Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
‘Do you consider yourself a feminist?”
This question is being posed to female celebrities more frequently than ever. In between Tell us about your new album! and What are the downsides of being a superstar? it comes out, some say, like a double-edged sword.
“It’s like a litmus test of some kind,” says Jaclyn Friedman, founder and executive director of Women, Action and the Media. If the celeb says she is a feminist, she risks isolating fans who don’t identify as such. If she says she is not a feminist, it’s almost guaranteed to become the story’s headline.
“Kelly Clarkson: ‘Not a Feminist’ ”
“Meghan Trainor: ‘I Don’t Consider Myself a Feminist’ ”
“Lady Gaga ‘Very Obsessed With Monsters And Playgirls,’ Not Feminism”
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.
The word is “a moving target,” says celebrity publicist Howard Bragman, founder of PR agency Fifteen Minutes and vice chairman of Reputation.com.
“Avoid labels of any kind,” Bragman tells clients who might be asked the question. “It’s better to focus on what you believe in, rather than defining yourself as a feminist or not a feminist.”
The stars who do identify as feminists don’t seem to see it that way. Emma Watson, in her recent speech to the United Nations that became a viral phenomenon, used the same simple definition that Beyoncé quoted(through the voice of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) in her song “Flawless”: “Feminism: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
If everyone believed feminism to be just that — equality for all — celebrities’ recent answers to “Are you a feminist?” might have been different. But that’s not the reality, says Andi Zeisler, author of “Feminism and Pop Culture” and founder of progressive feminist organization Bitch Media. For many people, she says, feminism is still seen as being anti-men.
“In the past, feminism had a PR problem,” Zeisler says. “The media painted a picture of these sort of angry women who hated men and didn’t want children and all of that.”
That image of a feminist is why some stars have claimed it is not what they are. Lady Gaga answered: “I am not a feminist — I hail men, I love men.” “The Fault in Our Stars” actress Shailene Woodley received significant Internet backlash when she answered with: “No, because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”
We didn’t always ask this question, of course. Back when feminism was equated with being anti-men, it was only feminist-
focused publications such as Bust Magazine that asked stars to talk about it.
When the movie “Thelma & Louise” was released in 1991, an interviewer speaking with Susan Sarandon discussed how blatant the idea of female empowerment and equality was in the film. Even then, he traded the word “feminist” for “man-hating,” and Sarandon described the movie as “pro-humanist” instead. Stars including Demi Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker and Madonna followed suit, claiming to be “humanists,” not feminists.
But now, with the very real possibility of a female president and with stories about violence against women topping the news cycle, the F-word has become fair game. The pressure of how to answer is especially tolling on up-and-coming artists who don’t have a firm foothold in fame, says Women and Hollywood Web site founder Melissa Silverstein.
“Celebrity has a very short shelf life. Everyone has to like you,” Silverstein says. “If you do things that are controversial, positive or negative, your shelf life gets shorter. There’s an incredible pressure to toe the middle of the line.”
That pressure might be why this week, singer Trainor distanced herselffrom the word, despite the female-empowerment overtones in her hit “All About That Bass.”
“I don’t consider myself a feminist, but I’m down for my first opportunity to say something to the world to be so meaningful,” she told Billboard. “If you asked me, ‘What do you want to say?’ it would be, ‘Love yourself more.’ ”
Silverstein points out that “young male artists are unlikely to be asked the same question,” even when they have the same message. When One Direction released “What Makes You Beautiful,” a song that even encourages “you don’t need makeup to cover up,” no one asked them to decide if they are a band of feminists. A handful of male celebrities including John Legend and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have made statements in support of feminism, but not as a result of a routine interview question.
Some celebrities have been asked more than once to demonstrate a change of heart — and they sometimes do. This was the case for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Both pop stars modified their answers after familiarizing themselves with the more modern definition of feminism as equality for all.
“I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means,” Swift told the Guardian, crediting her friendship with actor-writer Lena Dunham for her education.
Friedman at Women, Action and the Media says Swift and Perry won’t be the last to publicly change their minds.
“When there becomes a greater understanding of what a feminist is, there’s less risk to say you are one,” Friedman says.
As high-profile artists such as Swift change their minds, as Watson goes viral for explaining the equality-focused definition, as Beyoncé flashes “FEMINIST” in bright lights on national television, it becomes more likely that the answer to “Are you a feminist?” will increasingly be: Yes.