Learning to love the F-word

The F-word: You want to be careful using it in mixed company, because you never know what reaction you’ll get. Some flinch. Others embrace the word, using it with grace and ease.

This chasm in how the F-word is perceived is one of the reasons Lori Horvitz, assistant professor of literature and language at UNCA, wants to bring it into the open and explore it — air it out, discuss its misuse and the misconceptions folks have about it.

She wants to figure out how, exactly, “feminism” got to be a dirty word.

“We’ve gotten to a point where ‘radical feminism’ sounds like a disease,” Horvitz says, “when really, it’s simply about equality between the sexes. It’s not about man-hating and it’s not about this radical, extreme idea. It’s just about women and men being equal.”

Sounds rational enough. Yet Horvitz says feminism can still seem dangerous to some people. “Probably five out of 15 students in my Intro to Women’s Studies class said that their boyfriends didn’t want them to take the course. And this is a self-selecting [i.e., elective] class. I think it’s really interesting that these boyfriends would be so threatened by women gaining knowledge.”

According to Horvitz, occasions for sane discourse — and increased knowledge — about feminism are few, as are opportunities for viewing films dealing with the subject. “Last year, I was talking with some colleagues about the fact that we don’t have a lot of venues for women’s films. Well, I’m interested in film, so I applied for a university-wide grant and got it.”

Thus was born the F-Word Film Festival. The name comes from a movie shown in the Festival’s inaugural year, Lori explains. “The F-Word was a great film with interviews of people on the street, asking, ‘What do you think of when you hear the word feminism?’ And people would say things like, ‘Women who are hairy and ugly and hate men.’ So that’s where we came up with the F-Word [concept].”

Now in its second year, the two-night event uses documentary videos to open a public dialogue about feminism and other women’s issues. Panel and audience discussions will follow, and the entire festival is free and open to the public.

“We wanted films that show strong women and issues about feminism,” says Horvitz of the movies in this year’s line up. “But we didn’t want to go real hardcore, although some of the films do bring up some hardcore issues. … I think these films will be an impetus to a good discussion afterwards.”

Indeed. The playbill is packed with timely, provocative films, starting with Thursday night’s Shinjuku Boys, a documentary that introduces three onnabes who work as hosts at Tokyo’s New Marilyn Club. Onnabes are women who live as men, with girlfriends and all. The film follows the onnabes at home and on the job, capturing their views on sex, women, transvestitism and lesbianism. Next, A Place Called Home explores filmmaker Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri’s decision to move back to Iran after living in the United States for 19 years. By interviewing family members, Sadegh-Vaziri excavates the layers of expatriate, national and cultural identities, and offers a glimpse into the lives of women in the contemporary Middle East.

No Means No takes on the subject of date rape, exploring miscommunication and misunderstanding between the sexes. Gretchen Trautmann, UNCA’s assistant professor of foreign languages, will moderate the discussions following the screenings.

Horvitz will moderate the discussion of Friday night’s offerings, which begin with Grrlyshow, a brief film that explores fringe feminism and print media by examining girly ‘zine culture. The Righteous Babes examines — and critiques — the ways feminism has influenced women in pop culture. Look for performance footage and interviews with Ani DiFranco (founder of Righteous Babe Records), Madonna, Camille Paglia and Gloria Steinem.

Macho closes out the screenings with a look at Men Against Violence, an organization that struggles to overcome machismo (and the acts of violence against women that it spawns) in Latin America.

Horvitz encourages men to attend the festival, too. “This is not about man-bashing,” she stresses. “We made sure there were men on the panels, and certainly last year, some of the most interesting discussions were initiated by men.”

She hopes that by viewing the films and talking about them, men and women alike will become aware of the stereotypes she sees in big-budget, mainstream movies.

“We watch these Hollywood films and don’t question that it’s usually the males who have the power and the females who are waiting at home for the men to return,” notes Horvitz. “When that’s pointed out to them, they’re like, ‘Wow, I never noticed that before.’ So, I just want people to at least open up the dialogue and begin to gain a deeper understanding of the inequalities that still exist.”

She also wouldn’t mind if viewers began to question the traditional role “feminist” characters play in Hollywood movies. “One of my students pointed out that in every boardroom scene with all the executives and the CEO, there’s always a woman — and she’s always, well, a bitch. When women see that, they think, ‘I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be the bitch.'”

For Horvitz, being a feminist means anything but being the boardroom bitch.

“One of the nice things about feminism,” she believes, “is that there are a lot of contradictions going on. You can be sexy. You can be beautiful. You can dress up for men. But you can also still believe in equality between the sexes. There’s a lot to be taken from that. I don’t think you can put it in a box.” Or classify it as a dirty word, for that matter.

[Cindy Burda is an f-word free-lance writer who grew up and lives in WNC.]

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