabulary.

Author Meghan Daum, in conversation with the Quillette podcast on November 13.

In addition to being a fun way to embed a little malediction into an otherwise austere word (see “patri-fucking-archy”), “fuck” is now a synonym for “care” (“care” as noun, that is, as in “having a care”). It achieved this status by passing through the ranks of interchangeability with “damn” and “shit” (as in “I don’t give a”). As anyone can see, “damn” and “shit” used in this context are poor substitutes for the power and implied political wokeness of “fuck.” Can you imagine if Rhett Butler had said to Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a fuck”? Instead of embodying the essence of toxic masculinity, he’d come across as a cool blogger. Or a person with a lot of Instagram followers—a fuckton of followers even.

To quote film critic Anthony Lane mocking Yoda’s blathering New Age syntax in a review of Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, “Break me a fucking give.”

This is not about me clutching my pearl necklace in horror over the use of “fuck.” I don’t own a pearl necklace and, if you must know, most of my other necklaces are tangled together in a drawer because I’m still bad at being a girl and don’t know how to properly store my jewelry. This is about the ways in which badass feminism feels, paradoxically, like a pink aisle at a toy store. It feels like a feminism that has been preselected for mass consumption, distributed by social media algorithms, and, above all, brilliantly engineered to tap into our most narcissistic weaknesses while masquerading as strength. Like those pink toys, it can make you feel a little sick even as you feel like part of the in-group. And, let’s face it, no matter how much you think you’re above such concerns, the desire to be—and to remain—in the in-group is still a driving force in female life.

I was bad at being a girl, and now I’m bad at being a woman. I don’t do many of the things that women are supposed to do. Worse, I don’t feel many of the things women are supposed to feel. Some of those things, like taking care of children—like feeling the desire to take care of children—are old news when it comes to feeling like you’re doing things wrong. That’s introductory-level Failing as a Woman, and I completed that course long ago (I’d like to think I got an A-plus, if that’s not too oxymoronic). What I’m faced with now is a failure to be the right kind of feminist during a time when we’re told we can’t afford the wrong kind.

Where I have failed is that I’m not an emergency-response feminist. I am not wearing the ovary sweater and the pussy hat flashing siren lights. I am not refraining from criticizing the #KillAllMen brigades on the grounds that there’s a war going on and we can’t afford any breaks in the ranks. Instead, I’m asking if this is really what feminism should look like.


Meghan Daum, the author of several books, writes a biweekly column for Medium’s GEN magazine. Copyright 2019 by Meghan Daum. Excerpted with permission from The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars, published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.


  1. To me, feminists being “badass” is like white teenagers figuring they’re gangsta because they have an extensive rap collection. Still the “ironic misandry” is entirely unironic. Consider this, not even the most hardcore sexist among us would hail Ted Bundy, who exclusively and sadistically targeted women, as a hero. But Aileen Wuornos has a fawning biopic and a legion of fans who see her as a victim (the truth is she was terrifying). Lorena Bobbitt is another heroine. She was “pushed to the brink” and “vilified” and “misunderstood”. No offence, but if guy poured acid on his cheating wife’s genitals that would rightly be condemned as utterly repulsive. But feminists are cool with male mutilation. Men and women need to be seen as humans, not agitprops.

  2. Meaghan you say:
    “And, let’s face it, no matter how much you think you’re above such concerns, the desire to be—and to remain—in the in-group is still a driving force in female life.”

    All I can say is that the women in my life are nothing like this. So maybe its just insecurity for some people. Don’t worry as you age you gain more wisdom and drastically narrow the field of whats important and whats not important. Unfortunately wisdom only comes late when you look at the stupidity of youth.

  3. :laughing: I’m so out of it, I was totally unaware of it being used for people over 30. But it is adorable that teens are just reiterating the idiocy of the Boomer call to arms “Don’t trust any one over 30!” Maybe there’s a new Reagan lurking a decade down the road…

    Are we good now, kiddo? :wink:

  4. Once upon a time, when the word was rarely used, you more or less had to escape captivity in North Korea or sit in a Greenpeace raft in the Southern Ocean facing down the harpoon of a Japanese whaling ship in order to be designated a badass.

    To me, you’re not a badass unless you’ve stabbed, with a knife, at least one person who is bigger than you. Or shot him.

    Everybody else is a wannabe.

  5. Some talk the talk while others walk the walk. There are currently plenty of badass women serving in the armed forces and law enforcement. These women do not require course language or jackets to prove their stripes. Anyone interested in reading about badass feminists should learn about Louise Boitard or read “D Day Girls” by Sarah Rose. Most of today’s feminist couldn’t carry water for the women who helped tame the prairie.

  6. Is there a word for this kind of performance? The above essay seems to be made up of sentances that seem to say something, but the essay doesn’t really say anything but that everyone else is just posing and the author has had enough of it.

    We have this slowly bubbling soup of missery and pointlessness and anger and resentment and each vegetable in the soup wants to be seen as more righteous and more fed up with all the other vegetables. Yes, she’s sick and tired of the shallow, bitchy stupidity of everyone else. Her shallow, bitchy stupidity is the real deal however, so look at her, she stands out for the moment.

