A guest post from Rebecca Woolford, founder of Fanny Pack.
Adopting the term ‘feminist’ has become almost a fashionable label for many female celebrities over the past few years, as we all know. There are a number of celebrities that have almost “re-branded and reclaimed feminism” from Miley Cyrus saying, “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women to not be scared of anything,” to Beyoncé who stood in front of a backdrop spelling the word ‘FEMINIST’ at the 2014 VMAs; also including Taylor Swift claiming she is a feminist now that she understands its meaning (despite responding “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls,” in 2012 when ‘The Daily Beast’ asked her whether she was a feminist).
This is not just reserved for female celebrities either. When male celebrities call themselves ‘feminists’ the response is sometimes even greater: Harry Styles from One Direction, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ryan Gosling, Jon Hamm and many more . Simply Google “male celebrity feminists” and a wealth of content will come up. A Salon article discusses this point even further, in which it asks us to consider: “How many female-identified people have talked, written, and protested around the simple idea that women deserve the same human rights and respect as men? Thousands. Millions”. The article goes on to say, “this idea becomes front-page news only when a handsome celebrity with a project to pitch voices it is a severely mixed blessing. It means that decades of feminist work has reverberated outside the movement […] the media is also reifying the belief that an idea becomes legitimate only when it is voiced by a man”.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with these celebrities promoting feminism and trying to break down the perceived stigma once associated with it, but it does pose a difficult question: Whilst we continue to be hypnotised by the glitz and the glam of the latest ‘feminist’ celebrity, are we side-stepping away from the real inequalities that women continue to face?
Real issues and frightening statistics such as the stubborn pay gap: ‘men earn 17.5 per cent more than women on average per hour’ [Independent]; or child/early marriage: ’14 million girls under 18 will be married this year’ or the fact that Female Genital Mutilation still affects thousands of girls, in which it is performed due to apparent ‘religious requirement(s); rite of passage to womanhood; cleanliness; prevention of promiscuity among girls; preservation of virginity; better marriage prospects’; or women in unpaid labour: ‘If India enrolled 1% more of girls in secondary school their GDP would grow by 5.5 billion’; and campus rape: “On campuses, only 10 to 25% of rapists are expelled“.
On one hand, I think that regardless of these celebrities’ motives by calling themselves feminists it at least achieves the positive outcome of raising awareness of the term and perhaps even why it exists. But, are they raising awareness in the right way?
Is the true political meaning of the word devalued when associated with some celebrities? A recent example that comes to mind for me is British R&B singer Rita Ora, who previously described herself as “a feminist in a Beyoncé mould”, and yet still decided to work on a recent video with Chris Brown that arguably romanticises domestic violence. I question the mixed message she is conveying to her female fans by doing this.
So why are these celebrities riding the ‘feminist’ wave? When did it suddenly become so popular?
I remember singing Christina Aguilera’s ‘Can’t Hold Us Down’ in the car when I was younger and thinking it was such a powerful song and on reflection quite a feminist song. However, I don’t recall Christina ever ‘outing’ herself as a feminist; despite aligning herself with feminist values she did not call herself one. Somewhere along the line being associated with this term became fashionable. Take for example the feminist protest that was staged by Karl Lagerfeld on the Chanel catwalk, where the models waved their placards (‘History Is Her Story’; ‘He For She’; ‘Feminism Not Masochism’). Interestingly a Guardian critic wrote, “it was a silly show not least because the fashion industry, and in particular the fashion weeks, are about as feminist as a fruitcake”.
‘Feminist By Example’ is something I came across when doing my research for this article and was so poignant to me. It made me think of the common phrase ‘Lead by example’ used in the everyday life. I remember my parents telling me this when I was younger. But what does it mean? Leaders are not given respect – they earn it, and therefore earn the respect of the people they lead. It means you are an example for others to follow. So with that in mind, ‘Feminist By Example’ means earning the title and the respect that it brings, contrary to declaring yourself one and not following it up with any real actions.
There is a big world out there of real feminist activists and I believe the majority of people are blissfully unaware of them… compared to the celebrities anyway. Such as the “Feminist Five” – Li Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man – who were arrested for planning a non violent campaign about sexual harassment on public transportation. Or Balash Bol Deng from South Sudan who is paving the way for the next generation of girls to escape patriarchy. Or Momal Mushtaq from Pakistan who runs a blog called the Freedom Traveller which is dedicated to raising awareness on women’s mobility. Or Tammy Tibbetts from America who runs ‘She’s The First’, which helps girls from all around the world to become first generation graduates. And we are all of course familiar with Malala Yousafzai, but the list goes on: Meltem Avcil, Fahma Mohamed, Megan Beech, June Eric-Udoriee etc.
So what I propose… That you come and see for yourself. I will be attending ‘Feminism London conference’ in October to recapture the real faces of feminism from around the world. I will be writing a follow up article ‘part 2’ after the event, to project their voices and ultimately decipher what it takes to be the kind of feminist I aspire to be. A feminist by example.