Can Celebrities Be Real Feminists?

Martha Plimpton, an actress and longtime outspoken activist, wonders why Roxane Gay—a writer she deeply admires—is so critical of what she calls "the latest celebrity feminists."

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Roxane Gay is a fantastic writer, an even better thinker, and her writing has a natural kind of insight that brightens the world. Her book Bad Feminist is one of my favorites of the past year. I have an enormous amount of respect for her work and I look forward to everything she writes.  

But when I read her essay in The Guardian on celebrity feminists, I found it uncharacteristically short-sighted and dismissive. 

Celebrity advocacy or activism is a tricky thing. Most of the time, and rightly so, your average loud-mouthed celebrity gets some flak for being outspoken. After all, they are only human and often make mistakes. I know about this from personal experience. But there’s a lot of “stick to your day job” sentiment thrown at your average celebrity who dares to assume that their right to be a vocal citizen is as valid as anyone’s. In the case of women, however, it’s pretty much a given that if you speak out you’re going to get slammed. Either by people who already disagree with you on principle or those who, ostensibly, don’t. Often it’s the latter, those you feel the greatest allegiance with, who are able to draw the most blood. 

We often make celebrities toe a fragile line. We don’t like it when they aren’t courageous, yet we shit on them when they finally speak up. Especially in the case of women. Gay unfortunately does this with her essay, and it reads bizarrely like sour grapes, which I am quite positive she does not intend. 

“There is nothing wrong with celebrities (or men) claiming feminism and talking about feminism” writes Gay. “I support anything that broadens the message of gender equality and tempers the stigma of the feminist label. We run into trouble, though, when we celebrate celebrity feminism while avoiding the actual work of feminism. So long as we continue to stare into the glittery light of the latest celebrity feminist, we avoid looking at the very real inequities that women throughout the world continue to face. We avoid having the difficult conversations about the pay gap and the all-too-often sexist music we listen to and the movies we watch that tell women’s stories horribly (if at all) and the limited reproductive freedom women are allowed to exercise and the pervasive sexual harassment and violence too many women face. We avoid having the conversations about the hard work changing this culture will require.”

The “latest celebrity feminist”? I have to ask, is that a shout out to some media-created PR label? Okay. Fair enough. It’s odd, though, that Gay doesn’t acknowledge how hard it is to get a famous female to come out as feminist in the first place, and what an act of personal courage it can be for so many. It’s not like there are too many of them. Anyway, the backlash is immense, as she must know. Women Gay might dismiss as young and beautiful and wealthy and presenting an acceptable version of feminism don’t feel quite so cozy as she may believe they do. So we might try to support them, rather than dismiss them as not being part of “the hard work.” 

Because speaking up at all is, to me, “the hard work.” How can we possibly avoid discussing the real inequities when we literally are addressing them? The subject demands, insists upon, the details. It doesn’t exist without them. It wasn’t a vague sense of fashionableness that made Jennifer Lawrence call her photo hacking a sex crime when she was violated in such a public way. It was the details. The details as she personally experienced them. And she’s right. Emma Watson in fact discussed the details in detail in her address to the UN. One needn’t be a fan of their work, or of celebrity culture in general, to acknowledge these are smart women who’ve worked incredibly hard to get where they are and have a real perspective on their place in the world. They deserve some degree of respect. Especially from feminists. (As for the men, Aziz Ansari may have done more to advance the cause of feminism among comedy nerd boys—among whom sexism is, frankly, rampant—than a million academic essays on the subject ever could. I’m good with that.)

Gay says she doesn’t “truck in magical thinking,” but “the idea of women moving through the world as freely as men should sell itself.” As an astute friend pointed out, that seems pretty magical thinking-y. The more young women in the public sphere—who have the ears of other young women—speak proudly of a feminist conception of themselves, that world of moving freely becomes more possible. It’s a sign of cultural momentum, which may, in fact, be a positive thing that feminists and their allies can capitalize on rather than demean. 

Frustrating as it may be for some, people in the public eye who vocally advocate for change make a greater contribution to the momentum of that change than we like to admit. Artists and actors and musicians and writers and poets are often catalysts—even crystallizers—of the ideas behind movements for social justice. Likewise, their joining the movement out loud can indicate that the hard work of activists is actually having an impact. The symbiotic relationship between activism and the attention celebrity can bring to it is valuable.

When I think of the incredibly marvelous gay and lesbian and transgender celebrities making use of their voices, I thankfully don’t see the same kind of dismissal. That they are out there, visibly proud, sharing their experiences, normalizing the concept of LGBTQ equality, is celebrated. Rightly. The positivity with which we embrace these celebrities and their marriages and families stands in stark contrast with how we respond to women who speak out as feminists, often minimized because they’re pretty, rich, or young. And they get it from all sides. It’s no wonder more women don’t come out as feminist, or at least try to learn more about it. After all, if this is the reception they’ll get …

There is one ultimate responsibility of anyone in the public eye who has that megaphone, and that is to use it with the best interests of human beings in mind. Regardless of which megaphone one picks up, be it only to make art or entertain or satirize, or to try and be an advocate for others in a more literal, hands-on way. To me, that is the point of it all. It is the dividend of being a person with attention focused on you, rightly or wrongly, by a public that places a certain importance on what showbiz people have to say. For good or ill, that’s what we do in our culture. I know Roxane Gay is not ad hoc criticizing these women, per se, but she is dismissing the value of their contribution to increasing awareness. And that surprises me. Because if what Jennifer Lawrence said in Vanity Fair this month has any effect at all, it is to help chip away at the sexual shame that young women feel when they are victimized, and that is a good thing. It is the best thing. If what Emma Watson says at the UN gets one 12-year-old girl to think about herself in new terms, or one teenaged boy to look at his female friends in a new light, that is a good thing. If Taylor Swift gets one young woman to enroll in a women’s studies course in her freshman year, or read a book she might have avoided before, it’s a good thing. This is a huge part of “the hard work” of feminism: spreading the word and making common, on an internal level, the idea that women are human beings. To devalue this effect is to say that the only feminism that really counts, the only way feminism really works, is as the intellectual property of academics and hard-core activists. It’s not. It belongs to all of us. LGBTQ rights would have moved at a considerably slower pace in this country if it weren’t for visible people coming out, proclaiming their right to enjoy who they are, and demanding that others see them as human. Women should enjoy that same welcome from their own ranks. The introduction is the first step. The introduction is not nothing. It’s everything. 


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