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.
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.