The Perils of Glitzy Celebrity Feminism Having a Moment

Somewhere between the VMAs and Emma Watson’s HeForShe, the term ‘feminism’ got a makeover—it’s been Beyoncé-ified, rendered empowering and beautiful, trendy and hyper-relevant.

10.15.14 9:45 AM ET

These days, authoritative feminist discourse is no longer just a spectator sport. On feminist websites and in mainstream comments sections, women are taking on the important work of applying their lived experiences to national headlines, debating theory and adding nuance, supporting and critiquing, negating or nitpicking. Dissenters have naturally emerged who argue that this perma-talk has, in some ways, replaced substantive action—that “too much online feminist conversation bounces around in a giant echo chamber.” While this opinion certainly has merit, it’s still hard to deny the joy of witnessing an online community of feminists taking shared authorship of news stories and evolving ideologies—taking the mic, as it were, from traditional media authorities, and lending a tone of greater seriousness, nuance, and diversity of experience to the national conversation.

Regardless of the ultimate efficacy of virtual discussion, this constant, accessible contextualization doubtlessly grounds complicated issues, and helps us all engage with feminism on our own terms. Now contrast this never-ending stream of debate and dissection with a single image of Beyoncé posed in front of a lit-up “feminist” sign at this year’s VMAs—an image that has been disseminated far beyond the Jezebel comments section. With this one declarative act, Beyoncé seamlessly added feminist to her personal list of unquestionably self-affirming descriptors—joining a pantheon that includes “bootylicious” and “flawless.”

Fans and Interweb feminists alike were quick to point out that Beyoncé had clearly undertaken the important work of de-stigmatizing feminism, making the complicated act of self-identifying as a feminist palatable to a younger and wider audience. However, it’s important to note that Beyoncé’s “feminist” assertion wasn’t just bold and eye-catching; it was also heavily de-contextualized.

Does Beyoncé’s feminism, one glitzy word emblazoned behind a beautiful superstar post-pole dancing routine, actually reflect and reaffirm modern-day feminism as we know it? Has Beyoncé helped take the shame away from identifying with an important political project, or has she simply adopted the term “feminist” into her own self-affirming lexicon, without bothering to truly understand the real world implications of that word or the movement it alludes to? In other words, is Beyoncé promoting a nuanced conversation and real-world action, or is she just promoting herself?

This is not to say that Beyoncé isn’t a feminist, or has no right to label herself as such. For one, I’m not in the business of denying anyone the right to identify in any way they see fit—feminists come in all sorts of shapes and sizes; there’s no one feminist ideal that they must live up to, or one standardized, homogenous set of values they absolutely have to hold dear.

Secondly, even if I were to take up this unsavory task of measuring feminist virtuosity, it would be incredibly difficult to find Beyoncé wanting. As a powerful mother, outspoken artist, and affluent businesswoman, Beyoncé is surely a feminist success story. There’s a compelling argument that Beyoncé’s very existence is a boon for feminism. Still, to herald Beyoncé’s newly broadcast feminism as some sort of seismic shift in the movement is to ignore just how exceptional, and therefore effectively irrelevant, Beyoncé is.

As fun as it is to see “feminist” in bright letters at the VMAs, this isn’t exactly the feminist breakthrough we’ve been waiting for—in fact, it’s hardly applicable to the real feminist wars currently being fought on the ground by foot soldiers for whom issues like reproductive rights, equal wages, and affordable housing have daily consequences.

Celebrities like Emma Watson, Aziz Ansari, and Karl Lagerfeld have joined Beyoncé in invoking feminist rhetoric and gendered injustices. While these actions are doubtlessly well intentioned, it’s well worth approaching these mass-market statements with a healthy dose of skepticism as stunts that call more attention to the celebrities themselves than to the feminist issues they purport to be addressing. While de-stigmatizing feminism is a worthy cause, it’s important to remain cognizant of the vital details and distinguished voices that have already been sacrificed in the process of making “feminism” relatable, trendy, and celebrity-approved.

One risk of celebrity activism is that an actor or musician’s voice will reverberate louder than an intellectual’s or an activist’s, thereby falsely presenting an over-simplified message as the agreed upon party line. When it comes to feminism, an incredibly complex and constantly changing ideology that means a myriad of different things to a number of different people, this risk is unfortunately a recurring reality.

Take, for example, Emma Watson’s speech to the United Nations supporting feminism and the HeForShe campaign. Watson touches on a good number of feminist issues that real women face every day, from workplace and legal equality to reproductive rights. Unfortunately, these problems are merely alluded to—referenced as the important work that feminism does or can do. Instead of dwelling on these topics and advocating substantive action, Watson chose to spend more than half of her speech asking men to join in the cause of feminism—when she’s not lamenting the stigmatization of the word itself.

She explained, “the more I’ve spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.” Really, Emma? Is your fear of being labeled as a man hater the “one thing” that you “know for certain” the UN must address?

This isn’t an attempt to bash Emma Watson for speaking her mind—rather, it’s a learning opportunity; a chance to pinpoint the gap between popular, celebrity feminism and less-publicized feminist theory and action. Emma Watson’s invocation of unabashed feminism makes her appear informed and bold. Indeed, for a female celebrity, daring to defy stereotypes and associate with an oftentimes “unattractive” movement is truly brave—for Watson, openly identifying as a feminist could doubtlessly lead to some sticky situations with ignorant fans or misogynistic bigwigs.

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But to speak in a language the click baiters who are heralding Watson’s speech as the miraculous genesis of some sort of fourth wave of feminism will understand, these are really nothing more than #celebrityfeministproblems. Sure, it would be lovely if feminists weren’t automatically labeled as man-haters—but to emphasize this de-stigmatization above all other feminist concerns, and then to spend a huge swathe of time formally inviting men to work alongside women to dismantle the very oppressive institutions and relations of power that they’ve actively created and upheld, sort of misses the entire point.

