I Remember the Exact Moment I Became a Feminist

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of taking the stage at yet another TEDx event at UC Berkeley. The theme of the day for TEDxBerkeley was “Rethink. Redefine. Recreate.” and it’s one I took to heart. My talk was called “Observation and Change” and it focused on something that’s become essential in my personal and professional life: observing what needs to be changed and then working to fix it. As I said in my talk, which you can view below – there are a lot of things in this world that need to be changed, and it’s absolutely overwhelming. Can you fix them all? No. But what you can do, and what you must do is take that one thing that keeps you awake at night and do something about it.

TEDX Berkeley Be who you are

My example? Disney movies. I loved them as a child – Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty – I sat rapt before their stories. And I thought, too, innocently, that if I waited for my prince to come, he would, and that he would set my life on a happily-ever-after course. But as I got older, I observed. I observed my own family life, observed my hard-working mother’s life, and it dawned on me that marriage wasn’t the end-all be-all for a woman. My mother worked hard at her full-time job and at home taking care of her house and family, while my father simply had to work at his day job and then come home to be served by the women of the house. These observations led to a change in me. I remember the exact moment I became a feminist, and it was a moment in my mother’s kitchen where my father grumped about having to get up and get his own salt for his dinner. “Two women in this house,” he groused, “and I have to get up and get my own salt.”

The indignity.

Not to him, but to my mother and me. I observed that day that females are not treated equally in our world, or even in my own small one. And I decided that in whatever I did in life, it would include working to change that.

Which leads me back to Disney. The movies I worked on there were by no means perfect, but each one brought us closer and closer to the goal of a princess whose total happiness does not depend on marriage. Ariel was a headstrong, rebellious, go-getter, Belle was a smart girl who saw past Gaston’s handsome brawn, and Merida, my Merida, was content and happy with whom she was and knew she didn’t need a husband to complete her.

TEDx Berkley endgame

I observed, and as much as I could, I changed.

So can you.

So tell me, what’s that one thing that keeps you up at night? And can you remember the exact moment that you became a feminist – or a (fill in the blank)_________? I’d love to know!

Other posts you might like:

Is my son smart? Is my daughter skinny? Google Search Reveals Parents’ Gender Bias Searches
I’m a Male Feminist. No, Seriously
Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualization of Girlhood, From Birth to Teen
Staying True to Merida, Why This Fight Matters

  • Crazyrange

    In fairness Ariel gave up a big part of herself, her tail, so she could marry Eric and sail off into the sunset. Not a great message.
    On the other hand, thank you for bringing us Merida. As a girl who had a bow and arrow, and was called a tomboy for having a skateboard, it was great to see Merida on the big screen, not wanting a husband. Now, we need a lot more of these characters.
    As for your father, I had an uncle who was similar, though not as overt. He asked me to make his cup of tea one day, and I put salt instead of sugar. Needless to say, he didn’t ask again.
    Keep up the good work.

    • brendachapman

      As I said – I still prefer the “sea-foam” version of The Little Mermaid – showing us that it’s not worth giving up who you are for a man. 🙂
      Thank you!

  • Elena

    I have a hard time remembering the exact moment when I became a feminist. Equality and the desire for social justice have always been second nature to me: I self-identified as a feminist even during my childhood years! (which wasn’t so common in Italy in the 1980s)

    However, I can remember the moment when I decided to put gender equality front and center in my line of work. At age 26, I moved to Paris, France, after getting a bachelor and master’s degree in the United States. I had written, produced, directed, shot and edited a feature-length film as my thesis project… and I was looking for film jobs in Paris. My teachers and classmates in the US had always been incredibly encouraging. However, France proved to be a completely different experience.

    Whenever French people asked me what I did, and I replied, “I’m a filmmaker,” they would invariably smile and ask, “Oh, you mean you’re in film school?” If I got a penny every time someone asked me if I was a film student, I’d be a millionaire by now (and able to finance films till the end of my days). While my male filmmaker friends were taken seriously on the spot – no question about it – I was always met with condescending/skeptical stares whenever I said I was a filmmaker. This went on for years. Now in my 30s, I still get asked if I’m a film student! So, back in the day, I decided to set up a website to promote the visibility of women across dozens of professional fields: http://www.nocountryforyoungwomen.com And with my second feature-length film The Illusionists (http://theillusionists.org) I am discussing issues of consumer culture and the pressures that women (and now men and children) face vis-à-vis their physical appearance.

