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What happens when feminism gets famous?

August 29th, 2015 by ,    photos by

Emma Watson, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Beyoncé and Lena Dunham have all recently rushed to the stage to declare their support for gender equality


We’ve been searching for years, trudging though the depths of academia and pop culture, trying to find some enchanted combination of phrases and photos that will make feminism more appealing to the masses. Authors, celebrities, and politicians alike have all recommended feminism ‘rebrand’ itself.

Maybe we’ve found the magical mixture. Maybe having Emma Watson, Taylor Swift, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Matt McGorry all rush to the stage declaring their support for gender equality really is the ‘makeover’ feminism has been recommended.

Feminism is famous; what does that mean? How does this sudden celebrity discussion affect a movement seeped in a painful yet rich history? Where does this leave the memory of our sisters who sacrificed everything so we could have something?

Not all that glitters is gold

For years now, academics and reporters alike have been asking, ‘How we can make feminism more appealing to men?’ Frankly, I’m not concerned about making feminism more appealing to men, or making feminism more appealing to anyone for that matter. I’m concerned about transforming our society so women can access the same liberties that men have enjoyed so freely for centuries. In the words of Roxanne Gay, if famous men and women taking claim of the feminist label “has become the spoon full of sugar to make that medicine go down, so be it”.

But it’s upsetting that society assents feminist messages only when they are delivered in the right packaging. If a beautiful, young celebrity shares a few heartfelt quotes, sprinkles in a cute chuckle and a dollop of self-deprecation we are all happy to follow along. The very notion of women being granted the same fundamental rights as men is so unattractive to us that we require the feminist movement to recruit brand ambassadors and adopt celebrity endorsements. Society can only swallow the idea of women and men being on equal footing if Beyoncé stands in front of a giant feminist billboard; if Taylor Swift sings empowering lyrics through red-painted lips; if Ryan Gosling still throws off his shirt.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a celebrity claiming feminism and openly discussing the movement. Frankly, anything that can lessen the stigma of feminism and spread the message of gender equality is a positive change. Yet, like all things, the issue arises when society applauds celebrity feminism while failing to truly understand the values of the movement and avoiding any serious work.

All of a sudden, when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism the widespread ignorance throughout society is cast aside because, thank Jesus, there’s a tolerable voice proclaiming the exact messages that garden variety feminists have been sharing for decades.

Things get even crazier when a famous man embraces feminism. The public adoration explodes because this man is so very special to support gender equality. When Aziz Ansari went on the Letterman Show and shared that he was a feminist the video clip went viral overnight. If Gloria Steinem or bell hooks delivers a speech on the development of the feminist movement, they get a few thousand hits on YouTube, preaching to the attentive choir. But a famous guy says that he can get on board with seeing women as equals? Well, everyone wants to see that!

Thinking long & hard

Even when a celebrity comes out declaring he or she is a feminist the media does a fantastic job of stifling them. We get the headlines “Taylor Swift is a feminist!” or “Aziz Ansari thinks Beyoncé & Jay-Z should be paid the same!” or “Lena Dunham proudly shows off her chubby body in her underwear!” That’s it – we are never allowed to have a discussion. We get photos or sound bites, but no analysis or critique.

If there’s one big positive that could come of celebrity feminism, it would be a serious discussion about the movement that extended to the masses. At the moment, the only people engaging with feminist discussions are feminists themselves and a few middle aged white guys on Twitter.

A public forum with public figures discussing the feminist movement; that could be the shining beacon of celebrity feminism. If Beyoncé, Laverne Cox & Ellen Page all got together and hosted a televised interview critically analyzing key feminist issues (and not shying away from them in fear of backlash) we could start to see real progress on the national stage. It’s not enough to simply exclaim before an audience that you believe in equality. The work of feminism has always been messy, and in a tangled up world such as ours, we need to dig a little deeper.

The bottom line

There is nothing wrong with celebrities publically identifying as feminists and talking about the movement. In fact, the more people embracing feminism, the better. Anything that promotes and spreads the message of gender equality and lessens the stigma of the feminist label is A-OK in my books. The trouble though is rejoicing celebrity feminism while evading efforts to work towards any feminist goals.

As long as society focuses on the pretty lips rather than the words coming out of them, we fail to examine and understand the harshly tangible injustices that women endure around the world. We fail to engage in the difficult conversations about the pay gap, widespread street harassment, sexist pop culture, limited reproductive freedom, and domestic violence far too many women face. We avoid having all discussions that will lead society to undergo the arduous work of breaking down our ingrained, damaging culture.

We need to respect the gift and not just admire the packaging.


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