Celebrity Feminism: More Than a Gateway

 

In 2014, pop star Beyoncé stood dramatically before a brightly lit “FEMINIST” sign on the stage of MTV’s Video Music Awards. Emma Watson espoused the virtues of feminism for both women and men at the United Nations, and Jennifer Lawrence argued for equal pay in Hollywood. Such high-profile entertainers engaging these gender issues have garnered the label “celebrity feminists.” Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, however, had some concerns. Gay expressed a prevailing sentiment among feminists who worried that “celebrity feminism” would serve as a distraction or as a false narrative of feminism.  At the same time, Gay remains rather generous in her own critique, imagining that women like Beyoncé are merely the “gateway,” a beginning stage to a public embrace of feminism.  Gay’s response is not unlike that of music artist Annie Lennox, who reduced Beyoncé’s brand to “feminist lite” compared to the feminism Lennox herself embraced during her own coming-of-age as a pop star pushing the gendered boundaries around her androgynous presentation, which jars against Beyoncé’s embrace of hyperfemininity, a presentation that is allegedly antithetical to feminism.

What is interesting to unpack in these debates is the reduction of celebrity feminism itself, which suggests the existence of a more substantive or authentic feminism that is less appealing to the masses than what our celebrities have to offer. This is, indeed, the premise behind Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once, in which she argues, “Individual celebrities are great at putting an appealing face on social issues. But the celebrity machine is one that runs on neither complexity nor nuance, but cold, hard cash.  How much can celebrity feminists do if their prominent voices emanate from within systems—the film, TV, and music industries, for starters—in which gender inequality is a generally unquestioned m.o.?” (132–33). While Zeisler’s statement is true up to a point—given celebrity women’s own perpetuation of and participation in systems of oppression—it assumes that feminists from other walks of life are less implicated in exacerbating inequalities, whether they operate in the academy, in politics, or in community organizing. Celebrities may be perched at the zenith of raced, gendered, and economic hierarchies, but they are not unique in perpetuating systemic inequalities even if they are powerfully positioned to speak to, for, and with those who have fewer outlets for public discourse.

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The privileges of beauty, fame, and finance that accompany such celebrities still impose restrictions on whose voices and whose feminisms matter.  When celebrity feminists like Meryl Streep frame the commercial sex trade through the lens of victimhood, they effectively silence the voices of actual sex workers who seek to decriminalize their profession. Similarly, when Streep and her fellow cast members wear T-shirts advertising their feminist film Suffragette bearing Emmeline Pankhurst’s historical quote “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” they inevitably rub women of color the wrong way, given the historical roles of women of color as both rebels and slaves.  And Beyoncé’s Ivy Park clothing line, which promotes women’s empowerment, was challenged when rumors emerged about its use of sweatshop labor in Sri Lanka, a claim the brand has denied.

Certainly celebrity feminists will continue to showcase their privilege and reveal contradictions that require pushback from multiple feminists positioned differently in our unequal world, whether that involves feminists on Twitter demanding that actor Patricia Arquette recognize how she inadvertently erased queer women and women of color in her “equal pay” Oscar acceptance speech in 2015, or Nicki Minaj urging pop star Taylor Swift to acknowledge her white privilege rather than silence Minaj’s voice in the name of “feminist solidarity” when the rapper addressed through tweets the discrimination she experiences as a black woman in the music industry. Celebrity feminism continues to sustain dialogue with multiple feminisms, which makes it more than the gateway to the movement that Gay suggests it is.  While it continues to assert privilege and prestige over other forms of feminism—given the wealth and media access of its spokespersons—it does maintain an interaction between fans (including more than a few feminists) and their idols. Such feminist expressions need not be viewed as a distraction or as false consciousness.

We are presently in an era when celebrities have more access to social media outlets than ever before, which gives them an instantaneous voice through which to mold their identities and politics beyond the iconic or the symbolic.  Sometimes, as our public surrogates, they express our feminist sentiments in the ways we approve of; at other times they do so in ways that we don’t.  However, Beyoncé summarizes the issue as follows: “I don’t want calling myself a feminist to make it feel like that’s my one priority over racism or sexism or anything else.  I’m just exhausted by labels and tired of being boxed in.  If you believe in equal rights, the same way society allows a man to express his darkness, to express his pain, to express his sexuality, to express his opinion—I feel that women have the same rights.”  As she reminds us, celebrity feminism does not have to be confined to an identity or a way of life.  It is itself a political process, participating in an array of feminist movements.

This excerpt of an essay written by Janell Hobson, Associate Professor of Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Albany. Read the full article here.

This essay is one in the series Currents: Feminist Key Concepts and Controversies, which features essays by prominent feminist scholars engaging a key concept or debate – part of the open-access initiative of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society called the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.

This essay is accompanied by a digital archive on Celebrity Feminism, collecting essays, videos, podcasts and other resources examining debates around the topic. The Celebrity Feminism archive is open access and includes materials on the following topics:

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.

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