A good internet meme may last but a day, but the concerns it addresses are often perennial. So it was with the Twitter hashtag #sorryfeminists, which was born, matured, and perished within the span of a workday, as chronicled at the Atlantic Wire. But while the meme got boring fast, the problem it addressed remains. Why do stereotypes of feminists as anti-fun, unsexy, and humorless persist? Generation after generation, going all the way back to the suffragists, feminists have tried to crush these tropes by proving their "pants on fire" status. Every time we believe we’ve suffocated the stereotype with miniskirted beauties with pro-choice signage and Emmy-laden feminist comedians, someone pulls the “feminists are so grim” card to score an easy point, and we’re reminded that we’ll never really be rid of this cheap but disturbingly effective attack.
The latest kerfuffle began when the editor of T Magazine, Deborah Needleman, lived up to her surname by tweeting, “The sexy (sorry, feminists), smart, sassy Katie Roiphe live on stage @nypl on Wednesday night.” No matter how you looked at it, the joke didn’t really make sense. If she was being directly insulting to feminists, it missed the mark, because Roiphe’s feminist critics don’t have an opinion on her sexiness one way or another. If she was ironically mocking the negative stereotype of feminists, the joke also falls flat, because it’s being applied to a woman who got famous for rejecting feminism. Either way, not a high crime; anyone who has watched Saturday Night Live after the “Weekend Update” segment knows that even professional funny people frequently miss the mark.
No matter the intent behind the joke, online feminists seized it as an opportunity to make fun of these baseless stereotypes with a bit of reductio ad absurdum-type humor by starting the #sorryfeminists hashtag on Twitter. Feminists faux-apologized for everything from thinking babies are cute to being happy with good hair days. The point, simply put, was to tell people promoting anti-feminist stereotypes, “This is how silly you sound.”
Not that any participants expect this action to work. Negative stereotypes of feminists have so far proven impervious to reason, humor, excessive amounts of counterevidence, and even paradox. It is not uncommon for anti-feminists to accuse feminists in one breath of being humorless prudes, and then turn around and denounce them for being frivolous sluts. Sometimes, you even get treated to being told feminists are man-hating lesbians who demand gallons of contraception to deal with their overexposure to penis.
Anti-feminists wield these stereotypes because they work, and not just on people who are already convinced they hate feminism. These images, for instance, have done a great deal to scare women away from labeling themselves as feminists, or to even organize for women’s rights, all because they fear being painted as harridans (or sluts, depending on what’s more useful in the moment).
And when you get to the heart of it, these anti-feminist tropes resonate because they draw on misogynist myths applied to women as a whole. Two of the ugliest feminist stereotype synecdoches are the "women just aren't funny" line, and the belief that women merely tolerate sex as a means to get the wedding rings and fancy strollers that they really want. These nasty views of women are amplified when applied to feminists. Where women are characterized as unfunny, feminists are characterized as overtly anti-humor. Where women are characterized as uninterested in sex, feminists are framed as actively hating it.
To add injury to insult, if a woman rejects the view of her gender as humorless and sexless, she often faces serious social consequences. Funny women are often viewed as ball-busting, bitchy, and unable to get romantic attention from men. (Indeed, Christopher Hitchens stated in his infamous essay denying that women are funny that the exceptions to the rule were invariably just such women.) Needless to say, women who display enthusiasm for sex in and of itself, and not just as a means to get romance, get slurred with one of the nastiest words in the English language: slut. Unsurprisingly, feminists get a more intense form of abuse for these inverted stereotypes. Sandra Fluke learned this lesson the hard way when her mild and completely impersonal support for insurance coverage of birth control was used by anti-feminists as an excuse to paint her as the Whore of Babylon.
If you’re starting to suspect that the system is built so that women lose no matter what they do, watch out. Thoughts like that may be rational responses to the world how it actually is, but they also lead one down the dark path towards admitting that you are, in fact, a feminist. Once you go there, it means a lifetime of having to explain, over and over again, that your fondness for humor doesn’t preclude wanting an end to misogyny and nor does your avid support for reproductive rights mean that you’ve started to believe that sex is gross and degrading.