We are obsessed with asking female celebrities if they are feminists. Ever since Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Emma Watson and so many other high-profile women publicly professed their allegiance to feminism last year, it upped the ante for other celebrities to do the same. Instead of instigating a productive discussion about gender disparity or women's rights, however, this gratuitously employed "gotcha question" has devolved into a divisive charade whose goal is to elevate or discredit the woman being interviewed — a practice that is in no way feminist.
Most recently, the "Are you a feminist?" query has taken down Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting. She — like many female celebrities before her — gave a ridiculous answer to the question, which proved that she just doesn't understand what feminism is. The incident points to the fact that feminism is still suffering from the same old "man-hating" PR problem — and not that Cuoco-Sweeting is actually a Class A misogynist. Feminism is misunderstood and most journalists know this, so they are manipulating us into using it as the new measuring stick by which we judge female celebrities — and we have gleefully taken the bait. We're standing by waiting for the next one to fall so we can sit in smug satisfaction, criticizing some celeb's ignorance and betrayal of the female sex while we pat ourselves on the back for knowing better.
Contrary to this us-versus-them outrage that celebrity journalists are manufacturing, feminism isn't an "us versus them" sort of game. It isn't about pitting women against men, nor is it about pitting feminists against non-feminists. Being a feminist should be something you come to on your own time based on your own convictions. It is not something to be guilted or bullied into because feminism happens to be "in" right now and "everybody's doing it." The more upset feminists get when a woman says she isn't a feminist, the more we are feeding the trolls.
Another problem with this line of questioning is that male celebrities never get asked anything similar. There is no across-the-board question we want to know from male celebrities, and we definitely don't expect them to speak intelligently on many topics, besides who they are dating and boxers or briefs (okay, that was a '90s thing, but can we bring it back?) Seriously, though, it is ludicrous how much we expect from our female celebrities (and women in general). On top of having to conform to absurdly narrow standards of beauty while competing for far fewer opportunities, they also have to speak eloquently and accurately about women's rights!? Sounds like sexism disguised as a serious question to me.
Let's also not pretend we are using this question to provide a "teaching moment." There is no magnanimous, educational purpose to finding out whether a celebrity is a feminist. Instead of "How did you lose that weight?" or "Are you pregnant?," it's "Are you a feminist?" What we have is the co-opting of a visionary movement for clickbait. Celebrities identifying with feminism may bring heightened visibility to the fight for gender equality, but not if it's a forced admission.
Publicly labeling yourself a feminist is merely paying lip service, and doesn't necessarily mean you're contributing to change. As Laurie Penny writes in Unspeakable Things , "feminism isn't an identity. Feminism is a process." And there are so many ways to be a feminist, indeed, without shouting the word from the mountaintops, so let's not be too quick to damn our fellow females when they respond to this question in myriad, uninformed ways. Although this interview trend may not fall out of favor for a while, if you think the question is sexist and divisive, you do have a voice. Right now, our reactions to these feminist questions and answers have the power to change public perceptions about feminism as a whole. We may as well take the opportunity.
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