    There should be a contest for the most well projected outrage and enui. The author, Meghan Murphy, and a thousand other feminists could compete for our tears and our disgust with everyone else.

    But this post is a lousy example of it’s own subject – I’m projecting my own self-righteous disdain for the spoiled, whinny children out there. But I don’t think I’ll get the prize.

  7. It’s not that he doesn’t believe as a matter of objective fact, it’s that AGW is the property of the Left’s ideological meme-space, so if he admitted to AGW, he’d feel that he was yielding ground to The Enemy. So his disbelief is an act of war, not a reference in any way to facts.

    [Pardon @Farris, just using you as a convenient aiming point here, I trust you’ll take it in good style.]

    In the same way, say Miss Greta does not permit herself to consider the virtues of nuclear, because nuclear is the property of the capitalist-growthist-consumerist meme-space and she will not yield ground to The Enemy either.

    During WWII one would not expect Churchill to admit that Hitler did have a point as to international finance being largely controlled by the Jews – one does not agree with The Enemy on any point, ever. Notice what will happen next: I’ll be denounced for saying that, because it will be taken not as a matter of fact, but as a political declaration. I must be a Nazi. Facts do not exist, only political postures exist. Foucault was right after all!

  8. I am so weary of the “Kill All Men” idiocy. Every building or home we enter, every road or bridge we drive on, every power station, dam, generator, car that we use were physically constructed by men. Most women (99%) are not capable of such physical work for the long haul. Such illogical reasoning is driving our society in the wrong direction. You’re not a badass until you can work next to a man all day on a construction site and keep up, every day, for a year.

  9. “I bathe in male tears,” a phrase that has made its way onto coffee mugs, T-shirts, and needlepoint pillows …

    I find a t-shirt that says “I bathe in male tears” to be rather helpful and considerate.

    It’s not as rude as a t-shirt that says “Stay the fuck away from me”.

  10. Add to the ignoble list Donna Hylton, who kidnapped, tortured, anally raped, and murdered some fella she didn’t even know simply for cash. What a victory over the patriarchy that was. She was keynote speaker at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC.

    Anyway, seems to me the more one brags to be strong, independent, a riot grrrl, or some other type of web Rambo, the more likely the same girl goes running to the authorities for protection from harm, often imagined, and legs up. Not much of a DIY ethos … other than silk screening t-shirts and having some company make mugs.

  11. @Dirk

    If an enterprise wants to be taken seriously it should act seriously. Having children has spokespersons is a naked appeal to an emotional response. What’s next puppies or baby bunnies? Relying on children and emotional speaks leaves an inference that the enterprise is devoid of facts and evidence.


    I disagree with your characterization of my position. All I’m saying is if the Global Warming/Climate Change people wish to have a serious debate why are they putting forth children to state their positions?

  12. I’m going to assume you didn’t mean quite what you wrote. What it looks like is that you’re saying "The Joooos control international finance,"which as I’m sure you know, is a trope that has been used for probably a millennia to justify murdering Jews. Rivers of Jewish blood have been spilled because of the story that there’s a nefarious plot sprung by a secret cabal of Jews working in concert to destroy the world.

    It’s true that Jews are over-represented in finance. They are also over-represented in Nobel Prizes, for instance, Yet I never hear “The Jews control Nobel Prizes” or “Jews control the medical profession.” Jews are simply over-represented in many fields (not sports though!). churchill wouldn’t say, 'Gosh Hitler, you have a point! It’s so true that the Jews control international finance, just as your propaganda posters say!" It has nothing to do with ‘sides’. It has to do with the danger of conflating “Over-representation” with “international control.”

  13. It’s entirely possible that this is the reason that international finance works as well as it does. Imagine if it had been left in the hands of the Irish.

  14. Well, what I also find peculiar is how it used to be that girls matured faster than boys. Now,adult women remain besotted with Harry Potter and get emotionally vested in Marvel movies. And they try to act like tough guys who could knock out a guy with one punch. It’s just weird, like today’s “brave modern woman” was last generation’s 14-year-old boy. And the rebellion against the patriarchy is basically a LARP adventure. None of these feminists are going to go to Iran and shout “fuck the Ayatollah”. They prefer the super safe rebellion,one where people like Emma Sulkowicz get zero punishment even when their lies are exposed.

  15. @Dirk

    I think you misunderstood my point. I’m sure Miss Greta is a lovely child. I bear her no ill will or malice.

    However if one side of a debate is relying upon the emotional appeal of children to make its point, I am critical of that tactic. I would say the same thing if the skeptics marched forth children to claim the Global Warming/Climate Change proponents were trying to deny them cell phones and other modern day conveniences by restricting power usage. If a skeptic claims satellite data shows no significant warming and a proponent responds with you are upsetting this child, I think that reflects negatively on the proponent’s ability to rationally make his case.
    You seem quite capable of making your points without relying upon the emotional appeal of children. Those who use children allegedly on your behalf do not help bolster your case or your cause.

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