The pros and cons of celebrity feminism
The mainstream feminist movement has often been criticised for focusing on issues that largely affect white women while avoiding intersectional topics that disproportionately affect people of colour and the LGBTQ community. Celebrity feminism has been a widely discussed topic in the past few years, where we’ve seen women like Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence, and Beyoncé openly embrace feminism. And while it’s perfectly acceptable, and even exciting to see women – especially women with enormous social influence – embrace the term, there’s an ugly side to celebrity feminism.
Part of the problem with celebrity feminism, as pointed out by many, stems from women with no knowledge of critical feminist ideology being held up as the face of the movement. Celebrity feminists are often focused on issues like the glass ceiling, personal empowerment, the freedom to dress how you choose, and loving your body.
Of course, this is not to say these issues aren’t important. Faculty from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication studied over 700 films from 2007-2014 which imply that the statistics for women, people of colour, and LGBTQ people in the entertainment industry haven’t improved. Patricia Arquette’s notable speech about the glass ceiling proved that there is still a need to close the gender pay gap. And – unfortunately – female stars are still experiencing sexist treatment during interviews.
Beyond that, mainstream feminist discourse has a long way to go. And truthfully, some celebrity feminists – though certainly well-intentioned – have the potential to do more harm than good.
Pictured above: Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, and Beyoncé Knowles
As an example, in late July a slew of big names including Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, and Anne Hathaway used their celebrity status to oppose Amnesty International’s draft proposal to protect the rights of sex workers. Among other things, the proposal to decriminalise sex work would allow women in the industry the ability to reach out to police if harmed by client abuse or misconduct, as well as give them protection in the criminal justice system, a right they currently don’t have.
These celebrities’ opposition is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but it is an example of how celebrity intervention can be do more harm than good. And ironically enough, you know who didn’t appreciate their good intentions? Actual sex workers.
An editorial by Emily Shire highlights a great point brought up by Jane (pseudonym), a sex worker in favour of the proposal, who says,
“At the end of the day, this is a proposal that impacts my life and not Lena Dunham’s. The fact that celebrities who have no stake in this and will not be impacted by it are getting the largest voice is frustrating and, frankly, dehumanising…Weighing in on a situation that doesn’t impact your life is absolutely going to be harmful because it’s saying the people who are impacted don’t deserve to speak and your voice is more important.”
Jane’s testimony and insight opens up an important dialogue on the intersection of fame, privilege, and feminism. Which sort of makes you wonder why “the voice of feminism” is often in the hands of people who aren’t aware of a great majority of feminist ideology. Whose voice are they representing?
Lena Dunham is a good springboard to further the discussion of celebrity feminism, especially given her status as “The Voice of Our Generation.” Best known for her HBO television show Girls, Dunham is arguably the poster child for privileged white feminism. Though she has a slew of offences to be accounted for, one of the biggest is the lack of PoC in her show, background or otherwise, despite the fact that Brooklyn has an incredibly diverse population, as well as writing a series of racist tweets and articles which she hasn’t really apologised for. Even so, many media outlets have credited her with being the Gloria Steinem for the millennial generation.
This is not meant to call out Dunham solely, as there are a host of other celebrities that fit under the same umbrella. Rather, it serves to point out that media entertainment is starved for feminist leadership, and we need to get better about asking whose interests these women represent if we hope to further the progress of intersectional feminism.
In an article on The Guardian, Roxanne Gay details the problems with celebrity feminism, while also taking into consideration the reasons we cling to these women.
This has been the year when many of us, myself included, have been giddy over Beyoncé boldly declaring herself a feminist. At the MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé stood in front of the word FEMINIST and it felt like a moment. Here was a young, powerful, black woman openly claiming her feminism. Who wouldn’t want to be a feminist, too, with Beyoncé as a face of feminism? However, many people will incorrectly assume feminism begins and ends with her. She is one woman – an amazing woman, to be sure – but she is a gateway to feminism, not the movement itself. It’s too big a mantle for any one person to take on.
The heart of the issue at hand is to recognise that feminist issues are much larger than any individual celebrity. As feminist praxis becomes more mainstream, many activists worry that the movement’s goals and ideology will become diluted by people who flippantly use the term as a buzzword, especially now that it has become a standard interview question.
While it’s always a positive thing to see women finally embracing the term, since so many have rejected it, it’s important to remember the harm that can be caused when we place celebrity figureheads at the helm of a very diverse and complicated fight for liberation, rather than the activists that work in the trenches. Feminism isn’t a soundbite, it’s gruelling work. So for the sake of intersectional feminism, and progress, it’s time we raise the bar.