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“Fame-inism” for the rest of us

So. “Beyonce feminism.” Roxane Gay is against it. (Annie Lennox*, too.) [Update: See in comments why this statement isn’t entirely accurate.]

Let’s start at the very end — a very good place to start.

Feminism should not be something that needs a seductive marketing campaign. The idea of women moving through the world as freely as men should sell itself.

Agreed! I totally agree with her on that point. So let’s sit back for a mo and watch that happen.

Any minute now.

Nothing yet? We’ll give it a few minutes. In the meantime, we’ll discuss how that idea has basically never sold itself. It’s always been promoted by people. Feminism has always taken someone saying something, usually fairly loudly — hey, did you know that there’s a gender wage gap, and street harassment isn’t a compliment, and a lot of colleges look the other way when students are raped — that other people haven’t thought about in that way. That’s what makes feminism a movement — a movement with a number of waves, representing (if we’re being honest) a number of different marketing approaches — rather than just the way things have always been. Just the way things have always been generally does sell itself pretty effectively.

Gay’s despair that feminism is being marketed like a brand, rather than selling itself, wraps up an essay in which she also despairs that celebrities like Beyonce and Emma Watson have become, for some, a public face for the movement. Rather than standing and advancing on its own merits, in mainstream circles a kind of feminism is advancing via young, conventionally attractive, famous women simply standing up and identifying as feminists. It’s their celebrity, and not generally their substance, that presents feminism as something attractive.

No, that’s not ideal. But it’s not nothing.

Up until a good way through college, I was not a feminist, but. I believe just about everything feminism supports, but I’m not a feminist, because… why? Why the unwillingness to identify as a feminist, when I supported basically everything that feminists stand for? Because feminists are man-hating, hairy-legged ball-busters, and I wasn’t any of those things. I was something different — someone who supported equal pay and reproductive rights and opposed rape culture but also shaved my legs and wore lipstick and liked guys. Not a feminist, certainly. They didn’t need my help with whatever feminist things they were off doing.

Yes, I was shallow. I was ignorant. At that point, no one in my immediate circle had made any connection for me between the things I believed and the explicit concept of feminism. And because of my ignorance, I wasn’t inclined to look deeper and find that connection myself. I was confident that I’m not a feminist, but was enough to get the job done. And in Roxane Gay’s world, I might still be there, waiting for someone I better identified with to disabuse me of my preconceptions. Waiting for an Emma Watson to make me say, “Hold on, a feminist who’s not a man-hating, hairy-legged ball-buster? That doesn’t sound right at all. Let me learn more.”

This is the real problem feminism faces. Too many people are willfully ignorant about what the word means and what the movement aims to achieve. But when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism, all of a sudden, that broad ignorance disappears or is set aside because, at last, we have a more tolerable voice proclaiming the very message feminism has been trying to impart for so damn long.

Well… yeah.

I mean… well, yeah.

Kick it back to the late 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic was growing and people with HIV and AIDS were ostracized. A prominent figure emerged who contributed greatly to the fight against that ostracism, and she was an actual effing princess.

Thousands of medical professionals and volunteers have given so much for AIDS care and advocacy, and we’ll never know their names, but when Princess Diana traveled to Africa and touched and held AIDS patients, that started to eat away at the stigma that was so isolating. It would have been great if it was the people who worked in the trenches every day were the heroic faces of the cause, and greater still if the ostracism had never occurred at all because everyone simply accepted the humanity of AIDS patients. But neither of those things happened. Instead, the world got a conventionally pretty, soft-spoken, actual effing princess. And if what it took was people saying, “Well, if a princess can hug an AIDS patient, I guess I can, too,” it was better than things staying the way they were. And if people said, “If a princess is hugging an AIDS patient, maybe there are gaps in my knowledge and I need to know more,” that was better than a lot. The advances that have been made since certainly aren’t all because Princess Diana hugged a kid with AIDS, but without an actual effing princess directing her ever-present media attention to the issue, there’s no telling how long it would have taken to get here on its own.

