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A Modern Feminist?

Photo of Merve Ozedmir

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I have seen women tear other women down more times than I can count.

In fact, growing up in Turkey, I sometimes felt like judging other women was part of traditional Turkish culture, though it varied from region to region. In rural areas of Turkey, housewives often meet for “teatime,” a time and place for gossip, “spilling tea” for hours. Although such rituals definitely strengthen the bonds between neighbors and provide entertainment, from my experience, these women can be pretty harsh when it comes to criticizing the young girls in town.

Women are held up to high standards; from what they wear to who they hang out with, all their choices related to their looks, lives and careers are scrutinized during these hot gossip sessions, where women are criticized more often than praised.

These teatime rituals were not nearly as popular in relatively “modern” cities such as Istanbul where I grew up, but the Turkish gossip culture continued to thrive. Sharp words exchanged over coffee, in high school hallways, and even at family gatherings gave it life. Only when I grew older and became well-read in feminism did I realize that the Turkish gossip culture intertwined with the patriarchal society had desensitized us all to the harsh standards women are held up to, not only by men but also by other women.

Yet this problem presents itself not only in Turkey but in all cultures, though in different ways. Despite Western culture’s association with concepts such as “female empowerment” and “women supporting women,” Western feminists are not completely innocent of misogynistic behaviors.

I’m often surprised at how much we normalize Western media openly promoting internalized misogyny to women. An example that comes to my mind is the “Not Like Other Girls” trope, the female main character stereotype that has been used over and over in Western movies and TV shows. In these movies, the protagonist is — well, not like other girls. She’s often quirky, effortless in appearance and doesn’t “try too hard” to get the guy’s attention, though she usually ends up with him anyway.

The problem with this trope is not with the protagonist but with the rest of the female characters, the “other girls,” whose negative characteristics such as selfishness, stupidity and ignorance, are all associated with their femininity on screen. The audience is made to love the protagonist not because she’s necessarily great, but because she’s different from the other girls who are quite horrible. The message is clear to all women watching: To be worthy and desirable, you must tear down other women.

This popular Hollywood trope also appears on social media apps we use every day. A relatively new trend on TikTok is the “Pick Me Girl” trend, in which users, mostly women, criticize and mock other women who seek male attention. This trend is especially toxic and hypocritical because as women criticize the behaviors of “pick me girls,” they are falling into the same trap. In the situation in which a “pick me girl” is said to bring down other women to be “picked” by men, the participants of the trend bring down other women for the same attention — likes and views.

The internalized misogyny that causes women to socially cannibalize each other is so deep-rooted and prevalent that it’s even present within feminist communities. Let’s go back a couple of years. Emma Watson, one of my biggest role models in life, was labeled “anti-feminist” by other feminists online for doing a semi-naked cover shoot for Vanity Fair.

Although Emma’s Vanity Fair story included a lot of valuable messages and quotes by the young actress, these “gatekeepers” of feminism focused only on one revealing picture and used it as an excuse to label Emma as a bad feminist. There are so many misconceptions about what a feminist looks like in the modern world, and women judge other women by these impossible standards, just as much as men do. We must look past such myths and misconceptions and start respecting each other’s choices when it comes to how we live our own lives as women and feminists.

As a response to the backlash she received, Emma Watson said, “Feminism is about giving women a choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with.”

Perhaps the harsh reality is that women’s choices can only be respected if not only men but women reflect on their relationships with other women. The solution lies in facing the negative emotions that we have toward other women, and identifying the root of those emotions. Asking ourselves, “Why do I feel this way about this woman? Was I taught to think this way?” could help us realize that maybe our hatred has nothing to do with the person it’s directed toward, but instead with our social conditioning as women.

Once we identify the source of our conditioned responses, we can even turn them into positive reactions. Opportunities for collaboration, rather than competition, are countless; women can share the spotlight without jealousy, and strive to be successful while letting others shine alongside them. Something as simple as a smile or a compliment goes a long way.

Female friendships are magical, and if we can only put aside the hatred and jealousy we’ve been taught to cultivate against one another, we, as women and feminists, can embrace each other’s differences and flourish.

Merve Ozdemir writes the Wednesday column on exploring her cross-cultural identity as a 21st-century feminist.