I’m not a feminist, but…

Oh, look. It’s time for another “I’m not a feminist” article about a female celebrity. This time, it’s Kelly Clarkson. In a recent interview with Time magazine, Clarkson said, “I wouldn’t say [I’m a] feminist, that’s too strong”. Too strong?? Kelly, your best-selling single is titled “Stronger”. You write songs called “Miss Independent”. Why the hate?

I don’t mean to pick on Clarkson – she isn’t the first celeb to deny the label “feminist,” and she probably won’t be the last (sob!). Every few months there is a slew of articles that follow this pattern; an interviewer asks the celebrity if she is a feminist, and the celebrity responds with something like “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls” or “I’m not a feminist, but I do believe in the power of women”.  As I was working on this blog post, Jezebel posted a handy round-up of celebs’ answers to the question… guess I’m not the only one thinking about this these days!

Journalists ask this question because they know that they will get an answer that people will be interested in. The celebrity’s PR person wants to make sure she gives an answer that makes her look good. Why are we so interested in whether or not female celebrities are feminists? (That’s not a rhetorical question – seriously, if you have any ideas, leave them in the comments!).

It’s not just the fact that celebrities deny being feminists that is dangerous: it’s the WAY that they answer this question that gets me all riled up. Their responses (deliberately or inadvertently) reinforce the negative stereotypes that exist about feminists. So, when a celebrity says that she’s not a feminist because she “loves men,” she’s agreeing with the idea that feminists hate men. When she says that she’s not a feminist because she’s “not angry and militant,” she is promoting the idea that feminists are angry and militant.

Obviously, this also bothers me on a personal level.  I did my undergraduate degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, and recently completed a masters degree in Women’s Studies.  Quite often, when people find out what I study, I get the wary question “So, are you like, a feminist?” (Once, a guy I was dating looked confused and said “Wait, don’t you have to be a feminist to do that?”.  Obviously he didn’t last very long!)

These questions exhaust me.  Partly because every time someone asks it, I feel like I’m single-handedly put up against the whole of the negative cultural conversation about feminism. I used to respond sarcastically – *eyeroll* “Yes, I shave my legs; no, I don’t hate men” – but then realized that my sarcasm wasn’t really making any kind of point.  These days I smile, say “yes,” and wait to hear what they have to say.

A large part of my frustration in these situations comes from the fact that in order to fully answer their questions and make sure they’re clear on what “feminist” means, I’d have to brew a pot of coffee and clear my schedule, because it’s not a conversation I can have in five light-hearted minutes.  I’m frustrated that I haven’t figured out a way to condense a Feminism 101 lecture into a friendly conversation.  And I’m frustrated that I still have to.  I have to wonder if sometimes the female celebrities who are being asked these questions feel the same frustration. Maybe it’s easier to say something like “I’m not a feminist, but…” and move on to the next question.

So I will leave you with a quote from Zooey Deschanel:

I want to be a fucking feminist and wear a fucking Peter Pan collar.  So fucking what?”

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10 responses to “I’m not a feminist, but…

  1. A teacher I really admire responds to these questions by saying, “I wonder whether you are a feminist and you don’t realize it. Do you think men and women should have the same rights and responsibilities?” Provokes interesting conversations and kind of throws the weight of the a assumptions back on the questioner. Especially interesting with teenage boys.

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    • Yeah – I’ve found that once you ask someone to think about the issue they realize that they actually do agree with feminism, but had only made their decisions about it based on stereotypes. I had a very interesting conversation with a former student recently where she was talking about the “man-hating” feminists who “want women to be better than men”. I asked her where she had seen such feminists. She wasn’t sure, but was sure they existed. I pointed out that I’m a feminist, and that several other teachers she’d had were as well, and none of us seemed to hate men or want to put them down. I also mentioned that in all my years of feministing, I’d never met a woman who felt that way. I don’t think I really changed her mind, but I do think that she eventually began to realize that her assumptions about feminists were based mostly on stereotypes.

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  4. I’ve been fortunate in my life to almost always be around people to whom “feminist” is not a bad word. The only people who seem to have a problem with me self-identifying as a feminist are random people online and the first guy I dated. I bring it up because of how I responded to him during our conversation. Instead of saying “I’m not a feminist, but…” I instead said, “I am a feminist but I am not militant. I do not hate men. I believe that feminism is about gender equality and not elevating one gender at the expense of the other.” I think feminism and gender issues can be very complicated but the way to deal with that is not by saying that you’re not a feminist because you don’t like the negative stereotypes about straw feminists or you disagree with what certain feminists have said. There isn’t one brand of feminism and one voice that represents feminism as a collective movement. It’s not as though declaring you’re a feminist means you have to fall in line with whatever some authority figure says. I honestly don’t know why more people don’t open themselves up to feminist critique. For me, it’s been about challenging others and myself, staying curious and not complacent, and trying my best to understand and imagine others and the world more complexly. Those are good things, right?

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    • EXACTLY. I’m always frustrated when people disidentify with the label because of the stereotypes (or because they don’t agree with certain things that they’ve heard feminists say / seen feminists do). There’s so much criticism from outside of feminism, in the form of negative stereotypes, and within feminism too, when feminists criticize other feminists for prioritizing different issues or for not agreeing with them on others. I really like your point that it’s “about challenging others and myself, staying curious and not complacent” – that’s definitely how I try to be!

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