And no, Beyonce and “Feminist” in lights isn’t going to have nearly the lasting impact of Princess Diana hugging an ostracized woman who might have gone years without the human touch. Beyonce, as powerful and secure in her position as she is, isn’t taking a lot of personal risk with “Feminist” in lights. But it’s because she’s secure enough to make that step that others might be inspired to overcome their own reservations. What Annie Lennox* dismisses (nay, criticizes vehemently) as feminism lite, tokenism, self-promotion, is also a woman’s way of embodying feminism to a crowd of screaming girls who admire and want to emulate her — possibly right down to her 20-foot-tall sense of pride in her feminist identity.

Maybe I’m just jaded from working in advertising for too long, but… that’s how messaging works. Of course the medicine needs a spoonful of sugar. Of course the car gets a snazzy commercial — merely reciting a list of its features, with no framing or strategy, isn’t going to get it into the mind of the consumer. If reciting a list of its features were enough, car companies wouldn’t be dropping huge amounts of money on snazzy commercials. And unfortunately, if simply describing the tremendous need for feminism and the actions we need to take were enough, we wouldn’t see people reacting to Emma Watson’s speech as if her Bold Feminist Assertions — and her willingness to openly identify as a feminist — are revolutionary. Thinking that good marketing can convey the message of feminism to people who’ve never really listened to it before isn’t the “magical thinking” that Gay decries — that’s what marketing does. It’s what marketing is designed to do.

[I]t irks me that we more easily embrace feminism and feminist messages when delivered in the right package — one that generally includes youth, a particular kind of beauty, fame and/or self-deprecating humour. It frustrates me that the very idea of women enjoying the same inalienable rights as men is so unappealing that we require — even demand — that the person asking for these rights must embody the standards we’re supposedly trying to challenge. That we require brand ambassadors and celebrity endorsements to make the world a more equitable place is infuriating.

I am so there. I’ve complained about something like it myself — the men who only start to appreciate the basic humanity of women when they become fathers. And it still irks. But as much as it irks, at least they’re starting to appreciate it. It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. And the fact is, the men who only see the light because of the women in their lives probably didn’t originally find the concept of equal rights unappealing; they probably just didn’t think about them at all. The addition of a girlchild into their life was what it took to bring those rights to top of mind and realize that they aren’t actually equal for women like said girlchild. It is frustrating that it happened that way, but at least it happened.

And while it would be great if heretofore non-feminists were inspired to explore feminist theory and pick up some bell hooks or Betty Friedan without a familiar, popular figure promoting it, it’s just not going to happen. That’s closer to “magical thinking” than anything else. People almost always need some kind of impetus to change, and if that’s not going to be total enlightenment and/or a life-shattering personal experience, it might as well be a celebrity endorser.

So if Beyonce is a gateway drug that entices otherwise-unreceptive women in to learn more about feminism? God bless her, I say. She is not, herself, feminism, any more than a car ad is a car. While opinions on the actual tenets of feminism vary, it’s pretty safe to say that it goes beyond 20-foot-tall lighted letters at a concert. Those lights aren’t going to oppose fetal personhood laws, stop street harassment, or help a domestic worker feed her family. But if a person drawn to those 20-foot-tall lights then sees everything that stands beyond them and continues to move forward? That’s a good thing. And instead of complaining about the lights, we, as the people who are already invested, need to be concentrating on the women who are drawn to them. We need to be saying, “Hi! Nice lights, right? If you’d like to come on in, we have fresh-baked cookies and a little bit of literature to share with you.”

The people who are intrigued by Emma Watson’s UN speech today are tomorrow’s domestic violence advocates, rape counselors, reproductive rights activists, human rights lawyers. They’re also tomorrow’s feminist recording artists and filmmakers. Many of them are also tomorrow’s mothers (and fathers) of the day after tomorrow’s little tiny feminists. If we reject the media they consume that could lead them to feminism because it isn’t feminist enough, we also, in a way, reject them. It sends the message that only once someone has stumbled into and found a love for heavy feminist theory do they really have a place here. Jennifer Lawrence isn’t an acceptable bridge to feminism, so talk to me after you’ve moved past Jennifer Lawrence. But that’s not going to happen if we just dismiss them and the celebrity-championed social trend they rode in on because their early-stage feminism didn’t spring fully formed from a place of perfect ideological enlightenment.

