Over the past few years a slew of female celebrities have fallen out of grace with feminists for refusing to call themselves “feminists,” and some for criticizing the notion altogether. The pattern signals that it’s time to change the way we talk about feminism.
The events with Swift and Perry elicited lots of backlash from the feminist blogosphere; some angry, and some dismissive. It was disheartening to see two women who have benefited from feminism disavow it so casually. But both Swift and Perry have suggested that they support the primary principle of feminism: that women should be equal to men. It raises the question: if people support feminist goals, does it matter if they’re feminists in name?
I tend to agree with the critics who say that these women simply don’t know what they’re talking about; that their idea of feminism has been skewed by historical bias. What most women in the “I’m not a feminist, but” category don’t realize is that they are strengthening a misrepresentation of feminism constructed by people like Phyllis Schlafly and rightwing groups to discredit women’s movements.
At least some of the blame falls on journalists. Taylor Swift’s answer to being asked if she was a feminist was to say that she doesn’t view the world as “guys versus girls.” Her response demonstrated the widespread misconception that feminism assumes women are better than, rather than equal to, men. And I think it deserved a follow-up.
In February's Glamour, Zooey Deschanel took the road less traveled and affirmed her feminism. Her declaration received its own excited response.
Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams hailed it as “bold,” and Deschanel herself seemed to consider it somewhat daring. She gave a sharp retort to people who have criticized her femininity, implying that women can’t “be feminine and be feminists and be successful.” (Glamour then proceeded to give her cover story the infuriating tagline, "The New Girl Talks Boys".)
While certainly not the fault of Williams or Deschanel, celebration of her proclamation seems to feed another misconception that hurts feminism; that it is a term for radical, bold, (or in Deschanel’s case “quirky”) women. It also gives the impression that a woman who believes in full gender equality but is uncomfortable being called a feminist would be a poor--or an unlikely--advocate for women.
It’s good that the media finds feminism a worthy topic of conversation with female celebrities. But if they’re going to talk feminism, they should be ready to engage. Obsession with who does or doesn’t call herself a feminist distracts from a larger conversation about sexism and gender equality.
Far more women (and men) support women’s equality than “feminism.” The low percentage of self-identified feminists seems drastic, but it only speaks to the power of stigma.
It’s unfortunate that more women don’t embrace the term feminism. But the label's stigma shouldn’t inhibit conversation on women’s progress, or prevent us from recognizing that when it comes to equality; women are united. It’s the movement, not the word, that matters.
While the media continues to dwell on feminism as a word, it fails to recognize the strength of the movement for gender equality and the passion and diversity of its allies. Feminism should be a unifier, not a divider.
Eve O'Connor is an editorial intern at The Progressive.