    Focusing my work on gender and social justice has brought me immeasurable pleasure, allowing me to connect with extraordinary women the world over. I couldn’t be more proud to define myself as a feminist and I’m happy to see the “tide changing.” The character of Merida has been absolutely revolutionary. Keep up the inspiring work, Brenda!

    • brendachapman

      Wow! Keep up the great work!! I hope my readers take a look at the sites you just offered. Thank you!
      And I look forward to seeing your films!

  • Adrian

    Isn’t a feminist the same as being a misogynist but hating on men? Shouldn’t you guys be anti-sexism before being feminist? I’m not sure if I’m getting this wrong or what. If being a feminist isn’t hating on men but it’s about establishing the same rights and values for any human being, then I’m totally on it. I think misogyny is horrible stupid and archaic. People should realize we are all people, no women should be treated like less than anyone else for being a women. Nobody should be treated less for their gender or sexuality.

    • GnuMom10

      How on earth is being a feminist the same as a misandrist? There is absolutely nothing in feminism that requires or suggests hating men. Feminism is about standing up for women, fighting for equal rights and equal treatment for women, and teaching men to value women as equal human beings. Just like you said, feminism is ” about establishing the same rights and values for any human being.”

      • brendachapman

        And that is also my definition of feminism for me. I am certainly not a man-hater or want to take away any equal rights from men. I guess that is what I thought the term “militant feminist” leaned towards.
        Thank you both for helping me clarify!

  • kammi

    I think for me it was not about being a feminist but about love. Growing up with two parents who met when they were 14, got married at 21 and have still been together 39 years later had a profound impact in my life. I think it’s easy to look around and find brokenness, anger and cynicism in life, but seeing something so pure and wonderful was a great thing for me and has kept me centred throughout life. I also love Mana, a band I first heard in my early teens, that encourages love beyond borders (one of their albums was called “Revolucion de Amor” or love revolution). I think that seeing that and believing that something like that DOES exist made me realize that ANY dream a person can have also does exist. We don’t have to be cynical and bitter when someone says they want to be an actor, a singer, the best dancer out there, or a female director. We can encourage them and continue to let them dream and push them to be the best human being they can be. Before I went to college, I also read the works of the Dalai Lama, Kahlil Gibran and Marcus Garvey and Nelson Mandela visited my country. I also read (and still do) a lot of books by successful entrepreneurs, inspirational people, etc. It inspires me to be the best that I can be and also pass that positive energy out to people in the world so that they can change things for the better and be a light in the world regardless of their economical background, race or gender.

    • brendachapman

      Some nice inspirations there. Thank you.

  • Curiousguy

    Is your father alive? If so, does he agree or disagree with your account of his actions? If he agrees, does he regret them?

    • brendachapman

      Unfortunately, no. He died when I was 19. I wish with all my heart that I could talk to him about it. Although, only 2 or 3 years after the “salt” incident, he was helping my mom clean up in the kitchen and being more for her. So I’d like to think that if he’d lived passed the young age of 62, he would have agreed with me now. Despite the point I was trying to make, I loved him very much.

  • I have a very similar moment in my memory but not sure what age I was when I noticed it. And I have another experience that was very powerful in my identity as a feminist, even though I didn’t know that word at the time.

    My similar moment was sparked by my grandfather. My step-grandmother was a working woman widowed by WWII. When she married my grandfather who was also widowed, she stopped working at her longtime job. Then her work became serving my grandfather. She got up every morning, before he was up, in order to pour cornflakes and raisin bran in a bowl, put milk and sugar over it for him and serve it to him. I remember hearing him complain one morning when he came to sit at the breakfast table that his cereal bowl was still empty. My grandmother apologized and added, “Walter, you could get it for yourself if you’re in a hurry.” My grandfather was truly outraged at this and asked her, “Why? You’re not doing anything.” She quietly poured in the cereal and milk. I felt the unfairness of their roles right then even though no one else said anything about it.

    My second moment was totally clear. I was 13 when my mother told me she was going to stop going to Catholic church because the priest wouldn’t give her communion after she confessed that she was taking birth control pills (for health reasons related to very risky pregnancies). She was both ashamed by the priest’s rejection of her health needs and angry at his refusal of compassion. Another example of a woman’s dignity being ignored, even trampled upon.