So Roxane Gay doesn’t care about making feminism accessible to anyone. That’s her call. Luckily for her, there’s a movie witch standing in front of the UN General Assembly and a performer, businesswoman, wife, and mother standing in front of a TV audience 13.7 million strong who are. Try not to reject the new baby feminists when they come into the fold just because they have stars in their eyes.

23 thoughts on “Fame-inism” for the rest of us

  1. I have to say, I think it’s fucking fabulous that a world-famous superstar wants to stand in front of twenty-foot tall lights that proclaim her a feminist. Do you know how many celebrities did that twenty years ago? Zero. When I started teaching college students twelve years ago, my first class spent forty-five minutes telling me how in their minds, feminists were every single unappealing stereotype imaginable. If now kids start thinking of feminists as wildly successful and desirable, that’s fantastic.

    Beyonce has used her celebrity to advance feminism, employing female musicians and bringing even greater attention to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If feminism becomes the cool new cause to care about, I think that’s fucking terrific. We should be so fucking lucky.

    1. I have to say, I think it’s fucking fabulous that a world-famous superstar wants to stand in front of twenty-foot tall lights that proclaim her a feminist.


  2. “we require — even demand — that the person asking for these rights must embody the standards we’re supposedly trying to challenge.”

    Beyonce nor Emma Watson do not embody the standards we are trying to challenge. Beyonce is a sexually liberated women her songs cover a wide variety of topics. Her respectability is very different than a traditional submissive woman. Emma Watson played a witch. The Harry Potter series openly challenged corruption and encouraged adolescents to challenge even well-meaning authority figures. These are not traditional ideas.

    Roxanne Grey doesn’t seem to have any practical knowledge of Beyonce or Emma Watson. That’s fair, she isn’t into pop culture. However, she is dismissing what she doesn’t understand. Stories and music have always been one of the best ways to convey information. There is a reason extreme fundamentalist cultures regulate media. I would say that Beyonce and Emma Watson do more for feminism than Roxanne Grey. Art lives forever.

  3. “This is the real problem feminism faces. Too many people are willfully ignorant about what the word means and what the movement aims to achieve. But when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism, all of a sudden, that broad ignorance disappears or is set aside because, at last, we have a more tolerable voice proclaiming the very message feminism has been trying to impart for so damn long.”

    And yet when a pretty white young woman has something to say about feminism, she is listened to even when she speaks over feminist WOC and womanists. I bet Gay wouldn’t say shit about the white feminist women who have done the EXACT SAME THINGS as so many black WOC have.

    I think the main problem with the perspective shared by Lennox, Gay and others is that it assumes that white mainstream liberal feminism doesn’t go out of its way to appeal to men. As if somehow the kind of feminism espoused by black WOC is uniquely patriarchal. And that assumption is pure misogynoir. White feminists have the fucking nerve to use WOC theory like intersectionality and then insult the same women of color without whom those white analyses would be even less substantial. Hypocrites.

    1. Most of Gray’s examples of celebrity feminists are white, so she isn’t solely saying that this is a WOC issue. Also, if you read the actual interview in which Lennox made that comment, she was asked specifically about Beyonce, which is why she talked about Beyonce and then expanded it, so I don’t think she was solely talking about Beyonce and I think she would agree with you that this is a problem with white celebrity feminists as well.

  4. Hey there. In the article you reference I talk about how much I love Beyoncé and her feminism. My adoration of Beyoncé is, in fact, something I have discussed openly across multiple platforms and publications. In the essay you are discussing, I say that celebrity feminism cannot be the ONLY feminism we look to. I discuss it as a gateway, not the be all to end all of feminism. I’m all for this kind of discussion and debate but it does little good to actively misrepresent my words and ideas that are pretty widely out there.

