Pop-Culture | Posted by Zoe G on 04/6/2016
This is Why We Need To Stop Asking Celebrities If They’re Feminists
It seems that one of the most common questions journalists ask female celebrities these days is, “Are you a feminist?” Considering that feminism was essentially a dirty word in the mainstream media for years, the fact that major publications have been posing the question at all seems like progress. But this “progressive” question actually points to some pressing issues with contemporary feminist discourse — namely the way in which feminism seems to have shifted from being a collective political movement to an individual identity and media buzzword
Celebrities have two options when they’re asked “are you a feminist?”: They can say “yes,” and get a pat on the back for being politically learned, or they can say “no” and risk being branded ungrateful, ignorant, or just dumb. The publication of articles listing (and shaming) public women who don’t identify as feminists forces celebrities to believe that regardless of their personal stance they must answer “yes” to avoid backlash. These celebrities label themselves feminists without further consideration: Their proclaimed identities as feminists supersedes the importance of their actions.
On the one hand, raising awareness about and destigmatizing feminism among large groups of fans can be a good thing. For too long, “feminism” has been tossed around as a synonym for every possible quality that makes women undesirable. When high-profile women like Beyoncé, Hilary Clinton and Taylor Swift label themselves feminists, it decreases the stigma around the word and encourages more (particularly young) women to learn about the movement.
On the other hand, however, being a feminist is about more than just publicly identifying as one. While plenty of celebrities have been quick to adopt the label because they feel pressured to or after learning that the movement is simply one of pro-equality, actually advocating for the movement must require more than agreeing with this basic belief. Being famous hardly guarantees one has a solid understanding of feminism and it’s crucial that celebrities educate themselves about the movement before they publicly, authoritatively speak about it.
Take Taylor Swift, who when she first elaborated on how she understands feminism said that the word doesn’t mean “something angry… complaining or…rioting and picketing.” While Swift’s feminist identity may beneficially encourage her young fans to learn about the movement, and while her definition is clearly well-intentioned, it’s extremely limiting. To suggest that feminism isn’t about “rioting and picketing” dismisses the vast numbers of women who have fought over the years (and still fight) for important rights like suffrage, equal pay and legal abortion. Furthermore, to suggest that feminism does not involve being angry or complaining disregards the fact that often women must get angry and complain so that their voices can be heard.
In addition to demonstrating that they truly understand the movement, famous, self-identified feminists should investigate how their own behavior and attitudes tie into or support systematic oppression — especially when they are supposedly acting on behalf of the movement. Take, for example, an Elle magazine photoshoot in which celebrities donned “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” shirts. On the surface, this act seemed like a positive way to promote the movement. In reality, nobody involved took the time to question how doing so may perpetuate the oppression of others: Specifically, it turned out the shirts were produced by underpaid women of color. A key part of feminism is turning the mirror inwards and examining how your privileges and choices are part of structural inequality.
There are, however, celebrities who have taken a different approach to this dynamic. Australian singer Courtney Barnett has not publicly identified herself as a feminist, but still enacts feminist principles and promotes progressive change in her work. She eschews expected beauty standards and femininity in an industry where female musicians’ appearances are often valued above their talent. She chooses not to wear makeup and wears comfortable clothing when performing. Even at the Grammy Awards, she wore jeans, cowboy boots and no makeup. In a society where women are taught that makeup isn’t an option, but rather an inevitable part of growing up, Barnett is a refreshing example of a woman who doesn’t give a shit about these standards. For young women who feel uncomfortable performing femininity, she stands as a reminder that there is no single way that women should look.
Comparing the actions of celebrities like Swift — who call themselves feminists but at best promote a misinformed understanding of the movement and at worst disrespect the women who came before them — to those like Barnett — who may remain silent about their stance on feminism, but whose actions position them as positive role models for young women — reveals that being a feminist is far more complicated than just saying “yes” when asked if you are one. So perhaps interviewers out there should stop asking the question altogether and allow us all to recognize that actions speak louder than words.