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Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Why He’s Exploring the Word ‘Feminism’ and Online Misogyny

The actor-entrepreneur opens up about his upcoming episode of “hitRECord on TV” that centers on the ‘feminist’ label and why self-identifying as a feminist is important to him.

09.22.14 9:45 AM ET

Last month, I asked Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the gregarious and charming star of films like (500) Days of Summer, Looper, and The Dark Knight Rises, about why he considers himself a feminist.

“What that means to me is that you don’t let your gender define who you are—you can be who you want to be, whether you’re a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, whatever,” said Gordon-Levitt. He also mentioned the “long history of women suffering abuse, injustice, and not having the same opportunities as men,” which he says has been “very detrimental to the human race as a whole.” 

His answer, which you can read in full here, went viral. The 33-year-old actor also runs the online collaborative production company hitRECord, which uses crowdsourcing to unite artists around the world in creating various works of art, from short films to books. The first season of hitRECord on TV, a television series airing on Pivot that features the site’s various works, took home a Creative Arts Emmy. While Season 2 is in production, Gordon-Levitt has decided to expand on our interview and base an upcoming episode around the term “feminism,” asking users to upload videos explaining what the word means to them.

“In the interest of furthering this conversation, I want to ask you guys what you think about this: What does that word—feminism—mean to you?” says Gordon-Levitt in a video he posted online.

The Daily Beast spoke to Gordon-Levitt about feminism, why young female stars are shunning the “feminist” label, and why the word “feminism” incites such heated debate.

It’s a really interesting conversation to have these days. A lot of female stars in their early twenties have come out against the “feminist” label, which represents this strange generational gap.

That’s true. I wasn’t aware of it when you and I spoke last, and since then I’ve looked around on the Internet and seen what different people think—both people who are well known, and people who you probably wouldn’t know. It seems to me that it’s mostly an issue of semantics in that it’s the word “feminist” that people don’t like; it’s not any of the principles. People are saying stuff like, “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equality for both sexes.” So it’s really just an issue of how you define the word, and if people want to use a different word, I think that’s perfectly fine. The reason that I stick with the word “feminist” is that I’m a fan of the tradition of that movement. It’s been a very positive movement for the last hundred or so years.

There are some people who say we don’t need feminism anymore because women and men are now treated equally, and I don’t think that’s true. We’ve come a long way since the term was coined and women weren’t allowed to vote or own property in this country, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple black-and-white issue. There’s a lot to talk about, and it’s a more nuanced conversation now than it was then, and that’s all the more reason for us to be having these conversations. There are still plenty of tensions and unfair situations that arise more so for women than for men.

There’s a lack of education, too. Your parents were journalists and they passed on their knowledge of the feminist movement on to you, but a lot of these young stars speaking out against it weren’t imparted that knowledge.

Absolutely. And a lot of why it’s important to me has more to do with more subtle, cultural, and interpersonal ways that we relate to one another, whereas in the past, the movement involved huge policy changes like getting the right to vote, getting the right to own property, or getting the right to make one’s own health decisions—and certainly that fight is ongoing, but I think it’s interesting to talk about more subtle things that you can’t legislate, like the way conversations happen. There are all sorts of baggage around being a man, and being a woman. We need to talk about the roles we get assigned based on our gender, and that’s a lot of what Don Jon is about. The two central characters in that movie—that I play and Scarlett [Johansson] plays—are very attached to the dominant cultural norms of what a man is supposed to be, and what a woman is supposed to be, and they both try very hard to live up to what is deemed “normally” masculine and “normally” feminine, and it’s to both their detriments because they’re harboring unrealistic expectations and end up missing out on what life has to offer. Life is more fun when you’re not trying to fit into a mold, but trying to embrace your own unique individuality.

Right. Your character is fed the narrative of the rakish lady-killer, and Scarlett’s is fed that of the princess seeking a fairytale ending.

Exactly. They learned these from their family, friends, and church, but also largely from the media, which teaches us what a woman is supposed to be and what a man is supposed to be, and how a man is supposed to relate to a woman and how a woman is supposed to relate to a man. A lot of what we’re taught in dominant media is pretty narrow-minded and not a recipe for happiness.