    1. celebrity feminism cannot be the ONLY feminism we look to.

      I totally agree, and I apologize for not taking the time to read what you were saying.

    2. I apologize for not reading more closely and mischaracterizing some of your ideas. I agree with (now, and agreed with before) a lot of what you said. I still have easier feelings about “feminist marketing” — as I said in the post, part of that is probably a result of my chosen career field. To me, finding the right frame/phrasing/tone/”spokesperson” is just another step in packaging the message for delivery. The message is hard to separate from the medium in situations like this, and so I can’t bring myself to get upset about as fantastic a medium as Beyonce or Emma Watson.

      I would love to continue the discussion of “accessibility,” since I’m not sure how you’d hope to expand the impact of feminism without making it in at least some way accessible to people who don’t currently embrace it.

      I also share in your adoration of Beyonce.

      I also hugely apologize for using your name in the same sentence as Annie Lennox’s.

    3. I originally did click through and read your guardian article. You did mention enjoying Beyonce and I respect your love. I still disagree with the idea that Beyonce embodies the ideas feminism challenges. I don’t understand how you can love Beyonce’s work and think that.

      I also don’t think her message is a gateway. I think her message can stand on its own as a example of feminism.

  5. I’m gonna talk here about an abstract construct of The Feminist. She will be referred to as she and her. This is not meant to be indicative of proposed requirements for feminist identification or representative of any sort of feminist ideal. It is a theoretical consideration of U.S. centric social dynamics to consider how feminist identification turns into local social backlash and how that might be missing from this fame-inist discourse (Major thanks to Gay for coining this term! i love it. *two thumbs up*).

    Criticisms, angry responses, precise teardowns and nit-picking are not only welcome, but a little hoped for. I am fallible, I know little, and I’m not here for cookies. I can make my own cookies.


    I wonder practically how The Feminist earns a bad reputation in her social circle. Does the feminist start earning the ire of her friends and colleagues by espousing feminist views or by identifying as feminist?

    I am skeptical that an identification as feminist is enough to earn serious social consequences. I don’t think the identity will be widely respected, and I don’t think it will be widely supported, and I don’t think it will be widely welcomed, but will it be widely censured?

    I thought the ire given to the feminist came from her feminist agitation and her feminist pushback against her local social flows: turning dinner with her friends into a tense affair because someone used a gendered slur; losing employment opportunities because of a refusal to present in a sufficiently feminine manner; being known as a troublemaker at work for reporting offhand comments to HR or speaking about things like pay inequality and preferential promotion.

    People can be locally accepting of identificatory quirks as long as they don’t actually upset the sexism and misogyny that underpins their social comfort and feelings of familiarity. If the feminist’s feminist identity can be practically ignored, then it is not a threat, and does not require violence to quell it.

    I’m blabbering. Make a point already, right?!

    These celebrities are not bringing their fans to feminism. They’re not alienating misogynist fans. They are bringing feminism to their fans. They work hard to make it palatable to the 18-35 year old American. They look to see what parts of feminism will have mass appeal and come up with the least challenging parts.

    Feminism as an abstract equality of all people is nonthreatening. Feminism as the lighted stage backdrop to a gorgeous talented feminine woman performer is nonthreatening. Feminism as something that is nonthreatening to mainstream American ideals, but just misunderstood humanism, is nonthreatening.

    If we live in a patriarchy, and our society is structured to victimize those who try to dismantle male supremacy, how can these celebrities be feminists without social consequences? How have they discovered a feminism that has such mass appeal with such limited repercussions?

    Do we now live in a society that is safe for feminist activity? Or is the feminism these celebrities espouse a feminism in name only, fitting in perfectly with the modern structures of patriarchy because that is how they managed to become famous in the first place?

    Celebrities are not granted a spotlight because their activities dismantle current systems of power. True threats to patriarchy are eliminated swiftly, scarily, and often quietly.

