Why Celebrity Feminism May Actually Be Good For The Movement

By Stephanie Hallett

The last few years have seen an unprecedented uptick in Hollywood elites embracing the “f-word,” giving feminism a shiny, red carpet-ready veneer that defies its history as a term associated with angry man-haters.

A not-at-all complete list of newly minted celebri-feminists includes: Emma Watson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Terry Crews, Aziz Ansari, Lena Dunham, Kristen Stewart, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Viola Davis, Natalie Portman, Taylor Schilling, Mark Ruffalo, Laverne Cox, Mindy Kaling, John Legend, Ellen Page, Amber Rose. Even Kim Kardashian, a woman who could arguably be considered among the least likely to embrace feminism, proudly claimed the f-word back in a July interview with Rolling Stone.

So many stars have started to embrace the term, in fact, that it barely registers as news anymore, and can even elicit reactions of nonchalance or outright annoyance.

Which raises the question: why is celebrity feminism having such a moment . . . and is this moment actually good for feminism?

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Looking back on the last couple of years, it’s not hard to pinpoint the occasion when celebrity feminism planted its flag in the cultural imagination. In one of the most opined-about TV moments of 2014, Beyoncé boldly stood before a lit sign reading FEMINIST at the MTV Video Music Awards, as the definition of feminism, read by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a TEDTalk, rang out through the crowd.

beyonce
Feminist Exhibit A: Beyonce

And it wasn’t just Queen Bey claiming the f-word; another young star declared herself a feminist that same week. In an interview with The Guardian, singer Taylor Swift, who two years earlier refused to identify as a feminist because, as she said, she didn’t “really think about things as guys versus girls,” explained to the British paper that she’d had an awakening thanks to a conversation with her pal, Lena Dunham, an outspoken feminist and creator/star of HBO’s Girls. Said Swift:

“As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.”

Since that week in 2014, celebrities have “come out” as feminists in droves.

In the 1980s, many celebrities — including Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, and Rita Moreno — embraced the term as well. Yet backlash against the movement soured many and gave feminism a bad rap. Hollywood’s recent and swift pick-up of the feminist moniker, then, represents a significant cultural shift.

So how did this sea change occur? The Internet has something — a big something — to do with it. Beyoncé once explained that while she was “scrolling through videos about feminism on YouTube,” she discovered Adichie’s TEDTalk on the f-word and was struck by its message. “Everything she said is exactly how I feel,” Beyoncé explained. “My message behind [Beyoncé, her self-titled 2014 album] was finding the beauty in imperfection.”

Indeed, the Internet has had a democratizing effect on feminism, long the domain of academic elites and those with access to feminist theory and literature. Explains Andi Zeisler, founder of Bitch magazine:

Concepts that originated within feminism are kind of filtered into everyday life [through the Internet]. For instance, 10 years ago we weren’t talking about slut-shaming. Now, we’re constantly talking about it. It’s sort of like a difference in vocabulary — there’s a lot of vocabulary that’s now in common parlance that really originated within feminism. And because it’s been disseminated really thoroughly through the feminist blogosphere and social media, it really is seeping into everyday discourse — and that includes media and pop culture.”

But feminism, of course, has always been about more than talk — it’s taking action that’s critical. And celebrities have been criticized for calling themselves feminists while failing to actually do anything to expand women’s rights.

Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti is one such critic. “I am thrilled that more people are thinking about, looking into and calling themselves feminists,” she wrote in The Guardian. “But the ubiquity of the word in popular culture, all the people identifying as feminist — that doesn’t guarantee progress on the ground . . . Action does.”

Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, has shared similar thoughts. “I support anything that broadens the message of gender equality and tempers the stigma of the feminist label,” she wrote in her own post for The Guardian. “We run into trouble, though, when we celebrate celebrity feminism while avoiding the actual work of feminism. So long as we continue to stare into the glittery light of the latest celebrity feminist, we avoid looking at the very real inequities that women throughout the world continue to face.”

Taylor_Swift_2012
Feminist Exhibit B: Taylor Swift

On the other hand, many stars have quietly used their positions of power to make change . . . and more are beginning to step up.

Take Beyoncé. Not only does she employ an all-woman band — The Sugar Mamas — she’s a cofounder of Chime for Change, an organization that funds projects to advance women’s rights around the world. She also penned an essay for The Shriver Report on the gender pay gap, backed a campaign promoting girls’ leadership called Ban Bossy, and frequently writes songs celebrating women’s empowerment (for example, “Run the World (Girls),” “Independent Women Pt. 1,” and “***Flawless”). Even feminist icon Gloria Steinem has praised Queen Bey, saying in a recent Cosmopolitan interview, “We need to build bridges to those folks, not sit and nitpick what they have on. A feminist is just someone who believes men and women are equal beings.”

