Lana Del Rey and the Fault in Our ‘Feminist’ Stars

Lana Del Rey is the latest young woman to be asked about her personal relationship to feminism and then chastised for an inability to do the absolute bare minimum: Google a definition.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

“For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept,” Lana Del Rey told Fader. “I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.” And with that, she became the latest young, female star to artlessly answer a question about her personal relationship to feminism. Her response was inarguably uninspiring, and simply strange coming from an artist whose work is clearly preoccupied with notions of female empowerment, sexuality, and identity.

Del Rey is one of the many female celebrities who have recently been questioned about their feminist associations, and whose answers have, more often than not, been found wanting. Shailene Woodley, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga are just a small sample of stars that have publically distanced themselves from the feminist label, inspiring a never-ending torrent of open letters, backlash, and, naturally, backlash to the backlash.

Most articles on “the feminist question” chastise female celebrities for their inability or unwillingness to do the absolute bare minimum: Google a working definition of feminism. When Taylor Swift responded to “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” with “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life,” she elicited an expected amount of Internet ire for her uninformed definition of feminism. Katy Perry also insisted that “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women,” and Lady Gaga declared, “I’m not a feminist—I, I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male culture, and beer, and bars and muscle cars…”

These celeb sound bites categorize feminism as a movement made up of angry man-haters. The fact that these buzz-worthy quotes were broadcast on such a wide-reaching platform (tabloids, E!, the entire Internet) fueled the anger. Instead of using their popularity to disseminate information and inspire change, these celebrities were proudly voicing their ignorance, and lending credence to pervasive and harmful stereotypes in the process. While Swift, Gaga, and Perry’s answers are inarguably problematic, they raise a larger question: Why are we asking these women to publically comment on feminism in the first place? And, in doing so, are we ultimately doing them, as well as the feminist movement, a disservice?

The fact of the matter is that misogyny and objectification are commonplace in the entertainment industry. The manufacturing and sexualization of young starlets is a particularly obvious example of this unavoidable reality. Women like Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey profit by replicating a cookie-cutter image of femininity: young, skinny, and sexually available. We can never know the degree to which these women actively choose to embody this ideal, or how “real” it may or may not be. But sex, particularly this agreed-upon permutation of it, sells; it converts pop stars into products, often consumed on the basis of their gendered sexual appeal, as opposed to their actual talent.

Of course, every celebrity, regardless of gender, is somewhat artificial—dressed and prepped to convey a certain image or embody a previously agreed upon persona. Yet the issue of how a celebrity is packaged and sold is inexplicably gendered, tied to classic tropes like “the blonde bombshell” or the demure Lolita, through which female sexuality is processed and presented to feed the male gaze. This systemic misogyny, which simultaneously exploits female celebrities and increases their profit margins, problematizes the notion of the young “feminist” starlet whose appeal is often predicated on her ability to embody a sexist notion of femininity.

Getting young celebrities to identify as feminists is widely seen as a coup, as it normalizes feminism for young fans and helps rid it of its unappealing connotations. But the act of a female celebrity calling herself a feminist doesn’t negate the misogyny of the entertainment industry, or eliminate the gendered role she plays within it. If you say you are a feminist but actively take part in a culture that commoditizes women, doesn’t your feminist label do more harm than good? We get upset when celebrities like Katy Perry, who famously shot whipped cream out of her bra, don’t know what a feminist is, and then say they aren’t one—but isn’t that ultimately less insulting than parroting feminist values, only to perpetuate objectifying stereotypes through over-sexualized content?

At least celebs who appear to be “placating” men like Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift do are reflecting an entertainment reality—that of the female celebrity who will speak and behave in a certain way in order to render herself appealing, or at least inoffensive, to a male audience. Whether or not you call that retrograde or merely practical is up to you, and leads to an even larger question: Is the very notion of sexualized female celebrity itself liberating or exploitative? Is the singer who says she “loves men” cowing to a culture of misogyny, or making a savvy business decision? By selling a particular self-image to the masses, is the female celebrity doing feminism a disservice, or merely following a tried and true path to making it in a man’s world?

Of course, one could argue that every woman (every human being?) has a duty to take a stand against gendered injustice, no matter the personal repercussions, and should be held accountable if she attempts to take some sort of easy way out. I am not of the mind, like Selena Gomez, that it is “not feminism” for a woman to critique another woman for actions that reflect poorly upon her gender, or for supporting a sexist or objectifying worldview. But it is important to note that many of the celebrities under fire for their refusal to associate themselves with feminism did not volunteer these opinions.

Woodley, for example, has been praised in the past for playing strong female roles; her presence on the big screen is undoubtedly a boon for feminists, and all those who would like to see more talented young actresses embodying strong women on the silver screen. In her own way, Woodley is inspiring young women to succeed and excel. Her actions are not inherently contrary to the feminist movement. Woodley’s belief that feminism can be boiled down to “raise women to power, take the men away from the power,” is not only misinformed, but ultimately harmful to fans who might be convinced by Woodley’s irrational argument. Woodley, however, never intended to involve herself in this conversation—her beliefs on gender equality were solicited and disseminated by websites and publications that have discovered the power of the feminist question as controversy-inviting click bait.

Many people, myself included, believe that everyone ought to identify as a feminist. But that doesn’t mean we actively pressure every woman to disclose their opinions publicly, and then decry and deplore them for their ignorance or apathy. Of course, the counter-argument is that women in the public eye have a greater duty to identify as feminists in order to inspire and educate young women. But in reality, the feminist question merely adds an additional layer of scrutiny, and is another source of potential controversy that female celebrities are being forced to navigate, while their male counterparts are allowed to evade questions of gender equality almost entirely.

As we all know, fame and talent aren’t directly proportional to intelligence or social consciousness. The idea of every woman in Hollywood identifying as a feminist is a novel and inspiring one; however, the fact of the matter is, while celebrity “feminist” sound bites result in news coverage and page views, they don’t necessarily add something interesting or nuanced to the conversation, or, for that matter, supply working definitions of feminism for young women.

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Katy Perry ultimately addressed feminist backlash by amending her previous assertion that she was not a feminist, finally admitting that she just might be, and that “I used to not really understand what that word meant, and now that I do, it just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.” Is this ignorant and sanitized speech truly a windfall for feminism? If anything, watching celebrities go back and forth on their feminist associations, just as they shed costumes and experiment with new genres and sounds, might implicitly reinforce the idea that feminism is a fad or an accessory, thus minimizing and degrading the movement in an attempt to strengthen and reinforce it.

Finally bowing to pressure doesn’t make Perry a feminist role model; but does she need to be? We have real feminist role models in the entertainment industry (like Lena Dunham and Ellen Page) and beyond, women who have dedicated their lives to female empowerment and gender equality. Giving these women a platform to speak their minds is a definitively good idea, one that will only further the feminist movement. Meanwhile, expecting every young starlet to take up the feminist cause in an industry that explicitly profits off of the notion of the docile and “man-loving” woman is extremely unrealistic, and ultimately punishes the women who have been packaged as products, as opposed to the industry that facilitates their exploitation.

If Shailene Woodley can continue to put realistic female characters on the big screen, and Lana Del Rey can keep deepening, or at least complicating, conventional notions of female sexuality, then that is already a modest victory. Let’s leave the advocacy of real issues, and the articulation of the feminist cause, to the academics and activists, in the hopes of creating a world in which every celebrity can proudly identify as a feminist, without fearing a “man-hating” label or a drop in record sales.