    If you read this, thanks! I really appreciate that.

  6. I know you guys are talking about pretty girls promoting feminism, but I wanna take about a different kind of selling which may relate:

    Beyonce can “sell” the feminist thing all she wants–everyone needs a feminist anthem from time to time. Emma Watson can speak out all she wants. Yay!

    The thing that worries me the most is that while we’re jamming to Girls Run the World, Beyonce is promoting a retailer who get its products from a country where 1,000 women die in a factory collapse. I mean, I think that’s the inherent problem with “selling” feminism–you’re selling the fun piece, not the hard, difficult policy.

    1. ^^this. This right here.

      As a US vet, I go through a similar conundrum every time I see one of those yellow ribbon appliques on a car. I so much want to grab the driver by the collar and shake them while telling them “if you really supported our troops you would quit electing the fools that send my brothers- and sisters-in-arms on fools errands, get them home to their families NOW”.

      So what Athenia says here just strikes a chord with me, it’s a familiar perspective. It’s also just like how we say we want a living wage but we keep buying junk from companies that basically engage in modern day slavery to make their goods.

      So I am down with this idea, even if I admittedly don’t totally have a clue how I could go forward with actually supporting it. Definitely giving me something to think about, and to research.

  7. In the real world where we want real change, public relations professionals, including lobbyists, make big bucks for advocating for products and ideas. They, in turn, hire entertainers for big bucks, to glamorize said ideas and products.

    Beyonce and Watson just did all of this for free, with no middlemen or lobbyists. This calls for heaps of gratitude, regardless of ideological factions.

  8. Wasn’t everyone just applauding for what Annie Lennox said about Miley Cyrus? Well, my opinion is squarely on the side of the subject of this article and not the writer of this article.

  9. I agree, to an extent.

    However, the flipside of conventionally attractive, feminine celebrities being used to dispel stereotypes about feminine by sending the message that “Hey, we’re not all [stereotypically negative description]” is that it can be alienating for women who do fit the stereotypically negative description in question.

    I noticed that Caperton was careful to use the phrase “man-hating, hairy-legged ball-busters”, but the variant I’ve heard time and time again is “I’m not a man-hating, hairy-legged dyke“, to the point where I start to feel like too many of those other words that are thrown around are dog-whistles for lesbians. And it’s incredibly alienating to see other feminists wanting to distance feminism from lesbians, like the anti-feminists are right to act like we’re a negative thing rather than people worth defending.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that, I agree that PR is important. I agree that we need to have different feminists taking different angles, and we need to have some feminists who are working to help other women identify with feminism. I just wish that we could do that without throwing marginalised groups of women–women of colour, LGBTQ women, women who aren’t stereotypically feminine, women who have reason to be angry–under the bus. Because at that point, what sort of feminism are we bringing people into?

    1. I agree with this, and have heard similar sentiments expressed by students who felt alienated by instructors doing the whole “We’re not hairy-legged man-hating lesbians” shpiel.

  10. First of all, I don’t think I agree with your main idea that feminism needs to be sold. This is just based off of my own perspectives, but I feel that feminism is going through a wave of popularity–most of the college age women I know identify as feminists (and did so long before Beyonce declared herself a feminist), so I think that the idea of feminism actually is pretty successful at selling itself. The way things have always been don’t work for most women. One of the things that I worry about focusing too much on Beyonce or Emma Watson as feminist icons is that we ignore the work of feminist theorists and activists who aren’t famous. I also don’t know how many women are going to adopt the feminist label just because Beyonce or Emma Watson’s feminism–using them as feminist icons might actually push women away from feminism if they feel like feminism is only for conventionally atractive, straight, feminine women who have no reason to be angry and they don’t fit that.

    I don’t get the outrage over Annie Lennox’s comment, all she said was that Beyonce’s feminism isn’t perfect (and someo and there are other feminists doing more heavy duty feminist activism. If you look at the comments of any article written about those comments a lot of women of all races agree with that sentiment.

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