Every woman knows what it’s like to be called “ugly.” Since the third grade, give or take a few years, every woman’s also known how to respond: ignore it. When someone’s already convinced “ugly” has the power to win an argument, there’s no better way to prove them wrong than simply refusing to argue in the first place, a truism that holds whether “them” is a pack of attention-starved eight-year-olds or a horde of ignorant neckbeards; and as go elementary school playground politics, so goes the Internet. Which raises the question: why are feminists engaging with the self-evidently stupid #FeministsAreUgly hashtag at all, let alone on its own terms?
In the absence of any discernible time peg, there’s no real reason why #FeministsAreUgly happened to trend this particular week. Regardless, the power of trolling quickly rocketed the tags into Twitter’s hallowed list of trending topics. #FeministsAreUgly should have then met the fate any sophomoric grab for 15 minutes of outrage cycle ire deserves: flaming out in a matter of hours, remembered only by the occasional MRA reliving his glory days in some godforsaken chatroom.
That is, of course, not what happened. As aggregated by BuzzFeed, self-identified feminists attempted to troll the trolls by flooding the hashtags with their pictures. Some of the captions crack wise (“#FeministsAreUgly…and plotting your demise”); some are inspiring (a cancer survivor). Most, however, seem genuinely intended to refute the idea that feminists aren’t conventionally attractive. I sympathize with the intention here, but some terrible ideas get more of a boost from their detractors than their supporters. This is one of them.
To get the obvious out of the way, feminists are not categorically ugly. Feminism is a belief system; beliefs are not visible to the outside world, and therefore not subject to arbitrary/oppressive beauty standards. Conventionally attractive people can be feminists. People of all shapes and sizes and appearances can be feminists. Anyone can be a feminist, so long as they think or act like one. This is not just well established, it is inherent in the concept of feminism. Insert disclaimer about how feminism has not always lived up to this standard of inclusiveness here.
Which makes the attempted rebuttal of #FeministsAreUgly more than a simple case of stooping to the subterranean level of the average fedora wearer. That “all shapes and sizes” constituency includes “pretty” feminists, yes. It also includes feminists who aren’t conventionally attractive, because part of feminism’s goal is to reject the equation of a woman’s appearance with her self-worth. And therein lies the problem with attempting to reappropriate a certain hashtag instead of letting it die.
Tempting as it is to answer “You’re ugly!” with “No I’m not!” — the implicit message of all those selfies, no matter how cleverly captioned — that exchange leaves several assumptions unquestioned. Assumptions that ultimately do a whole lot more to keep the patriarchy up and running than a few tweets. Assumptions like: people who are conventionally attractive have inherently more valid opinions than those who are not; the standards of what constitutes a conventionally attractive person are unbiased and objective; and that women who don’t live up to those standards (a process that involves time, effort, and plenty of $$$$) aren’t punished for it more than their male counterparts.
Smiling, gorgeous women refusing to let Internet idiocy get them down is a wonderful thing to behold. If misogyny could be dismantled one fuck-your-hashtag smile at a time, I’d be all for it. But until the #FeministsAreUgly response turns into “Some feminists may be ‘ugly,’ so the fuck what?,” the takeaway from all those empowering selfies inevitably adds up to #NotAllFeminists and not much more. In the meantime, why waste a perfectly good headshot on an audience that doesn’t deserve it?
Update: The hashtag actually originated with activists Lily Bolourian and @cheuya, who sought “to create our own narrative and question what ‘ugly’ means.” That’s a worthy goal and certainly changes my opinion of the trending topic’s origins. I nonetheless stand by my criticisms of the phenomenon as it developed over the last week or so, especially since many participants appear to be responding to perceived misogyny, not Bolourian’s original call for selfies.