The media likes to ask female pop stars about feminism. A lot. In fact, for some reason, young female singers are bombarded with this question so much that it has become its own news category. When someone like Taylor Swift or Beyonce answers the question, “Are you a feminist?”, the Internet blows up with critique. There never seems to be a right answer.
There’s a problem in both the phrasing of the question and also in these women’s comprehension of it. The media, particularly certain feminist blogs, are looking for provocative discourse and celebrities are easy targets. (Feministing subtly calls this an“annoying conversation.”) But it’s more than that. It’s problematic not only because it makes women the targets of scorn by other women, but also overlooks the bigger forces at work behind the entertainment industry that promote a patriarchal business structure and overwhelmingly value female artists for their sexuality rather than their talent.
These young women (and they are always young when they get this question for the first time) are not thinking about what it means to be a feminist at the exact moment a reporter points her microphone at them and asks them to identify with something they’re not quite sure of yet. They are not dumb, but perhaps they haven’t yet evolved into their feminist identities. And you know what? That’s perfectly okay, even for someone righteously living like a feminist without knowing it yet.
Beyonce, of course, is front and center in this conversation. Whether she’s taking charge of her own business, hiring an all-female band, talking about the injustices of unequal pay between the sexes, or writing anthems of female empowerment that will be with us for generations, it’s hard to argue against Beyonce as a feminist. She’s a goddamned feminist icon. But, yes, she did once call feminism “bootylisciousness.” And, yes, she did put a “Mrs.” on her latest tour name. And she’s famously avoided the term feminist throughout her otherwise super-feminist career.
A new interview in British Vogue asks Beyonce the feminist question again and this is what she says: “That word can be very extreme… I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality.” She also says she feels more powerful and fearless than ever and goes on to argue a very important issue facing modern feminism today: “Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are?”
There is no one (or right) way to be a feminist. And it’s that misunderstanding that fuels these young women’s misguided answers to the feminist-or-not question. And as more famous ladies avoid the term, more young ones will follow suit. Changing the perception of the label “feminist” and the feminist movement itself (the ambitious goals of this website and our new book, Sexy Feminism) is what we should all work on. If young pop stars are not sure of what the term even means, of course they’re going to avoid it.
But what if they did know? Here’s how their answers to this question might translate:
Beyonce: “[The word feminist] can be very extreme. I guess I am a modern-day feminist.”
Translation: “I am a modern-day feminist!” Hooray, the most powerful woman in pop music identifies with the movement that is still necessary to change the inequities facing women today. This is something to celebrate, not ridicule. Today’s feminism doesn’t look like the feminism of two generations ago because it doesn’t have to.
Taylor Swift: “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
Translation: “I grew up the product of two generations of feminism doing hard work so that I don’t feel less than my male peers.” The non-defeatest attitudes of young women today are powerful things. We shouldn’t stomp on them—this is what feminism has been working towards for so long! What’s missing from Swift and her peers is a bit of historical perspective and understanding of their privilege of confidence. If we can make them see feminism as relevant and cool, we can change that.
Katy Perry: “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”
Translation: “I am at the top of the music game because I worked hard. I believe other women can do this, too. All of us women rule.” Katy has some work to do in the feminist-cred department, but she is in a powerful position in our culture because of feminism. Getting her to see that could change a lot.
There is hope for these young women—and all those on their way up sure to encounter the “feminist?” question. For proof, just look at Lady Gaga. When she first gave an “I’m not a feminist, but…” quote she was in her early twenties and new to the incredible fame that had taken over her life. It took just a few months for her to start talking in feminist terms and identifying with the label. More importantly, she started living it. Gaga is an activist as much as she is a rock star. She’s made it her mission to give voice to the voiceless, particularly young gay, trans, and bi people through her Born This Way Foundation. She talked about the importance of sex education and contraception; and when she posted these photos online, she put herself in the center of the body-hatred dialogue that surrounds all famous women. She did it for the sake of all women. She evolved quickly and purposefully, which is what Beyonce, Taylor, and (hopefully) Katy are doing as well. Let’s let them grow.