It’s not offensive or malicious rhetoric but, when positioned against the daily injustices that women face, it is rather empty. Of course, I’m not surprised or dismayed by the fact that Emma Watson’s positions on feminism are fairly formulaic and non-confrontational—rather, the problem arises when these views, by virtue of being expounded by a beloved celebrity, are reproduced and heralded as the final word in new feminism.

Still, Watson’s well-meaning evasion is far less problematic than the “feminism” Karl Lagerfeld threw in our face at his Paris Fashion Week Chanel show. In lieu of a traditional runway, Lagerfeld had the Grand Palais trussed up as an artificial city. He then paralleled this initial counterfeit with a show that clearly self-identified as feminist, but ultimately betrayed itself to be little more than a PR stunt dressed up in feminist-y slogans and a riot grrrl-lite attitude.

The performance culminated in a pseudo-protest, with all the models congregating on stage, bearing signs that read “Boys Should Get Pregnant Too!” and “Women’s Rights Are More Than Alright!” Essentially, Karl Lagerfeld is either actively parodying feminists, or just thinks we’re stupid enough to buy this silly simulacrum as genuine, well-meaning and well-informed protest. The Chanel show ended up feeling like when Law & Order rips some gruesome celebrity case from the news and runs a generic retelling of it about six months later—as if Lagerfeld sensed that feminist protests are topical, and thought he could recreate one without the added verve and significance of actually protesting something, while still profiting off of feminism’s newfound popularity.

In the de-politicized venue of a high fashion runway, with skeletal supermodels holding up these nothing-statements, the idea of “feminism” is portrayed more like a trend than a pervasive, passionately felt, and potentially game-changing movement. The collection itself, a mix of classic Chanel looks with bold colors and fresh new fabrics, implicitly asserted that evoking “feminism” is just another fun, surface-level way to reinvigorate and modernize a classic brand. Never mind that feminism is a political project with a history and a very real agenda—one that does not include garnering sympathetic headlines for Karl Lagerfeld, or crowning the designer, who famously called Adele “too fat” in 2012, as anything more than an opportunist “ally.”

Of course, Lagerfeld could have acted in true solidarity by casting models who reflect the body types of real women—but instead he assumed that giving Cara Delevingne a sign to hold would result in the same PR boon, minus the headache of actually undergoing a truly feminist project.

Midway between celebrity feminism that offends and celebrity feminism that just doesn’t go far enough is the feminist-ing of Aziz Ansari. In a Late Show With David Letterman appearance, Ansari identified as a feminist—before going on to, of course, bemoan how stigmatized the word has become. He declared, “I think the reason why people don’t clap is because that word is so weirdly used in our culture. Now, people think that feminism means some woman’s gonna start yelling at them.”

In a New York Times profile of Ansari, following the young comedian as he prepared to headline Madison Square Garden last week, he justified his exploration of misogyny and feminism in his act by saying, “When you start doing stand-up, you’re like ‘What can I talk about to get laughs?’ And now, I’m like ‘What’s something that’s really interesting to me, that I want to talk about?’”

Just like Watson, Ansari is daring to elicit antagonism and ignorant accusations on account of his feminist beliefs. Still, it’s impossible not to see Ansari’s dip into the waters of feminist thought and daily gendered injustices (his new act deals with stalking and street harassment) as a little self-serving, and more than a little unearned.

After all, feminism and gender issues aren’t just interesting morsels for men like Aziz Ansari to digest from the headlines and spit back up as comedy. Empathetic comments about groping and the stigmatization of the feminist project, when unsubstantiated by personal experience, extensive research, or activism, feel unsettlingly like an attempt to piggyback on the popularity of a trending topic. Even if Ansari’s new exploration is completely genuine, speaking out about feminist issues still comes with a responsibility—not just to point out that sometimes being a woman can suck, and identifying as a feminist can suck even harder—but to actually do something about it.

With the confluence of headlines like “Beyoncé’s Hip New Club: Feminism”, “Aziz Ansari Proudly States ‘I’m a Feminist'”, and “Chanel’s Empowering Feminist Protest Was The Best Thing About Fashion Week”, it’s clear that glitzy, celeb-backed feminism is having a moment. Meanwhile, the Internet backlash against those “misogynistic nerds” behind the fappening reiterates the fact that our generation, or at least our generation’s online representatives, are getting behind a “feminist=good, misogynists=evil” binary.

Still, I would argue that this isn’t indicative of mainstream support for feminist projects or beliefs; rather, it’s the effect of a mystical de-contextualization of the word feminism. Somewhere between the VMAs and HeForShe, the term “feminism” got a makeover—it’s been Beyoncé-ified, rendered empowering and beautiful, trendy and hyper-relevant. These days, everyone from JustJared to The Huffington Post to, well, The Daily Beast, is itching to discuss to feminism—i.e. to praise feminists and give misogynists a good old-fashioned virtual talking to.

And yet, for every article about Emma Watson’s kick ass feminism, we’re losing nuance and losing sight of the real-life goals of the feminist project, its diversity in thought and complexity in mission. Feminism is being invoked without being explored, highlighted in a million sound bites and headlines as a new universal cause but hardly connected to its worldwide applications or its every day drudgeries.

It’s easy to call yourself a feminist if you’re Beyoncé, or to praise Emma Watson’s bravery, or to thank Aziz Ansari for being such an outspoken ally. But it’s much harder to point to the tangible effects that these celebrities have had, given that despite feminism’s newly “sexy” status, gendered equality is still so far from our lived realities.