Celebrity Feminism In The 21st Century

Dara Campbell | Contributor

“No pop culture trend of the past few years has been more tiresome than celebrity feminism,” opens Cosmopolitan magazine’s Eliza Thompson in her article “Celebrity Feminism Has No Place in Trump’s America.” For the most part, Cosmo occupies a space in mainstream media which fancies itself as empowering but is actually harmful to girls and women’s perceptions of femininity. The premise of the magazine is misogynistic in and of itself; like a lot of female-specific media, Cosmo acts like girls and women are primarily interested in beauty tips, fashion trends, celebrity news, and dating advice applicable only to relationships with men. (Is “38 Tips For Better Sex With Women” not a priority too?) Contrary to the magazine’s disappointing track record, Thompson’s article makes a number of important observations about celebrity feminism of the twenty-first century – namely, the fact that it lacks depth and is pretty useless to the feminist cause.

Feminism is still a taboo word, and still it has become a fashionable marketing tool. Celebrities of all genders have taken to calling themselves feminists, a declaration that instantly makes headlines. As a society, we’ve almost made it too easy for famous people to be decorated as revolutionaries for voicing support of movement that began long before Beyoncé. Don’t get me wrong – I love Beyoncé. But there’s something inherently messed up about the fact that we prefer to digest the messages and ideologies of feminism when they come wrapped in beauty and fame. And despite that fact that the mainstream media is starting to discuss feminism more and more, this trend didn’t stop Donald Trump’s electoral college victory. Celebrity feminism may increase visibility and start conversation of feminist issues, but it can’t undo systemic misogyny and sexism. For this reason, Thompson argues, celebrity feminism must die.

Taylor Swift has been one of America’s most high-profile celebrity feminists, even though she only embraced the F-word relatively recently. She’s responsible for the ‘squad’ trend – the idea of surrounding yourself with a hot, fabulous, strong, loyal, girl gang – and, more importantly, her music speaks to her lived experiences as a young woman. Besides the fact that her specific demographic of young, wealthy, white women is the most privileged of all female demographics, her songs are valuable in that they’re unapologetically emotional. Amongst the larger, more imminent issues, like safe and legal abortions and the wage gap, it’s still important that girls and women break down the stigma of being emotional. In spite of her contributions, Taylor Swift’s feminism is problematic because it’s apolitical, or rather, selectively political. Like many celebrities, she’s aligned herself with feminism under the banner of well-meaning but inconsistent gestures, like using social media to publicly accept your “flaws” or celebrating other women’s expressions of femininity and sexuality. To be clear, these gestures aren’t negative, nor is the problem that celebrities are using their fame to discuss feminist issues. The problem is that the media tends to cover celebrity feminism more than it focuses on the actual feminist work that needs to be done in years to come. Every time a charming celebrity declares themselves a feminist, we bow down to their glittery progressiveness. Another illustrious feminist icon to follow, but where are we going?

Thompson says it best when she points out that “just as white women need to start showing up for Black Lives Matter, immigration rights, and other causes that don’t directly center around them, so do celebrity feminists need to start showing up for something besides apolitical sisterhood.” Especially after Trump’s inauguration, we must raise the bar for headline-worthy celebrity feminism. Embracing the term and getting on board with gender equality alone are not enough to justify headlines, red carpet interviews, and trending hashtags. That’s not to say that the feminist work of celebrities is unworthy of attention, because all efforts to undo the stigma of being a feminist is valuable to the movement. But we can’t let the chic feminism of Emma Watson and Scarlet Johannsson outshine the work Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, Jessica Valenti, and so on. Feminism can’t be an ideology that’s only popular when it’s embellished by celebrity endorsement. The idea of women moving as freely and safely through society as men should be attractive enough to sell itself.

So, why doesn’t it? Maybe because society still struggles with the fact that we all contribute to a reality in which women living in ‘developed’ Western liberal democracies face systemic oppression and discrimination in the twenty-first century. It’s easy to celebrate the feminism of a trustworthy, academy award-winning actress and pretend your support of their feminism implies your own feminism. It’s much, much more difficult to acknowledge the work that must be done to destroy the deeply entrenched sexism that most of us contribute to in some way, whether by questioning the legitimacy of a woman’s sexual assault accusation or failing to recognize the racialized experiences of female oppression. Tackling these issues calls for a fundamental shift in how society perceives sexual violence and the unspoken way we prioritize white women as the blemish-free face of feminism. Lack of intersectionality, rape culture, and other issues won’t just disappear when enough people call themselves feminists.

Of course, celebrities should continue to openly embrace the movement, but we need to start holding them, and all feminists, accountable to fighting for the cause. Visibility of feminist issues is important, but ideology-based actions like female actors refusing to accept roles in which their male counterparts will be paid more or supporting organizations that promote reproductive rights are far worthier of headlines. Regardless of whose actions they are, these are the expressions of feminism we should celebrate and expect from all feminists.