The other day, I came across a TikTok in which a woman expressed her dissatisfaction with the term “chestfeeding.” She prefaced her argument by saying she supports transgender people and their fight for equality and believes there is a need for gender-neutral language, but she had a specific problem with that word. Why, she argued, would we try to change the word “breastfeeding?” Breasts are an anatomical term. Men, women and everyone in between have breasts. She said that this was an example of the gender neutral-community going too far and trying to neutralize a term just to be “woke.” I watched the video, nodded along, said, “Hm, interesting,” and kept on scrolling.
A few days later, I stumbled upon another TikTok in which a different woman voiced her frustration with the increased use of gender neutral language. From her perspective, terms like “person who menstruates” and “pregnant/birthing person” made her feel like an object – a menstruating, birthing machine. The creator and the people in the comments felt like women had fought tooth and nail for femininewords to be taken seriously in society without misogynistic implications. And, she pointed out, why aren’t masculine words like penis and erection being restructured? I must admit I am a fairly passive TikTok scroller who tends to mindlessly absorb information, but this particular TikTok made me pause.
Then I saw yet another TikTok in which a gay man claimed that trans women are biological men trying to take over biological women’s spaces. Naturally, I was flabbergasted and opened the comments to see if people were seeing what I was seeing. Instead the top comment was: “This is what J.K. Rowling was saying.” It was like I was dropped into a pool of ice cold water. I was on TERF, or trans exclusionary radical feminist, TikTok. It had happened so slowly; a few TikToks that led to furrowed brows and a, “Huh, that’s weird”, before I finally realized what I had stumbled into. The problem with this rhetoric is that it seems very convincing when you first hear it.
I think a reason some women feel so threatened by the increased emphasis on gender-neutrality is because they feel like it attacks a marginalized group: women. This is where intersectionality comes into play. On the male-female binary, cisgender women indeed have and continue to be the subject of discrimination and misogyny, which signifies a lack of privilege. However, cisgender women also have the privilege of being, well, cisgender. They do not face the severe societal challenges that come with being transgender. It is very easy for people to forget this. Dealing with discrimination does not exempt you from having privilege.
It is concerning how many views TikToks with TERF-esque rhetoric are getting. Some videos have as many as hundreds and thousands of likes. Beyond the traction this rhetoric has received, it was distressing to realize how easy it is to slip into the TERF side of TikTok. When you see people who seem reasonable and trustworthy begin to spew questionable rhetoric and read comments full of people agreeing with them, it can be easy to accept what you hear as fact. It is the reason why disinformation runs rampant on the platform. TikTok is a dangerous echo chamber that feeds you video after video of content you didn’t ask for, maybe some that you don’t even want, but you can’t do anything to stop it.