Celebrity Feminism: More Than a Gateway
[Beyoncé] is one woman—an amazing woman to be sure—but she is a gateway to feminism, not the movement itself.
—Roxane Gay, “Emma Watson? Jennifer Lawrence? These Aren’t the Feminists You’re Looking For”
In 2014, pop star Beyoncé stood dramatically before a brightly lit “FEMINIST” sign on the stage of MTV’s Video Music Awards. Emma Watson espoused the virtues of feminism for both women and men at the United Nations, and Jennifer Lawrence argued for equal pay in Hollywood. Such high-profile entertainers engaging these gender issues have garnered the label “celebrity feminists.” Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, however, had some concerns. Gay expressed a prevailing sentiment among feminists who worried that “celebrity feminism” would serve as a distraction or as a false narrative of feminism. At the same time, Gay remains rather generous in her own critique, imagining that women like Beyoncé are merely the “gateway,” a beginning stage to a public embrace of feminism. Gay’s response is not unlike that of music artist Annie Lennox, who reduced Beyoncé’s brand to “feminist lite” compared to the feminism Lennox herself embraced during her own coming-of-age as a pop star pushing the gendered boundaries around her androgynous presentation, which jars against Beyoncé’s embrace of hyperfemininity, a presentation that is allegedly antithetical to feminism.
What is interesting to unpack in these debates is the reduction of celebrity feminism itself, which suggests the existence of a more substantive or authentic feminism that is less appealing to the masses than what our celebrities have to offer. This is, indeed, the premise behind Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once, in which she argues, “Individual celebrities are great at putting an appealing face on social issues. But the celebrity machine is one that runs on neither complexity nor nuance, but cold, hard cash. How much can celebrity feminists do if their prominent voices emanate from within systems—the film, TV, and music industries, for starters—in which gender inequality is a generally unquestioned m.o.?” (132–33). While Zeisler’s statement is true up to a point—given celebrity women’s own perpetuation of and participation in systems of oppression—it assumes that feminists from other walks of life are less implicated in exacerbating inequalities, whether they operate in the academy, in politics, or in community organizing. Celebrities may be perched at the zenith of raced, gendered, and economic hierarchies, but they are not unique in perpetuating systemic inequalities even if they are powerfully positioned to speak to, for, and with those who have fewer outlets for public discourse.
Therein lies the problem for Zeisler, who seeks to challenge the privileging of celebrity feminism over other kinds of feminisms, since celebrities’ hypervisibility and amplified voices afford them cultural capital and validation. This is especially salient in our media-saturated and consumer-driven world, which values buzzwords over nuance, catchy hits over lengthy passages, and 140 characters on Twitter over jargon-filled treatises closed off and inaccessible in academic outlets. Granted, the rise of the Internet and social media has democratized multiple voices, which enabled the development of celebrity feminism as a dialogic interaction with everyday feminism, an argument that I will revisit below. However, Zeisler’s concern with the simplification of political messages for broader mass appeal illuminates the widely held suspicions of feminists who question the effectiveness of any feminist discourse that exists within commercial spaces.
Such suspicions are understandable but not necessary. Despite accusations of exemplifying “feminism lite” or “gateway feminism,” certain celebrities are articulating and, dare I say, theorizing critical issues pertaining to gender and its intersections with race and class for a mass audience. Those of us in the academy have been conditioned to accept complicated academic prose as the only legitimate discourse. At the same time, though, there is massive consciousness-raising underway concerning women’s potential empowerment and the gender inequities that still inhibit their rise to collective power. These messages exist in our commercial and alternative music, films, and art and have the potential to complement, not replace, the feminist manifestos, academic monographs, policy briefs, and grassroots missions that have come to represent feminist theorizing and practice. More importantly, celebrity feminist discourses occur in sustained dialogue with other feminist discourses, which further complicates the meanings of and possibilities for a celebrity feminism that might coexist alongside grassroots feminism, academic feminism, and other spheres of influence.
Celebrity feminism beyond symbolism
Feminist suspicions of any popular versions of womanhood have a long-standing place in the movement. We need only reference the infamous 1968 protest against the Miss America beauty pageant—an event recognized as one of the first major demonstrations during the US women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In the midst of a volatile year of protests and collective unrest in the wake of antiracist, antiwar, and anti-imperialist movements, women protesters called attention to expectations that women should serve as subservient symbols of a femininity that, according to the “No More Miss America!” manifesto, supports white supremacist, capitalist, and militarized heteropatriarchy (for example, the Miss America winner was expected to tour Vietnam and showcase her beauty before US soldiers). In discarding symbols of femininity—and subsequently earning the antifeminist moniker “bra burners” (although they merely trashed undergarments rather than burning them)—feminists from this era pitted themselves against a popular brand of femininity.
