This is a guest post by Sam Manzella. 

The ultimate irony in the world of feminism is that the very act of identifying as a feminist is controversial. Forget the message, the movement, the manifestos: people hear the world “feminist” and promptly close their ears. Feminism has taken on a dirty, negative connotation.

What prevents people from joining this progressive movement is the connotation that comes along with it. We all want equal pay for men and women. We all want equal rights for men and women. However, we all share a fear of being frowned upon or mocked for our convictions.

Sadly, being a “feminist” often comes with some backlash. I know this well; as a loud and proud feminist in real life and on social media platforms, I often end up being the butt of someone’s joke. In my small-town high school environment, people who defend social issues are hard to come by–and even harder to come by are those who do so unapologetically. I try to surround myself like-minded individuals: for instance, my close friend Nadine, whose unabashed feminism and vigilant consciousness of social justice has always inspired me. I’m lucky to have a small group of friends whose values align with my own. However, my friends and I inevitably encounter people who aren’t so supportive of our ideals.

The funny thing about being a teenage feminist is that I often find myself defending my beliefs before I’ve even had the chance to articulate them. The preconceived notion of what a feminist should look like, should say, and should believe precedes me. I’m faced not with receptive ears and curious questions, but instead with juvenile accusations. “Oh, preaching about feminism again!” “God, you’re so serious! We’re just kidding. Can’t you just take a joke?” “No one’s ever gonna listen to you if you keep preaching like that all the time.” “Oh, get off your self-righteous high horse: being a feminist doesn’t make you better or wiser than anyone else!” “You just hate men!” “Stop shoving your beliefs down my throat. Sexism isn’t a real problem.”     

What’s key here is that people don’t want to listen to me because of what they believe feminism entails. I say “people” and not specifically “men” because I hear these things from individuals on each end of the gender spectrum and everywhere in between. I give them the same answers: no, I don’t hate men. No, I don’t want or believe women to be superior in any way to men. No, I’m not trying to preach. I could attempt to argue articulately against each of those points, but I’ll spare you the reading and myself the energy: countless other bloggers and social justice activists, such as Laci Green in this excellent and informative video, have done so before me.

Here’s the thing, though: your rude and uninformed judgment of my feminist ideals isn’t going to change my mind. In fact, it only cements my belief that feminism is vitally important for everyone in this world. Because this negative connotation surrounding a completely positive and progressive movement towards all-inclusive equality is false and damaging. This negative connotation prevents young women and men from learning about their rights or lack thereof; from exercising their control over their own bodies and reproductive rights; and from understanding critical concepts for life, such as consensual sex versus non-consensual sex. This negative connotation halts feminism in its path.

No one should ever feel ostracized when defending their basic human rights. This applies to every form of prejudice that exists in our world: ableism, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., etc. We have the right to speak up against injustice–and, consequently, we deserve to have our thoughts and ideas heard.

The voices and values of a culture’s youth, of course, shape what becomes of a society’s future. I’m grateful to see horrific stories set ablaze in the media, to see revolutionary movements on social media (the #yesallwomen hashtag, anyone?) These headlines and ideas encourage discussion, contribution, and collaboration. They inspire. And in my opinion, children and teens prosper with even the slightest touch of inspiration.

Let’s work towards shedding this preconceived notion of what a feminist “should do” or “should say” or “should look like” and focus instead of what feminists actually do, say, and look like. Frankly, the concept of judging peers on stereotypes and uninformed judgement is sophomoric.

I can guarantee that the stereotypes vary greatly from the realities.