The resurgence of feminism we’ve seen in recent years could arguably be boiled down to Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album, in which she sampled the TED Talk of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and subsequent MTV Video Music Awards performance that saw her proudly backlit by the word FEMINIST.
Or maybe it was when actress Emma Watson addressed the UN in her HeForShe campaign which asserted that gender equality is not just a women’s issue.
Perhaps it was Taylor Swift’s backpedalling on her previous statement that she wasn’t a feminist because she doesn’t ‘think about things as guys versus girls’, palling around with noted celebrity feminist Lena Dunham and speaking out about the representation of women in the media on a French Canadian talk show in late 2014.
Andi Zeisler, founder of Bitch magazine, writes in her new book We Were Feminists Once about the rise of “marketplace feminism”—‘an assessment of whether or not a product is worthy of consumption’ (for example, the new Ghostbusters movie)—and our reliance on celebrities to tell us how we should think and feel emerging due to our celebrity-obsessed capitalist society. ‘[Do] representations of powerful women in the media translate into “cultural visibility and institutional empowerment” for actual women[?],’ Zeisler asks. ‘Emphasising the personal empowerment of individual actors, comedians, and pop stars, whether for itself or in relation to others, only serves to pull focus from the ways in which their industries make money from stereotyping and devaluing women.’ The debate surrounding Kim Kardashian’s International Women’s Day nude selfie earlier in the year and her defence of it as “empowering” comes to mind, and I would also wager that politicians have much to gain from feminism as a brand, as we saw when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten clamoured to call themselves feminists during the election, when their policies are anything but.
Celebrity feminism is also guilty of prioritising white, middle- and upper-class women—perhaps those most likely to buy feminism as a brand—over their non-white, disadvantaged counterparts. Amnesty International’s campaign to criminalise sex work in an effort to stem the trafficking of women and girls cosigned by Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Lena Dunham was tone-deaf while Patricia Arquette’s call to ‘gay people and people of colour to fight for us now’ when it comes to equal pay for white women in Hollywood was similarly out of touch. And let’s not forget Watson’s HeForShe, which drew ire from many feminists as stroking the ego of men.
Dunham has said that ‘If feminism has to become a brand to make change, I’m all for it’ and, at this point, it’s a challenge to separate the gains feminism has made in mainstream society from its increased standing amongst celebrities and young women. Any political movement needs to change with the times in order to stay relevant. Look at all the grassroots activism that has occurred in recent years, coinciding with the increased power of social media and celebrity feminism: Black Lives Matter, supported by celebrities such as Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Jesse Williams; SlutWalk, which Amber Rose has taken on as her pet cause; and the outpouring of support for rape survivor Kesha from Dunham, Swift and Demi Lovato.
This capitalisation of feminism is obviously at odds with a movement that aims to dismantle patriarchal, and thereby inherently capitalist, frameworks to distribute power more evenly. Society’s fixation on asking celebrities if they’re feminists while simultaneously taking down women whose actions aren’t perceived to be “feminist enough” distract from it’s true aim.
But, for the foreseeable future, we have to use the tools currently at our disposal—capitalism—to spread the message of gender equality (and, by extension, equality for all minorities). Although the intersectionality of this approach does need to be increased, utilising the branding and celebritisation of feminism to increase awareness of issues affecting equality is a good place to start.
Image: Sara Kauten