This year has been a year of higher than usual visibility for feminism as random and not-so-random celebrities have claimed identification with the movement. Whenever this happens, debates surface about what feminism is, whether it’s still valuable and whether women (and men) should call themselves feminist.

Typically, there’s backlash, as in this post by Andrea Peyser, or the unintentionally ironic #IDontNeedFeminism phenomenon. A recent study from the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo has finally scientifically proven what we’ve all suspected all along—that the backlash isn’t aimed at any particular idea being put forward by the movement, but about generally negative ideas people have about feminists (and other activists like environmentalists. People apparently hate environmentalists, too).

One of the most interesting things about the study is that it shows that anti-feminist views aren’t based on interactions with real people, but on a distaste for nameless, faceless, unspecified, unhygienic, man-hating feminists lurking about in the world. There’s a specific, internationally popular conception of feminists as combat-boot-wearing lesbian witches who intend to rule the men of the world by eating babies or something (partially inspired by hate-mongering evangelist Pat Robertson), but these feminists don’t exist for real. I, for one, can’t find one.

I’ve studied feminism for well over a decade; gone to classes and read countless books and articles about it, marched in rallies where feminists marched, hung out with them, talked with them and generally made them a part of my life, and I’ve never met a living embodiment of the kind of feminism popular culture tells me is everywhere. I’ve never read a book by one, watched a film by one, or encountered any of their ideas. I’ve read and heard some radical notions about patriarchal culture, but I have yet to meet a single feminist who hates men, as a general rule, even a little bit, let alone with the intensity and pervasiveness you would think would be necessary to generate a transcultural, intergenerational understanding that hating men is what feminism is.

Undaunted, I search for them online. A quick Internet search of the words “man-hating feminist” doesn’t bring me to any web pages or writings by actual man-hating feminists. It does bring me to debates over popular stereotypes about man-hating feminists, feminists who like men and are explaining that feminism isn’t about hating men, or to anti-feminist websites.

In case you decide to perform your own research, I can save you time by telling you that looking to the anti-feminist movement to offer some actual, specific suggestions of man-hating feminist doctrines is a waste of time. There’s rarely a finger pointed towards an actual person, text or organization. There’s a lot of nervous hand-waving towards second-wave feminists from the ‘70s, or towards big organizations, but the mandate of these organizations and the writings of these women, when actually read, are just about social change, and although angry, aren’t hateful at all. Surely, if these feminists were so dangerously persuasive with their ideas, they would say something themselves about their political positions and not hide them so effectively from public view?

Like so many stereotypes and dark creatures of the night, man-hating feminists exist because people keep saying they do. This is a problem bigger than just a failure of imagination and scholarship. It’s a way to evade the critique of power structures that underpins feminism itself; critiques that are interconnected with a range of other social problems like racism, ableism, colonialism, homophobia, classism and environmental degradation, but that get obscured by popular conceptions of what feminists are and want.

Feminists (like bell hooks , for one actual, real, specific example) tend to note that power is distributed unequally in almost every culture and that some groups are systematically limited in their opportunities so that they won’t achieve equal access to cultural, economic or political authority. Stereotypes of the feminist movement reframe that argument such that it sounds like feminists want women to be dominant, instead of wanting to erase forever the concept of a dominant social group. These popular conceptions operate on a strange logic that assumes that there aren’t enough rights to go around—that if one group gains rights, that means another group is losing them; in short, that somebody has to be dominant in every society.

Feminists generally try to envision alternate and more equitable ways of distributing power, but stereotypical simplifications ensure that alternate visions of society will always be overlooked, either because they will be popularly re-made to look like inverted yet essentially unchanged power structures, or because they’ll be rhetorically linked to hysteria, shrillness, and unsavoury amounts of female leg hair. It’s an easy way to make alternatives not make sense.

As for the question of whether we need feminism, recent news events explain to us that yes, it is useful for someone to still be working on behalf of women because really recently, women’s bodies have been surgically altered without their knowledge or consent in California, and because we’re still using pop culture to tell young girls that they have no real value on their own. On our own steam, we would probably all support each other, but stereotypes are a barrier to understanding. To get past them, however, we have to do the work and look into what social activists like feminists are actually saying about the world instead of relying on what the world is saying about them.

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image: clouds forming word feminist via Shutterstock