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Has celebrity feminism failed?


In The Guardian, Andi Zeisler outlines the considerable limitations of what she calls “celebrity feminism.” “At its simplest,” she writes, “the difference between celebrity-branded feminism and a feminist movement as a social and political force is that one is about individuals and the other about systems.” She demonstrates how the feminist efforts of celebrities like Amy Schumer, Patricia Arquette, and Emma Watson are limited to bland speeches and superficial outrage because their public notoriety depends on industries that are structurally misogynist, and they will never attack these structures for fear of ruining their careers. Here’s an excerpt:

In writing about the celebrity-feminist phenomenon for this newspaper, writer and cultural critic Roxane Gay, who authored 2014’s Bad Feminist, put it plainly: “So long as we continue to stare into the glittery light of the latest celebrity feminist, we avoid looking at the very real inequalities that women throughout the world continue to face. We avoid having the difficult conversations about the pay gap and the all-too-often sexist music we listen to and the movies we watch that tell women’s stories horribly (if at all) and the limited reproductive freedom women are allowed to exercise and the pervasive sexual harassment and violence too many women face. We avoid having the conversations about the hard work changing this culture will require.” It’s as though feminists are becoming part of a celebrity movement, rather than celebrities joining up with a feminist one.

As with branding, celebrity isn’t about complexity, but about offering up an enticing package that the largest number of people can understand with the smallest amount of effort. Which is why it seems important to approach and query celebrities in a way that corporate media will never do. Instead of asking celebrities how they define feminism, we should ask how they enact it in their work and their communities. Rather than focusing on the clothes they wear when agitating for causes, we can find ways to amplify their messages.

These are not unreasonable requests, but we’ve been conditioned to think they are by a mediated celebrity culture. If celebrities truly have a stake in feminism, it can no longer be about who is “bravely” embracing a maligned word. We’ve spent enough time patting actors and pop stars on the back for “redefining” feminism with their beauty and appeal, or “changing the game” simply by showing up and agreeing that, yes, totally, we should all be equal. Media and pop culture have to help change the narrative whereby simply claiming a feminist identity stands in for doing work in the service of equality. It can no longer be about who says they stand for feminism, but about how they stand for it. Like past Hollywood stances on Aids awareness, environmentalism, antiwar activism and more, celebrity feminism may well fade out to make way for the next big thing, but while it’s here, we have a small chance to refocus the spotlight.

Image: Amy Schumer, Patricia Arquette and Emma Watson. Via The Guardian.