taylor swift

The Pros and Cons of Celebrity Feminism

These days, everybody wants to be a feminist – everybody famous, that is. Celebrities such as Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Miley Cyrus, and Kerry Washington have recently been vocal regarding their feelings about the word. But is their feminism helpful to the overall causes of the movement? Let’s take a look.

Information Curation

Perhaps the biggest issue here is that only the parts of feminism which seem attractive to, or which affect, the celebrities in question are the ones that get talked about. This means that sexism in the entertainment industry and in the media gets lots of attention, as do discussions surrounding the freedom to dress however you choose, and the idea of personal empowerment.

There are two problems with this selecting of information. First, while the above issues are not unimportant, there are several more serious issues that are completely ignored. Intersectional feminism is never touched upon by any celebrity spokesperson other than Laverne Cox, thus alienating a huge chunk of women from the discussion. Issues that are not central to the lives of American or western women are not present in the popular arena. Beyond these, even issues that so-called “white” feminism concerns itself aren’t talked about. The politics of rape culture, inequality of pay, and reproductive rights are among those which rarely make it into the discussion after the glitterier parts of feminism are discussed.

The second problem is we only get to see one-sided arguments for the issues that do get brought up, rather than hearing all of the viewpoints. For example, we hear celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj talking about how they don’t feel it’s fair to be judged for what they wear and how they present themselves in their videos and in public. And this is certainly a fair assertion. But when we constantly hear the same type of rhetoric surrounding this topic, we start to believe that that’s all there is to it. We hear the words “body positivity” and we are reminded of how celebrities told us that we shouldn’t feel judged if we revealing clothes. We are not reminded that there are many other issues surrounding how women present themselves, such as choosing to wear religious symbols and headwear, choosing to present oneself in ways that differ from traditionally accepted feminine presentation, fat-shaming, the effects of eating disorders, and so on. Such issues, often having more serious implications than the ones discussed in the mainstream, are swept under the rug.

All Talk and No Action

Now that we’re familiar with how celebrities talk about feminism, it’s time to look at what they do about feminism. Here’s the deal: they really don’t do much. For all their talk about how they believe in the movement, they don’t actually contribute any tangible to it. Let’s look, for example, at Emma Watson’s recent involvement in with the United Nations and the #HeForShe campaign. After an impassioned, but not overly original, speech in 2014, Emma Watson introduced the world to the #HeForShe campaign, a movement which, according to its website, is “a solidarity movement for gender equality.” Showing support seems to comprise writing the hashtag on a piece of paper and uploading a photo of you holding that paper on Twitter. You can also sign a petition on their website. And that’s all you have to do!

Now, I don’t want to attack Emma Watson. I think she’s a good actress and a smart person, and I appreciate her using her fame to try to further the causes that she supports. However, popular campaigns like #HeForShe, which require no real action on the part of those who support it, only help to dismantle the idea that making steps forward for women actually requires work. These promotions, as well as the way that celebrities speak about feminism in general, suggests that talking about it will be enough to make changes happen. Even if all of Emma Watson’s fans agree to proclaim themselves feminists, it will not make rape culture disappear or end the subjugation of women of colour. This kind of rhetoric is teaching a new generation that feminism is only a label that you can wear, rather than a cause to take up.

Despite these drawbacks, I do not believe that celebrity feminism is entirely bad. There are two main ways I believe that the popularization of feminism is helping the movement: by making the movement more accessible, and by including younger girls in feminism in a way that makes sense for them.

From Academic to Accessible

I am a firm believer that some feminism is better than no feminism at all. Up until about two years ago, very few people in the spotlight were talking about feminism, and very few people that I knew, even in a liberal arts university program, were either. But in the time that has passed since then, feminism has blown up. Now I hear everyone from teenagers to grandmothers talking about it daily. And I’m pretty sure that, since they can’t all be carrying around the complete works of Judith Butler in their pockets, they’ve learned about it from the media.

And they might not have all of the information, and they might have little to no background on the subject. But even a cursory understanding of feminism is enough to alter their behaviours in daily life in order to make small changes that make the world a tiny little bit less sexist. I am not immune to this, and though I agreed with the tenants of the movement, I wouldn’t have known to call myself a feminist until a couple years ago. But, now that I’ve learned more, I notice all sorts of problematic behaviour around me that I wouldn’t have before, and, more importantly, I call it out. When I hear someone make a sexist joke, I don’t laugh. When I get catcalled, I respond rather than falling silent. And I’ve seen this behaviour in my friends and colleagues, too. Despite not having read as many of the academic works on the subject as I would like to, I am, and others like me are, able to contribute to making the world a better place in ways that would not have been possible without feminism becoming mainstream.

It’s also important to understand that when girls and women see celebrities speaking out about feminism and find that they agree with them, they are not likely to let that be the only thing that they ever learn about the subject. Seeing this introductory type of feminism in the media allows them to gain an interest in the subject and search out the more serious material. For a young woman, reading the works of bell hooks and Betty Friedan can seem daunting when it’s your first source on the subject, especially for those who do not have an academic background, which is a large sector of the population. However, with an interest in feminism already developed, reading these works seems more explorative than intimidating.

The Young and The Impressionable

Those who are most affected by the gatekeeper of academic jargon are teenagers and younger girls. I’m sure all feminists would agree that having young women use feminist thinking in their lives benefits them and the future of our society. But kids have short attention spans and a lack of the knowledge that would help them situate feminist readings into their larger worldviews. What they need are role models who both inform them about these ideas, as well as entertain them.

The perfect example of this type of role model is, of course, Taylor Swift. Last year, Taylor Swift became very vocal about feminism. She declared that she had had a “feminist awakening,” and started both talking about the topic at length, as well as repeatedly calling out the media for their sexist treatment of her. Now, Taylor Swift is not perfect. She can be epitomistic of “white” feminism. She never seems to mention intersectionality. She presents a very traditionally feminine view of what a strong woman should be like. Because of the way that the media cuts everything down into the smallest possible pieces, it’s not fair to assume that she isn’t aware of this stuff, but we can agree that we don’t get to see any of this information coming from her.

But for young girls, whose media world is dominated by work produced by the Simon Cowells of the world which has little feminist bent, Taylor is a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t shy away from using the word feminist, or from explaining what it means to her. She proudly shows off her female friendships and encourages women to stop allowing the patriarchy to make us hate each other. She doesn’t let people in the media be sexist towards her during interviews. And while adults are very hard on her because she isn’t the perfect representative for feminism (and for many other reasons), little girls idolize her, and having a positive, feminist role model to look up to, who can explain to them a version of feminism that is applicable to their lives, is only beneficial to them.

So I don’t think that celebrity feminism is, as a generality, entirely good or bad. It doesn’t often present a very accurate view of feminism’s goals, and it promotes self-identification rather than action. However, it does help get people on board who may not have been without it, those who have been marginalized from traditional feminism due to the boundaries of high-minded rhetoric, and those who are not ready for it yet. One thing I think we can all agree on is that more feminists in the world will always be a good thing, and if celebrities can help with that, I think we should let them.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Kyrstin Felts is a soon-to-be grad student in Communication and Women's Studies at McGill University.

Kyrstin Felts is a soon-to-be grad student in Communication and Women's Studies at McGill University.

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