Are Celebrities Helping or Harming the Feminist Movement?

One of the best indicators of popularity in the teenage girl kingdom is a spot on the “trending” page of Wanelo. For those familiar, it is generally a mecca of pop-culture referencing t-shirts, sexy two piece bathing suits, tribal print sunglasses, and all things TFIOS. The trending page is no stranger to black sleeveless tank tops or pink block letters, but recently to two combined in an overtly feminist way with this kick-ass t-shirt from Skreened. A quick search for “feminism” revealed a plethora of other feminist products for sale on Wanelo, including this bumper sticker and these pins. The analysis of products-for-sale on Wanelo is all to say this: feminism has entered into the consciousness of mainstream teenage girl culture. Part of this new-found awareness of feminism is undoubtedly due to card-holding members of the movement itself, such as Beyoncé, Lorde, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Zooey Deschanel, and even Miley Cyrus.   Despite these celebrities success in bringing visibility to the feminist movement, there is still debate about whether feminism and pop culture stars can successfully co-exist.

At first glance, it seems like the aforementioned women are nothing but amazing for the feminist movement. With their mainstream music and TV shows, they widen the feminist movement to include both punk-rock zine-makers and pop-culture loving Snapchatters. They expose teenage girls to feminist themes through their Billboard hit singles and award-winning TV shows. Their particular brand of feminism is accessible. Some would also argue their brand of feminism is also somewhat shallow. They aren’t exactly talking about dismantling the patriarchy and raving about Sen. Wendy Davis’s filibuster. With the exception of Hillary Clinton-idolizing Leslie Knope (who is unfortunately fictional), celebrity feminists as a whole tend to stay away from the political.  But does this put them in a “lesser class” of feminists and make them unworthy role models?

Some critics would say so. These critics believe that it is activists and scholars which should define the movement, not pop stars. Authors like bell hooks, Jessica Valenti, and Gloria Steinem literally wrote the book (s) on feminism, yet they are not the most well-known members of the movement. Undoubtedly there are teenaged girls who own the aforementioned tank top from Skreened but are unfamiliar the feminist canon and its authors. Many critics have argued that celebrities are disconnected from the “real” issues of feminism such as abortion, affordable daycare, and equal pay. Superrich stars may be distanced from some important feminist issues, but they are also extremely close to others such as the objectification of women, sexual double standards, and sexism in the music and film industries.  No one person can ever represent the struggles of every person, or connect to all feminist issues. Even those suggested as more appropriate figureheads for the movement don’t represent every issue. Sure, bell hooks definitely knows more about feminist thought than Miley Cyrus. But bell hooks isn’t going to provide visibility to the feminist issue. People that search “bell hooks” on Google already know about feminism. People that search “Miley Cyrus” on Google may not, but she can led to awareness of the feminist movement for those previously unfamiliar with it.

I find it surprising feminist celebrities have come under so much criticism. Is Ellen Page, Ellen DeGeneres, or Laverne Cox criticized for their LGBTQ activism? Is anyone saying these stars are unnecessary to the movement? Consider Angelina Jolie and her goal to end wartime rape. It is not only her dedication to the cause which brought Jolie to the four-day UN conference, but her star power. Angelina Jolie is really famous, and this fame is seen as a useful asset bringing visibility to an important issue.  Jolie hasn’t studied diplomacy or written papers about the link between war and rape, but she is accepted–nay– jubilantly welcomed by the UN.  If Angelina Jolie can lend her star power to the UN, then why can’t celebs like Cyrus and Beyoncé do the same for feminism?

Perhaps it’s because feminism can be more complicated than anti-wartime rape or LGBTQ activism.  Some people still can’t decide if Miley is really a feminist or not. On the surface, feminism seems quite simple to understand. In her TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche eloquently stated that feminism is “The social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” The murkiness comes with the way we classify actions and behaviors. It seems as if very few things are simply pro-feminist or anti-feminist. A simple example of this phenomenon can be seen with makeup. Many feminists believe that beauty is a social construct which oppresses women; Beauty standards are subjective and often dictated by men. With this in mind, it may seem as if all mainstream beauty trends, especially makeup, are anti-feminist. A good feminist would never conform to the patriarchal beauty standards! Right? Wrong. There is an entire variety of third wave feminism called “lipstick feminism,” dedicated to the idea that wearing makeup can be empowering to women. This sort of confusion surrounds almost everything, and it why analyzing things with a “feminist lens” is never straightforward.

The most striking examples of feminist/not feminist arguments can be seen with the plethora of op-eds surrounding celebrities. Miley Cyrus is a feminist. Miley Cyrus calls herself a feminist but she’s really not a feminist.  Shailene Woodley isn’t a feminist. Shailene Woodley doesn’t think she’s a feminist and doesn’t know the definition of feminism but her actions make it seem like she’s really she is a feminist. And on and on. Calling yourself a feminist doesn’t necessarily mean you will be accepted as such.  However, these blogosphere squabbles of “she is/ she isn’t a feminist,” don’t stop teenagers from idolizing celebrities and looking up to them as role models. Many of the celebrity role models we have  now-a-days aren’t so bad: stars like Amy Poehler, Zooey Deschanel, and Lorde are outspoken, powerful, and successful actresses and musicians who each empower girls through their work. Let’s stop criticizing their imperfections, and accept that feminism and pop culture can peacefully co-exist. The stars certainly don’t know everything about feminism, but they do provide an introduction, as well as visibility in mainstream media which helps the movement gain new devotees. For examples of a beautiful coalition between feminism and pop culture, I will return full circle to Wanelo. What’s awesome about feminist pop stars? It’s teenage girls buying phone cases with a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk. So what if teens learned about the Nigerian feminist from Queen Bey? They’re gaining exposure to the movement, and that’s what really matters. With teenage girls at the helm, the feminist movement can only go up.


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