The Miss America protests rightly called attention to the systemic gendered oppression that the pageant symbolized rather than attacking any individual participants. However, the binary between feminism and public beauty symbols continues to frame debates about the place of beauty, femininity, and heterosexual appeal in a political movement that recognizes how these ideals have been utilized to contain and diminish women’s collective power. From radical feminists decrying pornography to Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, feminist discourse has situated beauty, femininity, and sexuality at the center of theory and theorizing. Other discourses incorporating intersectional analyses further complicated these issues; feminists of color reclaimed beauty and femininity in order to refute a history of racial exclusion of women of color from the category of womanhood, as well as to politicize and racialize aesthetics. Recall that some black women’s response to the mostly white feminist protest of Miss America in 1968 was to launch a Miss Black America pageant.
Other counternarratives abound with regard to sexual politics, with feminists arguing for women’s sexual agency and sex-positive affirmations. Such debates tend to dichotomize the issue further, creating theoretical contests between women as victims versus women as agents. Celebrity feminism, however, invites us to view public women beyond arguments about victimization and agency and, most importantly, beyond the symbols and icons that feminists themselves have fetishized for their own purposes. Feminists may not reduce celebrity women to sex objects, like their heterosexual male counterparts, or to divas, like their gay male counterparts; however, they have recast sex symbols like Josephine Baker and Marilyn Monroe as sex rebels, or refashioned blues singers like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday into queer foremothers. Music historians like Jacqueline Warwick have positioned the musical girl groups of the early sixties, from the Ronettes to the Supremes (who were controlled and exploited by executives such as Phil Spector and Berry Gordy) as exemplars of sisterhood and feminist solidarity. Indeed, many a feminist has reclaimed women music artists, from Aretha Franklin’s defining feminist anthem to Madonna’s rebellious sexuality to the riot grrrl punk movement and hip-hop feminism during the latter part of the twentieth century. Even the tragic musicians who died young—Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston—serve as victims of systemic oppression in the feminist imagination.
Academic and public intellectuals have contributed to these politics of reclamation. The postfeminist critic Camille Paglia comes to mind with her embellished remarks describing Madonna as a sex-positive “real feminist,” a supposition of subversive sexuality also expressed by bell hooks, who nonetheless criticized the pop star for her cultural appropriation of black gay subculture. Such debates reiterate the function of celebrities as critical sites for theoretical affirmation and contestation. We have certainly witnessed such assertions and even self-projections when hooks, for example, extols the virtues of being a “bad girl” like the raunchy celebrity rapper Lil’ Kim (née Kimberly Jones)—a common ground she sought to establish when interviewing the rapper—while Lil’ Kim herself expressed resistance to being reduced to this image, taking great pains to establish that her sexual persona came from a “past” self that the current self could put behind her.
That Lil’ Kim’s hesitancy jarred against hooks’s assumptions about the rapper’s assertive and transgressive sexuality demonstrates the ways in which feminist critics are often more invested in celebrities’ public personas than in their actual personhood. The irony, of course, is that hooks—in celebrating Lil’ Kim’s subversive expressions of black female sexuality—would chastise Beyoncé decades later for a similar presentation, albeit one wrapped up in more respectable terms, given Beyoncé’s adherence to traditional norms of heterosexual marriage and motherhood. Here, hooks champions the brown-skinned sex symbol over the light-skinned one, a form of resistance to the colorism that black women have experienced.
Nonetheless, hooks’s castigation of Beyoncé as a “terrorist” and a “slave” ignited further debates, this time among other black feminists, whose opinions varied, with Melissa Harris-Perry proclaiming Beyoncé a feminist icon and organizing a panel of black feminists to challenge hooks’s position on the pop star while Angela Davis occupied middle ground by praising Beyoncé for highlighting the work of writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while questioning the pop star’s feminist expressions. Such differences of opinion suggest that feminist theorizing of celebrity women—and celebrity feminism by extension—is predicated on individual assessments of these women as objects of study. Critics can project their own desires onto the persona, which determine whether that figure is seen as in control of her own public identity and political arguments or as woefully exploited by market demands. These intellectual discourses remind us that much of celebrity feminism is still subject to academic validation or dismissal.
Whose feminism is this?
