Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Are you a feminist? Pop culture’s infatuation with the question (Part II)

In my last post, I discussed my frustration with the “Are you a feminist” question. I noted that the question might add some value, at least in our academic setting, by getting at the individual conceptions of feminism. By identifying and acknowledging our differing perspectives, we can have more fruitful discussions and put ourselves in the best position to tackle the tough questions.

But this question isn’t just asked in the classroom. “Are you a feminist?” has become the go-to interview question for female celebrities. And the value we might see in the classroom doesn’t seem to be as present on the red carpet or the sound stage.

Of course, “feminism” is a complicated term, consisting not only of the differing theories or strands of feminism that technically define it, but also of social connotations and misconceptions. Jessica Contrera, of the Washington Post, notes the complexity of our pop culture discussion:

The question — why it’s being asked and how stars are answering it — is deeply complicated by a seemingly large divide between the label of “feminism” and the ideals that feminists say they represent.
In this sense, “Are you a feminist?” has become a kind of litmus test for female celebrities, where their answer justifies social reverence or criticism. Much like the self-definitional problem we saw in the classroom, the perceived definition of feminism plays a critical role. Many celebrity answers feed popular misconceptions about feminism: Lady Gaga and Shailene Woodley, for example, say that they are not feminists because they love men. These kinds of answers focus on the social connotation and serve to reinforce the notion that feminism is about hating men. Unfortunately, given the strength of social connotation, these answers can resonate with women.

Contrera suggests that our focus on this question could be seen a positive step toward a key social shift as we define “yes” as the default answer. She asserts that the publicity around the ever important “because…” statement explaining why female celebrities identify as feminists will shift focus to an equality definition, which combats misconceptions and encourages others to the question in the affirmative.

Amanda Hess, writing for Slate, in a piece describing the varied history this question has had, however criticizes this shift in focus. According to Hess, as more celebrities shift to a default yes, proclaiming oneself to be a feminist loses some of its meaning and significance – “the word has now been flattened into a press tour sound bite.”

From my perspective, the danger of the question is that it creates yet another catch-22 for female celebrities. With any answer she risks alienating fans that do not agree and, no matter what she says, her answer is bound to make headlines. Simply consider the media coverage around answers from Kelly Clarkson, Meagan Trainor, Amy Poehler, and Ellen Page, to name only a few.

It seems that asking “Are you a feminist?” has become a way to laud celebrities that have the right reason for being a feminist, where “right” is defined as the most socially acceptable or palatable form of feminism. In distilling feminism to, as Hess states, “its most benign interpretation,” we may devalue the movement and rob female celebrities of the value we find when we ask that question in the classroom. These celebrities miss the opportunity to explore differing approaches to feminism and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to get at the deeper issues.


Jessica S. said...

This is a great commentary on the issue. I've been noticing this question popping up as well, and it has irked me that interviewers see a woman and automatically go to "female" questions. It strikes me as a subtle intimidation tactic- putting women on the spot, and ensuring many answers pay lip service. I hope all of it inspires more men and women to educate themselves on feminism.

Rebecca F. said...

Thanks for your comment Jessica. I actually had not framed the "are you a feminist" question or other gendered questions as a kind of intimidation tactic, but it makes sense. Certainly these gendered questions demonstrate the kind of subtle discrimination that women - not just female celebrities - experience in society today and, in that sense at least, represent a kind of intimidation.

The inspiring thing to me is the response that we're beginning to see: that male celebrities are identifying themselves as feminists and that female celebrities are combatting the gendered questions (like the Ask Her More movement). Hopefully these responses will continue and we can stop whitewashing feminism with lip service answers.