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Friday, May 9, 2014

The Reasons Why So Many Female Celebrities Avoid the F-word, and Why We Should Care

                Shailene Woodley of recent Divergent fame has recently come under fire from all sides by various feminist bloggers for telling TIME magazine in an interview she is not a feminist. An excerpt:
TIME: You've talked before about being conscious of the kind of messages that you're sending to young female fans when you’re taking on roles. Do you consider yourself a feminist? 
Woodley: No, because I love men, and I think the idea of “raise women to power, take the men away from power” is never going to work because you need balance.
                One of the major reasons this matters, apart from the innate inaccuracies of her interpretation of feminism, is because just two months before this interview, TIME published a blatantly contradictory piece entitled Why Hollywood Desperately Needs ShaileneWoodley with a byline that proclaims: “The 22-year-old Divergent star turns out to be the outspoken feminist role model we've been waiting for.” Perhaps not.

                She is not alone in her shying away from the “F” word. Just a handful of female celebrities’ responses to, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”:
  Katy Perry: “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”
Taylor Swift: “I don't really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I […] think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
Bjork: “[I don't identify as feminist] because I think it would isolate me. I think it’s important to do positive stuff. It’s more important to be asking than complaining.”

Lady Gaga: “I'm not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture – beer, bars, and muscle cars.”

Kelis: “Call it what you want. I am extraordinarily happy to be a woman. I would not change it for the world. I think men should run the world because if not there would be no balance. […]All these titles are just so useless.”

Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Demi Moore: “I'm not a feminist, I'm a humanist.”

            In these statements is a pattern of a few things:          
1.       “I’m not a feminist but…[I do agree with key components of feminism”
2.       “I love men and I like the way things are. I don’t feel the need to compromise that.”
3.       “Feminist is an extreme word.”

Clearly, either these celebrities are very confused or feminism has an image problem. Much of the tip-toeing around the term stems from its deep-rooted association of a furious, high-strung, bra-burning, non-shaving, man-hating feminists of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. These hyphenated descriptors can seem intimidating and unglamorous for your standard female celebrity.

The term "feminist" carries a lot of negative stigma from damaging and insulting stereotypes indicative of the extreme, sensationalist stories and images perpetuated by popular media. It's not helped by prominent figures in society who buy into the stereotypes as well. 

Fortunately, the likes of Ellen Page, Natalie Portman, Wanda Sykes, Emma Stone, Zoe Saldana, and Amy Poehler are among those who openly, fervently embrace the ideals of feminism.  Beyoncé, who of course cannot be ignored in any discussion of feminism, released her eponymous album late last year that has been lauded for its power anthems that turn the conventions of male-dominated hip-hop on its head. 

“***Flawless” explicitly uses a sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’sTED talk on feminism that lays out the most straightforward definition of the term:

  “Feminism: the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

               Beyoncé in particular has always been controversial for her ever-evolving, and increasingly sensual,  persona. For some, willfully and proudly reclaiming one’s sexuality is empowering. For others, traditional subordinate woman roles is considered natural and therefore empowering. The trouble is that when it comes to defining feminist values the contradicting ideas can be confusing and thus, alienating.

Debate abounds about whether Beyonce is a "true" feminist. Either way she is considered one of the most successful pop icons of our time, and she recently penned an essay on the oft-mentioned wage gap and gender equality that can be downloaded here.
                The kind of feminism we should be striving to uphold is one that is inclusive of all lifestyles, all races, all sexualities. Based on a definition that emphasizes equality, women should be free to live and behave as they prefer, whether as a politician or a housewife, dressed in short skirts or T-shirts, so long as they aren't diminished or otherwise treated differently. It’s a call to obliterate the oppressive virgin-whore dichotomy that pigeonholes young women everywhere and a call that tells them they don't have to choose between identifying with femininity or masculinity without ridicule. Feminism supports the idea that a woman's decisions should not be contingent on her gender. That’s the essential core of the equality values of feminism. All other feminist issues such as reproductive rights, working to abolish rape culture, reconstructing the way women are portrayed in media follow suit.

                Therefore, when female celebrities say something along the lines of, “I'm not a feminist, but I believe women are equal to men” they’re essentially saying, “I don't agree with the exaggerated, distorted idea of feminism I understand, but I still hold feminist views” should be observed as purely an issue of image.

                What the average feminist-identifying individual person can do to combat this is publicly call out those (on social media or otherwise) who are reinforcing hateful, unconstructive attitudes not central to the core of classic feminism. That’s not to say that anger has no place in social justice activism or that we should be primarily concerned with tone-policing, but rather sisters should be helping sisters push for feminist issues in solidarity and correct each other when necessary. Superficial as it may seem, the more positively received feminists are, the more attention and support it’s going to get. Mainstream media likes to focus on sensationalist stories that capitalize on instances of extremely unsavory acts played out in the name of feminism. Small gestures witnessed by peers will help to reinvent the public’s idea of feminism.

In her latest interview with TIME and further demonstration of her underdeveloped ideas regarding feminism, Woodley praised this summer's The Other Woman for its supposed celebration of sisterhood, but  failed to recognize the inherently shallow, sexist cliches therein. 

                No one can force anyone to identify herself as feminist, and it’s inevitable people are going to fall on various ends of the spectrum of feminist thought. Female celebrities in general can’t be blamed for prioritizing their image over accepting the responsibility of carrying the feminist cause on their shoulders.

                Objectification of women in popular media and the narrow range of roles women are offered in television and film are pertinent to female celebrities. It’s natural for the general public to want to know their general stance on these issues, hence why they are frequently asked about feminism. Whether we like it or not, their answers matter because celebrities often act as role models for the casual audience. Even for the more critical viewer, celebrities can act as barometers of where the general public stands on social issues. Celebrities exist to entertain and fans consequently exist to want to relate to them. When a credulous fan’s favorite singer says something along the lines of, “I’m not a feminist because I love men and I like to be taken care of” and identifies with that statement, it weakens the feminist movement as a whole and fosters an entire cohort of young women who may equate feminism with hating men. A celebrity who distorts the definition of feminism mislead fans from a mass effort that extends love across genders.

                Woodley has three more installations of the Divergent films lined up and The Fault in Our Stars coming out later this summer and is already being hailed as one of Hollywood’s best and brightest young stars. Overall she seems to be socially aware, articulate and well-spoken. Some of her views seem to align with elements of feminism while others are up for debate. She’s young, not much older than me, and has plenty of time throughout her career to develop her stance. By no means is Woodley obligated to come out and identify as a feminist. But for the sake of her clamorous and ever-growing fanbase of impressionable young girls, I hope she does.