Living up to their reputation as charming gentlemen, Young Liberal Club members at Melbourne University recently found themselves in hot water, when their slew of misogynist, racist and homophobic Facebook message threads were leaked to the media.
In the messages, Germaine Greer was the target of sexual abuse, Tara Moss, it was said “should only be on TV if she is in a bikini”, and former prime minister Julia Gillard was labelled a “twat” because apparently Young Liberals hail from 17th century England. And finally, all feminists were declared U-G-L-Y.
After this leak came another, with the vice-president of Swinburne University Liberal Club resigning after he was found posting a series of homophobic and sexist comments about women’s bodies on Facebook.
“Any comments were off the cuff remarks which were not to be taken seriously,” he said in a statement.
Sure, these rants may seem isolated and insignificant in the greater scheme of things — something we can shrug off as “bro culture” in universities, or boys just being boys, but these instances feed into and are indicative of a more sinister discourse on anti-feminism among young people, both at home and abroad.
As evidenced by the Young Libs in question, anti-feminist sentiments are increasingly shared online. On the popular Tumblr blog Women Against Feminism, female users submit photos of themselves holding placards stating their personal reasons for opposing feminism. “I don’t need feminism because I don’t see women as weak and pathetic victims of the non-existent patriarchy,” reads one example. “I don’t need feminism because I don’t have to push men down to feel equal to them” reads another.
I first identified as a feminist in middle school, when my older brother asked me if I believed in feminism. “I think women should have their rights and stuff but I’m not marching around like, “Rah Rah Rah feminism!” I said.
My brother laughed and asked me if I believed that men and women should have equal rights. I told him of course; anything else would be crazy. He explained to me that feminism was about women’s rights rising up to meet the rights of men. It wasn’t about taking over society, but making things just, and I didn’t need to go out marching if I didn’t want to.
If we’d never had that conversation, I imagine my attitude towards feminism would more closely resemble those of the young girls I meet in my improvisation classes, or at my local cafe. Progressive girls who don’t consider themselves feminists and would probably cringe if you labelled them as such.
It’s hard to breach that barrier of disinterest and doubt. People have been made to feel at odds with feminism simply because they don’t understand it, and others haven’t bothered or cared enough to clarify what its various ideologies and movements stand for. And when misinformed people make false assumptions, few people make an effort to constructively counteract them because doing so would be awkward.
There’s a general sense of revulsion towards even the word “feminism” and an eagerness to distance oneself from it. And social media, as those scampish Young Libs discovered, can be the perfect place for people to vent and find community over harmful stuff like sexism and anti-feminism.
And while the Young Libs in question should absolutely be held accountable for their actions, it’s difficult to stay informed — and brave — when you’re flooded with public examples of strong female figures being torn down by sexist attacks, followed by the vilification of those who stand against sexism.
Sometimes people genuinely oppose the equal rights of men and women. And other times, people make stupid comments that don’t reflect their opinions because they want to fit in, which is far more disturbing than any hate speech.
Our society’s vitriolic attitudes towards women and feminism is intimidating and sometimes frightening, and as an impressionable student, still forming a view about the world, whose side would you take?
Yes, misogyny and anti-feminism exists within Australia, on social and political levels. We live in a culture where sexist behaviour is allowed to germinate. But if it already exists within the mindsets of young Australians and potential future leaders, how will we ever progress?
Michelle Law is a writer and screenwriter.