There’s action happening outside of the music industry, too. Natalie Portman added to her feminist credentials in May when she held up production of a biopic about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg until a woman director was hired on the film. (Marielle Heller is currently in talks to direct and Portman is starring as the Notorious R.B.G.) Also making waves in film is Orange Is the New Black actor Laverne Cox, who is currently working on a documentary titled Free CeCe!, about a trans woman — CeCe McDonald — who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for what many believed to be an act of self defense. The film is slated for release in 2016.

And this summer, Meryl Streep penned a letter sent to every member of Congress — all 535 of them — advocating for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. “I am writing to ask you to stand up for equality . . . by actively supporting the Equal Rights Amendment,” Streep wrote. “The ERA is not just a women’s rights issue. It will have a meaningful benefit for the whole human family.” Other celebrities, including Rashida Jones, Taylor Schilling, and Chelsea Handler, have joined her in speaking out for the ERA.

Amber Rose, a model, businesswoman, and author of How to Be a Bad Bitch, has leveraged her feminist voice into tangible action as well. While she’s been sharing messages of empowerment, self-love, and body positivity on her social media channels for years, she really secured her place as a women’s rights defender when she organized and hosted a SlutWalk event in downtown Los Angeles on October 3. Inspired by the many political protest-based SlutWalks that have taken place around the globe, Rose’s event included not just an anti-slut-shaming march and mental and sexual health services as at previous protests, but also live music and poetry, comedy sets, a panel of speakers, and more.

Rose’s actions reveal the special ability that celebrities have to reach those who might not otherwise be interested in feminism. Many attendees at her event — billed as an expression of “outrage toward issues of sexual violence, gender inequality, derogatory labeling and victim blaming” — reported that they’d only come initially to catch a glimpse of Rose, but ultimately found themselves supporting her message.

Feminist Exhibit C: Amber Rose
Feminist Exhibit C: Amber Rose

Celebrity feminism has also had an impact on Hollywood more broadly. Feminists like showrunner Shonda Rhimes, for example, are making highly-rated TV shows that “portray women as they actually are,” as the Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and Grey’s Anatomy creator describes her hit programs. Other women, such as Reese Witherspoon, have been inspired to demand better treatment by the Hollywood press: Witherspoon championed the #AskHerMore campaign during the 2015 awards season, which challenged reporters to ask women actors questions more substantive than “Who are you wearing?”

Perhaps the most exciting example of celebrity feminism’s influence on Hollywood was the ACLU’s decision earlier this year to request that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigate systemic exclusion of women directors in film and television. Following an impassioned plea for equal pay by actor Patricia Arquette at the 2015 Oscars, ACLU attorneys Ariela Migdal and Melissa Goodman wrote to the EEOC:

“In the 1960s and 1970s, the commission took action to address employment discrimination in Hollywood. Despite these efforts, gender disparities in hiring directors have become worse over time . . . The entertainment industry employs many people and makes products that profoundly shape our culture and the perception of women and girls. Such statistically severe gender bias in this important industry is a civil rights problem worthy of the commission’s serious renewed attention.”

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow later voiced her support for the ACLU’s proposition, saying, “Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward-thinking and progressive people, yet this horrific situation for women directors persists. Gender discrimination stigmatizes our entire industry. Change is essential. Gender-neutral hiring is essential.” The EEOC has since taken up the charge and began an investigation in October.

Celebrity support for feminism has another upside, too: it’s shifting how the next generation will view a word that, for so long, was considered too dirty for stars to openly embrace.

“It’s a great thing that . . . there are young women who, the first time they encounter feminism, it will be completely free of all the baggage that other generations encountered it with,” says Zeisler, who is currently at work on a book about celebrity feminism. “That’s really good in the sense that feminism now has this new context, and it’s presented as something that is cool, is fun, has a meaning or a pop cultural veneer that it’s never had before.”

Even Taylor Swift says she would have embraced feminism sooner if she’d had a pop cultural figure to help her understand the term. “I wish when I was 12 years old I had been able to watch a video of my favorite actress explaining in such an intellectual, beautiful, poignant way the definition of feminism,” she said on Canadian TV show Tout le Monde on Parle. “Because I would have understood it and then earlier on in my life I would have proudly claimed that I was a feminist.”

Acknowledging the power of celebrity feminism and pushing for more tangible change are also not mutually exclusive; we can embrace this movement while accepting that there’s still more work to be done on the ground. In the first quarter of this year alone, for instance, state legislators proposed 332 provisions seeking to restrict access to abortion, compared to 335 in all of 2014. To date, there have been more than 100 court challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control insurance coverage requirement. And Republicans in Congress continue to block passage of equal pay legislation.

Hollywood may be embracing feminism, but many legislators clearly are not.

Yet feminists remain committed to social change, and a broad pop-cultural embrace of feminism may help foster the political action we need. As we saw with the gay rights movement, pop culture helped to change the minds of those who had previously shunned LGBT Americans, and it became a link between social and legal change — constitutionally protected marriage equality being the most recent example of this.

Celebrity feminism may seem flimsy in the face of the substantive challenges ahead — but if, at the end of the day, it helps with the attainment of women’s full legal equality even a little, won’t it have been worth it?

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