I recently saw a Facebook post going around that encouraged girls to be loud. Telling them not to laugh at boys’ jokes if they’re not funny. To speak up. To not apologize. To not smile upon request. To take up space. To be a “badass woman.”
Theses types of inspirational girl-power messages have been dominating my timeline for months now, obviously because we’re living a nightmare where sexism personified is running for president against the first-ever major party female nominee.
It feels like a perfectly constructed joke. The irony feels a little too neat sometimes, as if this were a script written for a Shondaland show. And it just never ends; I’m treading water in a sea of bad headlines, wave after wave of damaging words and ideas hitting me in the face. It’s actually making us sick.
I think the thing that hurts the most about this election is just how hard people have made it for Hillary Clinton. That this country is so freaked out by the idea of a woman in power that it would even be a contest. That so very few people are willing to even examine their bias against her. That she’s had to weather some of the vilest tactics we’ve ever seen in American politics.
So I get people’s need for a feminist call to arms, for pep talks and poetry and Pinterest quotes. A string of buzzwords thrown about like life preservers after a shipwreck. Grab them. Hold on to them, try not to drown.
But there’s often a hollowness to these messages. I get a tiny pang whenever I read them. Because these messages almost never come with a warning label.
I’ve been an outspoken odd girl out my entire life. I didn’t want to be, trust me. Growing up, all I wanted to be was popular and liked by boys and pretty and sweet. Instead, every inch of my being was forcing me in some other direction. I wasn’t making a consciously “brave” feminist statement by never being able to figure out how to do hair. I followed some of the gender norms easily, but mostly it was a losing battle. I didn’t even fit the tomboy mold, which was cool and desirable and at least made sense. I was just floating out there somewhere in the middle.
It was lonely. I was the girl who dressed up as a zit for Halloween in the eighth grade. This wasn’t the choice a popular girl would make. This was the choice of a girl who thought it was funny, even if no one else got the joke (and trust me, no one did). My mom often told me I was “ahead of my time.” It was a nice way of saying, “You’re a fucking weirdo.”
My overall memory of boys growing up is the confused looks on their faces whenever I spoke or moved. I wasn’t the cool girl and I wasn’t a girl’s girl either. I was just me, and no amount of peer pressure was going to sway me to be something else.
This feeling of never belonging anywhere has followed me into adulthood and into my professional career. And now that I’ve ravenously read every feminist think piece on the planet about microaggressions, the boys’ club, and internalized, institutional, systematic creeping sexism, a lot of it has left me with this strange mixed feeling of “ooh this all makes sense now” and “god fucking dammit.” I can see the game board now, but I can also see that it’s impossible to win it.
So when I see these overly simplistic cross-stitch-ready instructives to “BE A BADASS WOMAN!” … my heart lets out a tiny groan. Because the motto is never followed with, “But be ready for what that brings.”
Even though feminism is the “It girl” right now, and you’re not risking a lot socially to identify as such, you should know: If you’re really going to do it, and live it, you should read the warning labels first.
Warning: Be loud, but, like, can you be loud in a cute, sexy way? That will make it easier. Make sure your loud is coated in sugar. The boys sure do like sugar! But even then, they might spit it out. In fact, it doesn’t matter what your message is — most people would prefer if you just toned it down a bit.
Don’t let men interrupt you!
Warning: When you stand up for yourself, they’re not gonna like that one bit. Recently I was in a meeting and the topic of feminism came up. During the conversation, I was repeatedly interrupted by several men. When I jokingly pointed out what they were doing as an example of the problem, I was told, “Well, maybe you’re being interrupted a lot because you never stop talking.” I wanted to scream. (Also, can I just say that telling women to not “let men interrupt you” is absurd. “Use telepathy to get inside a man’s brain and change his behavior! You go girl!”)
Take up space!
Warning: There is a small space provided for you. When you take up more space than what is allotted, you will feel the squeeze. It’s simple physics. Not only will you feel it, but it will bruise. For the past few years, I’ve been pitching TV shows. You’d be surprised how often the statement “we really want female-led projects” is quickly followed by “but this is probably too female.” You start to subconsciously preempt your pitches with some clever acknowledgment that you’re a woman, and it surely is a problem, but it’s one we can totally overcome! Everyone’s talking a lot about breaking down barriers for women these days, but in many places, the walls stand firmly in place. You’ll often feel the need to apologize for just being there.
Don’t laugh at dumb jokes men make!
Warning: Laughing at men’s dumb jokes opens many doors for you. When you’re the wet blanket, you’ll be left out and passed over. Nobody wants a blowhard around. I experience this feeling often: Every time a male comedian gets into some sort of trouble with the public, people expect female comics to take a side, to either defend him to our last breath or join the “SJW bloggers” and be forever banished from the cool kids’ table. When you decide to be a feminist in this world, be ready to constantly have to make choices in spaces that allow for zero nuance.
Stand with the other women!
Warning: Many of the other women will already hate you, because of all the things listed above. Your behavior will make it very inconvenient for them to keep operating comfortably in the boys’ club. Your effort to take up more space will feel like an invasion of their space. Some of them won’t want or appreciate your support, because you have a disease they don’t want to catch.
Oh, and you’ll need to decide if you really want to walk the walk — because when you choose to truly support other women, you kind of lose the right to be really shitty to them behind the scenes.
Be a badass girl boss!
Warning: When you start your new life as a Badass Girl Boss, you will constantly ask yourself, “What does this even mean? Am I allowed to take naps anymore?” You’ll never know if you’re being “feminist enough.” And the growing list of compromises you’ll be asked to make just to get through one fucking day will eat away at your resolve. Can you even make a dent if you’re so bogged down by your own principles that no one ever sees or hears you? Can you become successful without at least playing their game a little bit? Can you fight for your own empowerment while also making space for others who are less privileged than you are? Are you ever allowed to make mistakes?
I’m not trying to make you feel bad for printing out your favorite feminist quote and sticking it up inside your cubicle. If these mottos keep you afloat, do it. I’m just saying, you’ve put on the life jacket, but now what? You still have to make it to shore.
And that’s one of the things I like about Hillary Clinton.* She got this far not because she read some watered-down feminist motto. She got this far because she read the warning labels and decided to do it anyway.
*And there are things I don’t like about her, too! It is possible to have a complex opinion about her!
Sara Schaefer is a critically acclaimed standup comedian, writer, and producer currently based in Los Angeles. She was recently the co-host of MTV’s late night show Nikki & Sara Live. Sara has appeared on @Midnight, John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Best Week Ever, and Inside Amy Schumer. She won two Emmy Awards for her work at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and has written for BestWeekEver.tv and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Her first standup album, Chrysalis, debuted in March 2015. Her website is saraschaefer.com, and she’s on Twitter @saraschaefer1.
This essay was adapted from a post that originally ran on Medium.