The media has also, in my opinion, played a role in helping make the word “feminist” be perceived by some as a dirty word. When you look at young stars who’ve spoken out against being labeled a feminist—Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, etc.—a lot of these times it’s a young, female reporter trying to nail a young, female celebrity with the loaded “Are you a feminist?” question. They know that it’s a minefield of a question. It’s another example of women-on-women undermining. There’s rampant male chauvinism as well, don’t get me wrong, but there’s also a lot of women-on-women undercutting, and it only seems to be getting worse. So, people have misinterpreted the word “feminist” to be a dividing word as opposed to a uniting one.

Yeah. I took that away also from reading what different people have said. A lot of people seem to think that feminism is against men, or pits women against men, which is not my perception of it and not what my Mom taught me at all. I get it, and some people say, “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, I’d call myself a humanist,” and I think that’s a good train of thought. However, I’d again go back to our history and our current state of affairs, which is not an equal one. So, it’s worth acknowledging that one gender has been more oppressed than the other.

Joss Whedon had an interesting take on the word “feminist.” He said, “Ist in its meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can’t be born an ist. It’s not natural. You can’t be born a Baptist; you have to be baptized. You can’t be born an atheist or a communist or a horticulturalist. You have to have these things brought to you. So feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state. That we don’t emerge assuming that everybody in the human race is a human, that the idea of equality is just an idea that’s imposed on us. That we are indoctrinated with it, that it’s an agenda.”

I think that’s interesting. But what the word “feminist” does do is acknowledge the very long history of the women’s rights movement. I agree with what he’s saying: It should just be assumed men and women are equally important and equally capable—but it’s not, and it hasn’t been for thousands of years. So, “feminism” and being a “feminist” is an acknowledgement of that history and the culture we’ve lived in for a long time. It’s a reaction to that, but for me, that’s an important acknowledgement to make.

Right. Women are still treated like second-class citizens in many ways. The first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which called for equal pay among the sexes. The fact that this was only signed into law in 2009 shows you how far we still have to go when it comes to gender inequality.

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And a piece of legislation can be a great step, but that’s not going to solve all the problems. There was just another piece of legislation that tried to make more improvements when it comes to equal pay, and that bill was shot down by Republicans. I’m not really a fan of either major political party necessarily so I wouldn’t blame it on the Republicans, but that’s further evidence that things still aren’t perfect, and there’s a lot of work to be done towards gender equality.

What are you hoping to get out of this discussion?

I just think that having the conversation is one of the most productive things that can happen and that, to me, is a lot about the promise of what the Internet can be, and how it can be things that other mediums can’t. If you make a movie or a TV show, all that communication goes one way and isn’t conversational; it’s a monologue, not a dialogue. I think that has a lot to do with various prejudices and narrow-minded pockets of our culture. We see the same thing over and over again on TV, it gets reinforced, and there’s no conversation about it. The heart of hitRECord is about making media in a conversational, positive way. I hope people that are interested in this discussion, whether they agree with me or disagree with me, feel welcome to express themselves and make a video and upload it to our site, and I think we could make some really cool television out of it.

HitRecord is a forum for good, but a lot of pockets of the Internet when it comes to message boards can be pretty hateful towards women. This whole celebrity nude hacking hullabaloo, which exclusively targeted women, emanated from message boards like 4chan and Reddit. Much of the Internet still harbors very backwards views towards women.

Well, any time there’s new, powerful technology, there’s also going to be the avenue that brings out the best in people, and the avenue that brings out the worst in people. When Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity, he didn’t intend to build bombs. It’s up to our generation to set the Internet off on a good path. I don’t expect nastiness to ever go away, and the sites that you just mentioned are not only home to nastiness. There’s a lot of cool and creative shit that goes on in a lot of message boards. I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at 4chan, but I get how there’s something really cool about the anonymity that allows you to express yourself in a very uncensored way, and I believe there is an upside to that, even though it has led to a bunch of hostility. I wouldn’t demonize any particular tool; it’s up to the people that use the tool.