Emma Barnett asked last week whether feminism is a dirty word for popstars. During her interview with X Factor’s Ella Henderson, a question as to whether Henderson considers herself a feminist was rebuffed by the singer’s male PR, because it’s “not to do with Safer Internet Day”. Unfortunately, neither were several other questions posed to Henderson, suggesting that the issue was actually with feminism.
The idea that it should be offensive for a star to state that they believe that men and women should be equal – the crux of feminism – seems ridiculous. Whilst, and certainly if Henderson’s target audience is young, it may encapsulate ideas that they are not familiar with, that’s all the more reason to have them talk about it. What better way for Henderson to be a role model than to educate boys and girls that society is unfair, and instilling in them the hope that they can fix it? The problem is that I just cannot agree with Lucy Jones of NME, or Ruth Drake of Toast Press PR, that feminism is no longer a “dirty word”. Women are rejecting it left, right and centre; at the end of last year, it’s death was heralded from every corner. For every celebrity happy to identify themselves with the cause – Alice Glass, Paloma Faith – there are a multitude of those ready to reject it, or refuse to comment. Not just that, though; reject it or refuse to comment on it in by reflecting the harmful, false visions of feminism that lead women to do so in the first place. “Man-hating”, “bra-burning”, “lesbianism” (?!)… women do not wish to associate with something that seems for all intents and purposes to make them unattractive, when society dictates that being attractive is where all their worth stems from.
This is not what feminism is, though. As I said, at its very crux is gender equality; women are currently oppressed by society, so the focus is on improving their standing. Not at the expense of men. Not because of a dislike of men. But because society is a patriarchy, with men proffered as the dominant agent, making women practically second-class citizens. That is not to say that men do not suffer, and it is not to undermine their experiences. However, it is a fact, evidenced in the pay gap, rape culture, and much more beside. There are various issues and theories within feminism, with a range of different opinions, but at the heart of it is always equality. Ultimately, that is all feminism is. Certainly, it does have an unpopular image, but as a movement aiming to defeat patriarchy in a patriarchal society, what surprise is that? Feminism does not need a rebrand; it needs people to understand what it actually is. If people believe that men and women should be equal, they should be very open in saying so.
But then, is it really a surprise that celebrities are shying away? When Beyoncé revealed her feminism – albeit without using the word, because, as she has said before, she believes that it needs a “catchy” new name – in an interview with GQ magazine last month, she was slated for it. On the one hand, she rightly states that:
“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do … I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It give them the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.
But on the other, she is featured on the cover in just knickers and a t-shirt cropped so much that her breasts are visible. Which does not, according to Hadley Freeman, “help feminism“. Unfortunately for Hadley, telling Beyoncé that she isn’t helping feminism doesn’t help feminism, either. Her overriding point, that it would have been a massive boost to feminism had Beyoncé said what she did whilst on the cover in a suit, is not incorrect; however, it is unfair. The fact that it seems that the only women who are featured in GQ are in their pants or less is bullshit, and damaging to women, but it is also a symptom of society, where the message is that success is dependent on sexiness, and that sexiness is all that matters. Thus, for Beyoncé to be successful, she must operate within this framework. If she wants to be on the covers of magazines, and she does, then she must undress. This is not her fault. There is no doubt in my mind that she is a feminist; why else would she want to rebrand it? The fact is, though, that the chances of us hearing her views on inequality if she was not willing to operate within the patriarchy are slim.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with sexuality, Beyoncé is undoubtedly incredibly attractive, and actually, it seems perfectly plausible that she would enjoy being so sexualised. However, it is also most definitely an issue that the only way for women to get on magazine covers, get people to buy their music, and just generally get by is to spend a lot of time in their underwear. But whose fault is it? To criticise Beyoncé for having to take off her clothes, whether she agrees with doing so or not, to achieve her full potential, seems ridiculous. In fact, it seems to be about the antithesis of feminism. Ultimately, anybody can want gender equality, everybody should, and they can do it whilst wearing what they want and doing what they want. Telling them they can’t helps no one.
If we want popstars to identify as feminists, we need to understand exactly what that entails. It means speaking up against the construction that places all of women’s worth on their appearance, whilst acting within that construction. That’s no small feat.