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Don’t Confuse Being A Feminist With Being A Perpetual Victim

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Could feminists stop encouraging women to see themselves as victims? Consider the story told us by one Emma Sullivan, a high-achieving young woman who was featured in a photo in the Gainesville Sun.

This upset her greatly. The nature of her complaint is somewhat unclear. She was speaking at an annual gathering of “young professionals, emerging leaders, and grassroots community, education, government, and business leaders” called the iG Forum. She said she was honored to be chosen to speak there and was very excited to share the story of her company, which helps other companies market to college students. This is where things went horribly awry.

GainesvilleFreakout

The photo, it seems, showed her with someone else and the caption was:

Gytis Garsys, right, encourages his girlfriend, Emma Sullivan, co-founder of CollegeVox, a media and marketing company she founded with Molly Delattre, during the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce's iG Forum at the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville, Fla., Wednesday, August 20, 2014. Erica Brought/Gainesville Sun

Ms. Delattre, was “shocked.” Ms. Sullivan was “appalled.”

Instead of a photograph of myself kicking ass on stage during my speech, I ended up in this photo:

Now, the thing about stage photos is that they almost never show anyone kicking ass, much less kicking anything. They’re usually photos of people speaking to an unseen audience with a boring PowerPoint-type backdrop, if anything. I’m not a photojournalist but I’ve worked with them and they loathe photographing speaker series for just this reason. The photos are boring. If you’ve ever been to a speech covered by many photographers, you’ll notice that they all just sit there waiting for the slightest little out-of-the-ordinary movement. At that point, they all begin click-click-clicking away, trying to salvage something, anything, for use.

So I’m not surprised that among the stage shots are some others that are more interesting.

And as for the caption, it’s not my favorite either. I find that sometimes people get so sick of describing “speaking” with the same verb that they overdo it when they’re coming up with new ways to say something about a business forum that involves, basically, a bunch of people speaking to each other. I once wrote a caption with the phrase “ruminating on a cracker.” It makes me laugh and wince to this day. So I’m not going to die on the hill of defending a caption that some poor copy editor or photojournalist wrote on deadline assuming it didn’t involve super-sensitive subjects who think the world revolves around them.

Ms. Sullivan says that her objection to the photo is that she’s:

"exemplified in this photo as a pretty little girl who needs a pep talk from her man. Although I haven’t been burning my bras in the street for the feminist movement, maybe I should start, because shit like this is just unacceptable. In a gallery designed to showcase the event, how was a personal photo like this deemed appropriate?"

I should first mention that Ms. Sullivan’s complaints were so over-the-top that I actually made sure that this wasn’t some huge hoax designed to get her company name in the news a bit more. Here’s a link to the original story and photos.

Ms. Sullivan objects to the photo because it makes her seem like a typical example of a “pretty little girl who needs a pep talk from her man.” You’ll note the caption in no way described her looks, but let’s kindly move on from that and note that probably very few people thought of such an insecure way of framing “encouragement” until it was brought up by Ms. Sullivan. Now, I suppose if you think humans should only encourage weak little girls and not everyone, this might make sense. But what a sad way of looking at corporate life, much less life life. My husband and I encourage each other 10 times a day and I try to encourage everyone I come across — if the moment calls for it. Encouragement just means to give confidence or support to someone. It’s just one of the things that humans like to do to help make life better. It’s not a bad thing. Sheesh.

Anyway, she also is upset that nobody asked her if this dude was her boyfriend. She doesn’t say he isn’t her boyfriend, just that she thinks that “both people” should consent to a title like that. Now, this is actually good journalistic practice to confirm relationship details, although I feel sympathy for the poor photojournalist who is taking eleventy billion photos and writing down the details of each — getting spelling, relationships, affiliations, content and the rest just right. But sure, if this is wrong, it needs to be corrected. Ms. Sullivan doesn’t say it’s wrong.

Then she says she “didn’t need an ounce of encouragement” but was instead talking about hunger. So, in other words, my “ruminating on a cracker” phrase might have been better. But big deal. And then she’s back to being upset that her “relationship status” was blasted around to the city of Gainesville. She then tries to plug her company and accuses the paper of wanting to stalk her. She published all this in the Gainesville Scene, a media site that regularly features the well-named Gytis Garsys, whose relationship status with Emma Sullivan is none of your business, weirdo.

OK, so it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but it just shows how deeply women are taught to drink out of the victim cup. Even 21-year-old co-founders of companies. And the saddest part about it is that by imbibing this victimhood complex, a woman who could be presented as a high-achieving and talented professional instead comes off as someone who thinks the journalism world should revolve around her, who makes huge productions out of unintended slights, and who seems insecure instead of confident.

There has to be a better way. Ms. Sullivan’s future is bound to be full of people who say and do things that Ms. Sullivan doesn’t love. All of our futures are full of that. But to freak out over a caption that could have easily been written for any two people of any sex is kind of just a good way to cry wolf. And that might be the last thing a co-founder of a marketing start-up needs. A feminism that doesn’t help men and women prepare for real hardships so much as imagined ones isn’t helping anybody.

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