Ugly, boring and angry?

Stereotypes of feminists as man-hating, bra-burning troublemakers persist across social and generati

As I travel across the country speaking about feminist issues I like to take a quick survey of the audiences. I ask them “What are the stereotypes you’ve heard about feminists?”
After a few timid moments, folks start shouting a flood of unsavoury characteristics: ugly, bitchy, man-hating, boring, angry, bra-burning.

The wild thing is that whether I am in a lecture hall in Jacksonville, Illinois, or a woman’s club in suburban New Jersey, or an immigration center in Queens, New York, whether I am among 15 year-olds, or 25 year-olds, or 60 year-olds, whether the crowd of faces that I see are mostly white, or mostly of color, or a welcome mix of all—this list tends to be almost identical.

I tell those in the audiences as much, and then I ask, “So how did all of you—from such vastly different backgrounds—get the exactly same stereotypes about feminism? Why would feminism be so vilified?”And to this they usually shrug their shoulders.

I believe that feminism has attracted so many unsavoury stereotypes because of its profound power and potential. It has gained such a reputation, been so inaccurately demonized, because it promises to upset one of the foundations on which this world, its corporations, its families, and its religions are based—gender roles.

If you asked diverse audiences to give you stereotypes about Protestantism, for example, you would have some groups that starred at you blank-faced and some that might have a jab or two. If you asked about the history of civil rights, even, you would get a fairly innocuous, probably even partly accurate sense of the progress afforded by sit-ins, freedom rides, and protests. But you ask about feminism and the whole room erupts with media-manufactured myths, passed down from generation to generation.

Some of these stereotypes can be traced to events or controversial figures in the women’s movement, though they are still perversions. That whole bra-burning thing came out of the 1968 Miss America protests in which feminists paraded one another around like cattle to show the dehumanizing effects of beauty pageants, but they didn’t actually burn any bras.

There have surely been some feminists who despised men and advocated for female-only spaces; others have undoubtedly resorted to an angry MO; there were probably even a few shabby dressers (though, I have to tell you, us third-wave gals tend to be pretty snappy).

More recently one of the most pervasive misperceptions about what feminism purports to do is actually perpetuated by strong, intelligent women; I refer to the mistaken belief that feminism is solely about achievement, competition, and death-defying acrobatics (sometimes called multitasking). I like to think of this as “shoulder-pad feminism”—the do it all, all at once circus act that so many of my friends and I witnessed growing up in households headed by superwomen.

The ugly truth about superwomen, my generation has come to realize, is that they tend to be exhausted, self-sacrificing, unsatisfied, and sometimes even self-loathing and sick. Feminism—and the progress it envisions—was never supposed to compromise women’s health. It was supposed to lead to richer, more enlightened, authentic lives characterized by a deep sense of wellness.

Feminism in its most glorious, transformative, inclusive sense, is not about man-hating, nor is it about superwomen. For what it is, come back tomorrow…

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY, and the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body (Piatkus Press). Read more about her work at
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Want to know how you really behave as a doctor? Watch yourself on video

There is nothing quite like watching oneself at work to spur development – and videos can help us understand patients, too.

One of the most useful tools I have as a GP trainer is my video camera. Periodically, and always with patients’ permission, I place it in the corner of my registrar’s room. We then look through their consultations together during a tutorial.

There is nothing quite like watching oneself at work to spur development. One of my trainees – a lovely guy called Nick – was appalled to find that he wheeled his chair closer and closer to the patient as he narrowed down the diagnosis with a series of questions. It was entirely unconscious, but somewhat intimidating, and he never repeated it once he’d seen the recording. Whether it’s spending half the consultation staring at the computer screen, or slipping into baffling technospeak, or parroting “OK” after every comment a patient makes, we all have unhelpful mannerisms of which we are blithely unaware.

Videos are a great way of understanding how patients communicate, too. Another registrar, Anthony, had spent several years as a rheumatologist before switching to general practice, so when consulted by Yvette he felt on familiar ground. She began by saying she thought she had carpal tunnel syndrome. Anthony confirmed the diagnosis with some clinical tests, then went on to establish the impact it was having on Yvette’s life. Her sleep was disturbed every night, and she was no longer able to pick up and carry her young children. Her desperation for a swift cure came across loud and clear.

The consultation then ran into difficulty. There are three things that can help CTS: wrist splints, steroid injections and surgery to release the nerve. Splints are usually the preferred first option because they carry no risk of complications, and are inexpensive to the NHS. We watched as Anthony tried to explain this. Yvette kept raising objections, and even though Anthony did his best to address her concerns, it was clear she remained unconvinced.

The problem for Anthony, as for many doctors, is that much medical training still reflects an era when patients relied heavily on professionals for health information. Today, most will have consulted with Dr Google before presenting to their GP. Sometimes this will have stoked unfounded fears – pretty much any symptom just might be an indication of cancer – and our task then is to put things in proper context. But frequently, as with Yvette, patients have not only worked out what is wrong, they also have firm ideas what to do about it.

We played the video through again, and I highlighted the numerous subtle cues that Yvette had offered. Like many patients, she was reticent about stating outright what she wanted, but the information was there in what she did and didn’t say, and in how she responded to Anthony’s suggestions. By the time we’d finished analysing their exchanges, Anthony could see that Yvette had already decided against splints as being too cumbersome and taking too long to work. For her, a steroid injection was the quickest and surest way to obtain relief.

Competing considerations must be weighed in any “shared” decision between a doctor and patient. Autonomy – the ability for a patient to determine their own care – is of prime importance, but it isn’t unrestricted. The balance between doing good and doing harm, of which doctors sometimes have a far clearer appreciation, has to be factored in. Then there are questions of equity and fairness: within a finite NHS budget, doctors have a duty to prioritise the most cost-effective treatments. For the NHS and for Yvette, going straight for surgery wouldn’t have been right – nor did she want it – but a steroid injection is both low-cost and low-risk, and Anthony could see he’d missed the chance to maximise her autonomy.

The lessons he learned from the video had a powerful impact on him, and from that day on he became much more adept at achieving truly shared decisions with his patients.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide