Our society has an obsession with labels. Because of this, I believe that there are certain labels that are misused, or that carry certain meanings, associations and implications that cause more harm than good. As of late, especially on social media, I have found irksome the overuse of the following terms: liberal, a word so broad that it now has a wide range of less-than-positive associations; girl boss, a term that became popular despite its negative implications and activist, which is commonly misused.
First, the word liberal. It is, I suppose, used properly, as most of the people who identify with the term are Democrats, and it counters the Republican-affiliated word, conservative. Still, saying that I’m a liberal seriously gives me the icks; I hate to be associated with their tone-deafness in regards to issues related to people of color. Take the issue of undocumented immigrants, for example. Too many times, the only reason why liberals want them to come to this country is because they think, “well, who else is gonna clean our houses and do the work that we don’t wanna do!” This type of thinking is gravely problematic; labeling these people as just a workforce instead of people coming to this country in search of new opportunities is grossly dehumanizing.
I also find the fawning over (non-liberal) politicians for doing the bare minimum to be quite odd. For example, when President Biden recently raised the refugee cap to 65,000 people, he was met with an eerie complacency—liberals didn’t question why he went against his initial promise of a refugee cap of 125,000 or more, and why Biden, when he first entered office, actually agreed with former President Trump’s 15,000-person refugee cap. Similarly, when Democrats for some reason decided to wear Ghanaian Kente cloth when kneeling in memory of George Floyd, white liberals applauded their commitment to diversity instead of addressing the big picture: systemic racism and why police in this country are legally defended instead of defunded. These are the bad habits that I associate with the term “liberal”: performative activism that diverts attention from big problems and focuses on politicians instead of people. My qualms with the label aside, instead of obsessing over politicians or doing #quirkyliberalthings, there needs to be a focus amongst liberals on holding politicians accountable for their actions, both past and present, and recognizing that being selectively open-minded ultimately goes against what liberalism truly is.
Next, onto girl boss, my least favorite of these labels. By Sophia Amoruso’s definition, a girl boss assumes high-ranking, male-dominated company positions in the hopes of creating equality. While the term’s intent was seemingly innocuous in that it implied that women deserve to be in roles of power, its impact has been harmful. For starters, I am surprised that we even began adopting the term in the first place: why would you identify with a label that blatantly infantilizes women? Already, women in male-dominated spaces are not often seen as competent counterparts, but rather as girls who should know better than to rise against a man. This infantilization of women is more widespread than we realize, as people are met with scalding criticism when addressing the actions of, for example, female politicians. I’ll take a recent example: Kamala Harris. While it is a milestone that she is our country’s first female vice president, her being a “girl boss” does not, and should not, excuse her past of incarcerating Black and brown bodies. If we want true equality, both women and men should be held accountable for their actions: infantilization gets us nowhere.
Thankfully, more people have been criticizing the label, as many believe that it actually encourages women to assimilate into these sexist spaces but ignores corporate workplace issues that are rooted in capitalism, white supremacy and the patriarchy. And of course, when race-related issues in the workforce are brought up, they are shut down and ignored, as “girl boss” and white feminism are snakes of the same vine. I think that is why we are seeing the phrase, “Girl boss, gentrify, gaslight,” trending on social media. As funny as the phrase is, it is scarily accurate. Women, mostly those who are white, identify as girl bosses, climb up corporate ladders and, in doing so, drive up rent prices and push out Black residents. Then they gaslight women of color in an attempt to silence them and even make them doubt their own lived experiences in the workplace. For some reason, girl boss feminism has created the idea that you’re no longer a feminist if you call out other women for exclusionary actions. This notion couldn’t be more untrue—no one, regardless of gender, should be complicit in systemic racism.
Above all, what people who stand by the word girl boss don’t realize is that the key to women’s rights is agency. Agency is something that we have not had over our own lives and bodies: women HAD to stay at home and HAD to take care of the children. But now, thanks to the valor of many, agency can be used in several ways: to go to school and work, or to stay at home and take care of kids, or both. So, girl bosses shaming women who choose to become stay-at-home moms, for instance, is nonsensical, as they are forgetting that women having choice over their lives is ultimately the objective. And the obsession with trying to fit into male-dominated workplaces leaves out the women who either cannot or simply just don’t want to become CEOs, thus pushing a singular, conventional idea of success. In reality, success looks different for everyone and can be reached by taking many different avenues. Just as success isn’t one-dimensional, feminism isn’t either, and thus girl boss feminism should be traded for intersectional feminism, as it better represents the range of female experiences and how they are affected by race, sexuality, class, etc.
Lastly, we have the word activist. While the term does imply that it refers to anyone who advocates in favor of or against an issue, social media has run with this meaning. What do I mean by this? Well, why do people who repost someone else’s post about an issue or event get to call themselves activists and slap it on their Instagram bios? I believe that we cannot call a serial re-poster an activist if people like Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and MLK, just to name a few, are also activists. While I appreciate my generation’s drive to stand up against what we believe is unjust, I do not condone the loss of respect that the word “activist” has faced in recent years, at least online. Many people seem to be forgetting the gravity of the term: that people like the ones I mentioned made impacts on local, national and global scales. And, they did not live easy lives because of it; they received death threats and were physically injured, and some faced time in jail and died early deaths. While I don’t want to “gatekeep” the term or argue that you have to be an internationally-regarded social leader who has faced time in prison or was injured due to their beliefs, I want to drive home the idea that it is no easy thing to be an activist, as it is physically and mentally taxing. In the same way that not everyone can be a parent, and not everyone can be a teacher, not everyone can be an activist, and that is okay. Above all, regardless of whether or not you’re an activist, the term itself should be honored, and mutual respect and support for not only activists of the past but also genuine activists of the present should exist.
While I focused on just three terms, I am sure that there are many words that people identify themselves with that may have complicated meanings, associations and nuances. While using labels is socially ingrained in us, we shouldn’t blindly follow the leader: we should research the origins and ideals of a term and the moral and ethical values of those who ascribe to it. Actually, better yet, I believe that we should move toward forging our beliefs away from labels to avoid being swept up in a hive mind that is actually unconsciously reversing the progress of the social movements that are of importance to us.