Ultimately, celebrity feminism is a collective conversation. That reality TV personality and former exotic dancer Amber Rose could mobilize a SlutWalk in Los Angeles in 2015 to contest slut-shaming on social media, and Beyoncé can promote Black Lives Matter in 2016—through her “Formation” music video, her Super Bowl half-time show, and her world tour—demonstrates the synergistic and dialogic elements of celebrity feminism. On the one hand, these public figures are championed for publicizing racial and gender justice issues. On the other hand, feminists who maintain their suspicions about celebrity women’s ability to sufficiently control their image and career options cannot help but question their bottom line. However, if we paid serious attention to this economic issue, we would learn that both Rose and Beyoncé are operating from independent platforms and, therefore, may exert more control over their political agendas than one might think (indeed, Beyoncé is at her most radical now that her music is released through Tidal Music, a platform that she co-owns with her spouse, Jay Z, among others).
Such celebrity feminists have engaged with other forms of feminism to shape their political beliefs. Hence, Beyoncé has molded her “***Flawless” feminism by sampling Adichie’s online TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” And when some academic feminists—including hooks—demanded that Beyoncé express a more deeply engaged feminism beyond sexual expression, she gave us her visually stunning black feminist masterpiece Lemonade, featuring another writer, the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. Academics in turn reframed Beyoncé’s offering as an intellectual resource, for example scholar Candice Benbow’s popular Lemonade Syllabus.
Just as celebrity feminism affects academic feminism, so too do our academic works influence celebrity feminists. Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism inspired filmmaker Dee Rees to portray blues legend Bessie Smith as a “radical feminist” in the HBO film Bessie, starring Queen Latifah. Likewise, young actor Amandla Stenberg routinely utilizes terms like “intersectionality” and “misogynoir”—the latter coined by academic black feminist Moya Bailey on the Crunk Feminist Collective blog and also used in a tweet by pop star Katy Perry to support black comedian Leslie Jones against racist and sexist online harassment. Brown University graduate Emma Watson revealed that bell hooks is her “girl crush,” which more or less explains the “feminism is for everybody” ethos captured in her He for She campaign at the United Nations. That Watson would later influence the youngest Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai—who champions girls’ education—to identify as a feminist suggests that this brand of feminism has the potential to blossom into an informed and viable international movement for the next generation.
The privileges of beauty, fame, and finance that accompany such celebrities still impose restrictions on whose voices and whose feminisms matter. When celebrity feminists like Meryl Streep frame the commercial sex trade through the lens of victimhood, they effectively silence the voices of actual sex workers who seek to decriminalize their profession. Similarly, when Streep and her fellow cast members wear T-shirts advertising their feminist film Suffragette bearing Emmeline Pankhurst’s historical quote “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” they inevitably rub women of color the wrong way, given the historical roles of women of color as both rebels and slaves. And Beyoncé’s Ivy Park clothing line, which promotes women’s empowerment, was challenged when rumors emerged about its use of sweatshop labor in Sri Lanka, a claim the brand has denied.
Certainly celebrity feminists will continue to showcase their privilege and reveal contradictions that require pushback from multiple feminists positioned differently in our unequal world, whether that involves feminists on Twitter demanding that actor Patricia Arquette recognize how she inadvertently erased queer women and women of color in her “equal pay” Oscar acceptance speech in 2015, or Nicki Minaj urging pop star Taylor Swift to acknowledge her white privilege rather than silence Minaj’s voice in the name of “feminist solidarity” when the rapper addressed through tweets the discrimination she experiences as a black woman in the music industry. Celebrity feminism continues to sustain dialogue with multiple feminisms, which makes it more than the gateway to the movement that Gay suggests it is. While it continues to assert privilege and prestige over other forms of feminism—given the wealth and media access of its spokespersons—it does maintain an interaction between fans (including more than a few feminists) and their idols. Such feminist expressions need not be viewed as a distraction or as false consciousness.
We are presently in an era when celebrities have more access to social media outlets than ever before, which gives them an instantaneous voice through which to mold their identities and politics beyond the iconic or the symbolic. Sometimes, as our public surrogates, they express our feminist sentiments in the ways we approve of; at other times they do so in ways that we don’t. However, Beyoncé summarizes the issue as follows: “I don’t want calling myself a feminist to make it feel like that’s my one priority over racism or sexism or anything else. I'm just exhausted by labels and tired of being boxed in. If you believe in equal rights, the same way society allows a man to express his darkness, to express his pain, to express his sexuality, to express his opinion—I feel that women have the same rights.” As she reminds us, celebrity feminism does not have to be confined to an identity or a way of life. It is itself a political process, participating in an array of feminist movements.
Janell Hobson is an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of two books, Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 2005) and Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012). She is also the editor of Are All the Women Still White? Rethinking Race, Expanding Feminisms (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016) and is a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine, having authored several cover stories, including “Beyoncé’s Fierce Feminism” (Spring 2013). Her area of specialty includes black women’s representations in historical and global perspectives.