Miley Cyrus performs on stage at the Bambi Awards 2013 at Stage Theater on November 14, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Luca Teuchmann
In the tightly-regulated world of celebrity journalism, certain scripts play out like clockwork. Answers that seem charming in person will feel suddenly shallow on paper. The publicist will wrap up your interview exactly two and a half minutes before you allotted time runs out. And if you ask a female celebrity if she is a feminist, she will politely demure, insisting that she “loves men,” “doesn’t like labels,” and that if she had to pick a label, she’d prefer “humanist.”(Paging you: Gaga, Beyonce and Marissa Mayer.)
But that may be in the process of changing. Last week, when told by the BBC’s Newsbeat that her music videos had been discussed in UK parliament for “undermining women,” Miley Cyrus retorted: “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world, because I tell women not to be scared of anything.” Why were videos like hers, Rihanna’s and Robin Thicke’s considered undermining, she asked. “Because they’re naked? I mean, those girls [in Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video] are beautiful.”
Miley isn’t the only young celebrity talking about feminism. Two days after her Newsbeat interview aired, 19-year-old reality star Courtney Stodden – famous for her voluptuous body and for her marriage at 16 to a 51-year-old man – told the Bethenny Frankel Show that she too was a “true feminist,” because she believed in “women looking the way they want to look.” She added: “I think real women support women.”
Bethenny Frankel hosts Courtney Stodden on the set of her show. Photo: Mike Coppola
Stodden’s comments echo those of Cyrus’s former Disney Channel colleague Selena Gomez, who earlier this month informed American fashion magazine Flaunt that she did not think 16-year-old New Zealand singer/songwriter Lorde was a feminist, because “she is not supporting other women” – implying that she, Gomez, was a better one. She was responding to Lorde’s earlier comment that although she enjoyed Selena’s music “on a sonic level,” she found of her lyrics offensive. “The theme of her song [‘Come & Get It’] is, ‘When you’re ready, come and get it from me.’ I’m sick of women being portrayed in that way.”
It’s easy to be cynical of remarks like these: to dismiss them as meaningless posturing by vacuous starlets who don’t know what they’re talking about. And indeed, many people are doing just that. “I like Selena, but the idea that ‘feminism’ is agreeing not to criticise other women is just stupid,” wrote one commenter on celebrity gossip website Celebitchy. “So Miley Cyrus thinks taking her clothes off makes her a feminist, hm no,” retorted a young woman on Twitter.
But in climate in which high profile women often shy away from “feminism” as if it is another, four-letter word starting with an “f,” this explosion of feminist discourse feels meaningful. The question is, what does it mean?
Selena Gomez performs in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Ethan Miller
The simplest explanation, perhaps, is that talking about feminism courts attention: particularly for starlets such as Cyrus and Stodden, whose celebrity stock-in-trade is shock and awe. But it also reflects the mainstreaming of feminism not just as a word, but as a way of thinking and being. That is to say, Miley, Courtney and Selena identify as feminists in part because to them not to be one would be an insult; an implication of weakness or ignorance.
Theirs is a feminism which is at odds with the feminism being championed by many of their peers online; one which is concerned not only with the right of the individual to wear clothes or to go naked, but with cultivating a nuanced ethics of political engagement which is sensitive to concerns about racism, rape culture, transphobia, ableism and more.
But although their take on gender politics might be simplistic and self-absorbed, the issues they reference are indeed gendered. Miley Cyrus writhing naked on a wrecking ball or twerking with Robin Thicke might not be “empowerment,” but the pearl-clutching reaction to it is rooted in sexism.
While some might recoil at the prospect of a feminist movement headed up by scantily dressed former Disney stars, if you strip away the snobbery, it makes perfect sense that women like Cyrus, Stodden and Gomez would be attracted to feminism. These are three young women, after all, who have experienced the indignities of being treated like an object first hand: whether it is 21-year-old Gomez posing in lingerie to prove that she is an adult now despite her baby face, or the recently separated Stodden being encouraged by her mother to marry a man in his fifties before her seventeenth birthday.
Another, slightly older, celebrity feminist – Natalie Portman – recently remarked that she didn’t believe that female characters needed to be “kick-ass” in order for their stories to qualify as feminist. “A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathise with,” she said.
The same goes for our celebrity feminists. They don’t need to be perfect to claim the mantle; they just need to be reflective and real and willing to learn. Miley and co have got the lingo down: now’s their chance to work on the thinking behind it.