    • brendachapman

      I can only hope now that that is not the case when a woman goes to confession and wants to take communion!

  • sianychick

    Aw you are so lovely. I loved getting to listen to you on that video. I think I became a feminist slowly. I was girly but I ran around with my brother and cousins. I went to a all boys summer camp to work, I kept my name when I got married, we split our household duties and parenting duties equally without ever discussing it. It has never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something because I was a woman. But I really started thinking about it in terms of movies thanks to you. Since you started writing your blog i’m looking at how women are treating all over the place and thinking oh yeah I never really noticed that but that’s not right!

    I’m watching movies and seeing them differently. Ever since I read about the Bechdel test I keep seeing movies that don’t pass it…

    I’m hearing my son saying that’s only for girls so I can’t play with it or boys are stronger and better than girls. (The sound you hear is my head exploding)

    I’m hearing it in my friends talking about their daughters. I mentioned about telling my son that all toys should be for all children and she said ‘for goodness sake he is only 6’… Only 6? I want him to learn about equality from the beginning.

    In the E channel I heard them talk about how Jennifer Lawrence fell down at the Oscars. One of the presenters said ‘yeah but I feel like she is so beautiful she can get away with it…’ Wait if she was ugly she wouldn’t get away with accidentally falling?

    So I guess the moment I became a feminist is when I found you online. Thank you for that. 🙂

    What keeps me up at night? My world is pretty small but I worry about how to teach my boys kindness and compassion. How to teach them to be who they really are. How to do what brings them joy not what others think they should do. I worry because I’m only just figuring out how to be who I really am now. It’s small but that’s what i’m working on. Hopefully it makes a difference to my two little starfish x

    (Can’t believe I just wrote you an essay 😉

    • brendachapman

      It’s been a while… and I LOVE your “essay”! You honor me – but more importantly – you’ve honored yourself! There could be nothing more important than teaching your children kindness and being open minded. Would that all parents kept that in mind!
      Thank you!!
      xo

      • sianychick

        Aw thank you Brenda, big smile on my face now! 🙂 xxxx

        • brendachapman

          🙂 xoxo

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  • shetanifilms

    Great piece! I linked to it from my latest blog entry – such good stuff. Feminism is always on my mind, and I’m always trying to explain to friends, men and women alike, why it’s so important to think critically about what we see on-screen (and in the real world as well, for that matter). Looking forward to your next entry!

    • brendachapman

      Thank you!!

  • Mickey Gomez

    I became a feminist when I began witnessing a dramatic increase in the number of laws nationwide focused on curbing the rights of women. Until then I thought feminism was “SO decades ago,” and I preferred to think of myself as a humanist. Now I understand that without passing an amendment securing – by name – equal rights for women, our freedom is based solely on the whims of those interpreting the Constitution as-is. That frightens me beyond my ability to articulate.

    • brendachapman

      Nicely said!

  • I have a young son who is very active in sports. At the risk of being thought of as “that mom” that many of the kids, and especially dads, will avoid, I vow to never let a statement of “play like a girl” within my earshot go by without me responding in some way. Usually, I try to be kind and remind the speaker there’s nothing wrong with playing like a girl, especially if it’s a girl, but I’ve been snarky back at them sometimes, too. Girls deserve to play sports just as much as boys and shouldn’t be unfairly scrutinized simply because of their gender. Maybe someone will listen.

    • brendachapman

      Thank you for standing up for what you believe in. That takes courage.
      I find that when I’m snarky, it tends to make people defensive and they just snark back. If I steel myself to stay calm when I’m challenging their statements… or even “tease” them about it… they respond better and maybe even think about it.
      Don’t get me wrong – sometimes my button gets pushed a little too hard – then look out! I get snarky, too. But I try not to when I can. 🙂

  • DanaVFX

    I’ll be honest: I was raised to be anti-feminist and brought that attitude with me into my career. Perhaps it was concern that the men who run things would all dislike feminists the way my parents (both of them) did; I pretended inequality does not exist. That *really* backfired. I experienced maybe a tiny-scale version of what you went through at Pixar (same company). You bet I’m a feminist now. Each day I see new reasons to be.

    • brendachapman

      I was, too… to your first sentence, and ‘So do I!!’ to your last – and ‘Yes, indeed!!’ to everything inbetween. Thanks for taking the time to write.

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