by Alexis Wilkinson
This article is the first in Alexis’ column on feminism and the entertainment industry, which appears every other Saturday.
Katy Perry wants you to know she’s no feminist. So does Taylor Swift. And Lady Gaga. And Gwyneth Paltrow. And Demi Moore. And even Beyoncé.
When a female celebrity is asked if she is a feminist, which she undoubtedly will be at some point in her career, it appears the overwhelming majority answer with an unambiguous “no.” For as many women entertainers like Lena Dunham, Ellen Page, and Amy Poehler who have embraced feminism, there are as many, if not more, who insist on avoiding the word feminist at all costs, opting instead for “girl power” like Nicki Minaj or the mildly baffling application of the term “humanist” by Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Susan Sarandon.
As a feminist writer/entertainer myself, you might think I would be concerned. Maybe even upset. On the contrary, I couldn’t really care less.
Let me explain:
First of all, I acknowledge that feminism has a terrible reputation. In a pageant contest of “isms”, Feminism would clearly beat out Racism and Sexism, but would sit on the sidelines behind Atheism while Optimism collected the sash for Miss Congeniality. If you start off a Google search with “feminism is…” Google quickly supplies words like “stupid,” “evil,” “a joke,” and “dead.” Modern (particularly second wave) feminism has always been associated with bra-burning lesbians, hairy armpits, and a disdain for all things traditionally girly and thus a spoken commitment to being unattractive. The ugly feminist trope is very well known and extremist conservative pundits are particularly fond of this stereotype. Feminists “hate men” because they are ugly and couldn’t get one if they wanted to! Ha! Get back in the kitchen! My tiny penis is too good for you! I cry myself to sleep at night questioning my place in the changing power dynamic of our society! Make me a sandwich!
Even most outspoken feminist entertainers, purposefully or not, have also cultivated careers presupposing on their own unattractiveness to men–the most striking example being Tina Fey’s geeky awkward persona even though, by most standards, she’s a conventionally attractive well-off white woman. Not to mention anything Lena Dunham’s ever done ever. On the other hand, many women in the public eye who claim not to be feminists seem to base their argument in the fact that they are/desire to be attractive to men as well. Politician’s daughter turned TV personality Meghan McCain shed a lot of light on the subject on her new show Raising McCain when she dismissed feminism as unappealing because, “Who doesn’t like getting attention from the opposite sex?”
Overall, the message of both feminist and non-feminist entertainers is that you either can be pretty, sexy, and attractive or be a feminist. In an industry that’s all about attraction, the choice is pretty easy.
Women of color face an even more difficult dilemma because they are often already portrayed as an “other,” which, when not outright unattractive to the “mainstream,” often makes gender issues secondary to race-related concerns in the face of pressure from men of all colors and feminism’s long history of silencing minority groups. Primarily for these reasons, I did not identify myself as a feminist until about two years ago. I didn’t see people who looked like me writing articles for Jezebel or being positively written about in the feminist community. Every feminist I knew was a vegan white girl (with or without ‘dreadlocks’) who managed to make feminism look “quirky” where at best I could probably get “very angry.” Don’t get me wrong. I am very angry. But I didn’t know if I wanted to be angry about something if I could not count on the support of my fellow feminists. Thankfully, over time, I was proven wrong.
Being familiar with the debate and backlash that comes with accepting or rejecting feminism, I’ve come to a conclusion: the label “feminist” need not be one for every woman. I know, shocking. I’m a feminist who doesn’t think everyone needs to call himself or herself a feminist. I consider myself a feminist primarily because I think women are smart enough to make their own decisions, which include what labels do or do not apply to them. Feminism has a long and problematic history, like any other movement. I had a long and complex journey before I came to the day where I can proudly call myself a feminist. Women like Beyoncé, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer may prefer not to call themselves feminists, but the work they do and the views they express fit my definition of feminism to a tee. And to me, that’s more important.
Feminism doesn’t need a “makeover.” I don’t think we need to waste time arguing that you can be pretty/sexy/heterosexual AND a feminist. On the contrary, I think feminists as a whole need to stop taking feminism and women’s acceptance or denial of it at face value. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Feminists might be ugly. We might all be bra-burning, hairy armpit-having, abortion rights-seeking lesbians. Or we might be Beyoncé. We might call ourselves feminists. We might not. As long as you don’t let the ugly feminist stereotype make you blind to inequality or apathetic about injustice, call yourself a humanist or Pope Jean Claude Van Damme the Infirm if you want. And to my fellow feminists, I say that if we want to prove to the world that feminists are pretty/smart/nice/heterosexual/sexy/whatever we should spend less time preaching and more time doing. Judge women not by how many “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts they own, but by their actions. Non-feminists might want to reconsider their rejection of the label, but accepting it is not a requirement to battle injustice.
When I look around the world of entertainment, I see more women, proclaimed feminists or not, supporting the cause for equal rights and questioning a social structure that so often places women, particularly women of color, at the bottom. To me, the concern over denying or accepting “feminism” as a label is, frankly, just superficial.