The feminist Internet is falling in love with Joseph Gordon-Levitt all over again. In January of this year, the 500 Days of Summer star told Ellen DeGeneres about his mother who had instructed him in the ways of feminism early in life. And just last week in an interview with The Daily Beast, Gordon-Levitt expressed his mystification at the idea that other celebrities might refuse to use the F-word to describe themselves:
Coming out against the label? Wow. I guess I’m not aware of that. What that means to me is that you don’t let your gender define who you are… That, to me, is what 'feminism' means. So yes, I’d absolutely call myself a feminist. And if you look at history, women are an oppressed category of people. There’s a long, long history of women suffering abuse, injustice, and not having the same opportunities as men, and I think that’s been very detrimental to the human race as a whole.
I’m glad that Gordon-Levitt is embracing the feminist label. And, unlike other celebrities who identify as feminists, Gordon-Levitt actually acknowledges that patriarchy is not just some little boo boo that needs a Band-Aid but a longstanding wound created and maintained by “abuse [and] injustice.”
But why do we care so much when other high-profile figures “come out against the label” and shy away from the word “feminist?” And what sorts of compromises do we make in our eagerness to admit stars like Gordon-Levitt into the feminist movement?
I’ve noticed that when we shame female celebrities online for not identifying as feminists, we often try to make it seem like feminism is as simple as breathing. We rush to the Merriam Webster website, type in “feminism,” copy-paste and shout, “Look, Beyoncé! Feminism is nothing but ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities." That’s it! It’s so easy!”
Emilee Lindner on MTV, for example, writes: “You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist. You don’t have to be militant. You can still shave your legs. All there is to it is believing in equal treatment between sexes.” Feminism is like flying to Neverland. All you have to do is believe! Even other female celebrities try to make feminism seem effortless. Girls star Lena Dunham once told Metro:
Women saying ‘I’m not a feminist’ is my greatest pet peeve. Do you believe that women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs? Do you believe that women should be allowed to leave the house? Do you think that women and men both deserve equal rights? Great, then you’re a feminist.
But feminism isn’t something you just “believe in," it’s something you do. It’s not the tooth fairy, it’s a political movement. Even if the Merriam Webster “equal rights” definition were an accurate representation of feminism (it’s actually more reflective of a narrow and predominantly white brand of liberal feminism), there’s a second part to that dictionary definition that we routinely leave out: feminism is also “organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.”
That’s right, you have to actually do something for women to be a feminist. You can’t just wiggle your nose à la Bewitched and whisk injustice away. Feminism is not a mantra, it’s not a bumper sticker that you can slap onto the back of your car; it’s a commitment to action. And if by “militant,” you mean actually doing something then, yes, you have to be militant to be a feminist. Feminism is a response to rampant workplace discrimination, domestic violence, sexual assault, media misrepresentation, and political underrepresentation. Those aren’t problems that you can just get rid of by clicking your heels together three times and chanting, “There’s no place like the matriarchy.”
How can musicians and movie stars be feminists? Celebrities, generally speaking, have two things in common: money and media influence. Some celebrities do indeed choose to spend their financial and social capital on feminist causes. Scarlett Johansson, for instance, publicly endorses Planned Parenthood. Ian McKellen’s best bud Patrick Stewart spoke out for the Ring The Bell campaign which seeks to end violence against women. And Salma Hayek once went to the United Nations to bring attention to domestic violence worldwide.
These aren’t the hot young starlets that we usually pepper with the “are you a feminist?” question but they’re out there regardless, putting their celebrité to good use. These are people who not only believe that women deserve equal treatment, they devote some of their time and energy to making equal treatment happen.
When we already have a set of amazing celebrities advocating for women, why would we even want Taylor Swift to be a feminist? And why do people on the Internet collectively convulse with pleasure when Joseph Gordon-Levitt espouses his feminist politics? It seems as though we routinely gravitate to the hottest stars and starlets when we’re looking for the next feminist celebrity. Lady Gaga let us down in 2009. Taylor Swift failed us in 2012. Katy Perry followed closely. The most famous women in the world seem destined to break feminists’ hearts at the zenith of their popularity. You could say that we’re caught in a bad romance with celebrities who are never ever going to let us hear their feminist roars.
The sobering truth, though, is that we’re rarely going to find feminists at the top of the Billboard charts because feminism is still controversial and it still takes work. Celebrities like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga have reached the maximum possible level of privilege that a female human can attain in a patriarchal world. From that vertiginous position, you need a special kind of humility to be able to spend some of your social cachet on a brand of advocacy that is still perceived as uncool and, worse, unnecessary. Celebrities prolong their moments in the media spotlight are by conforming to societal expectations and taking the most toothless risks possible and blatant feminism, for better or for worse, is still risky.
But maybe feminism doesn’t need to be cool when it’s already correct. And maybe we should spend more time heaping praise on celebrities like Salma Hayek who are actually doing tangible feminist work instead of expressing our disappointment when (surprise!) an incredibly privileged one percenter refuses to adopt a political label so controversial that only 20 percent of Americans would use it to describe themselves. For my part, I’d rather have a feminist movement without celebrities than a feminist movement that’s been reduced to a dictionary definition.
Samantha Allen is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. In addition to writing regularly for the feminist gaming blog The Border House, her writing has also appeared on Salon, Jacobin, Kotaku, and First Person Scholar. You can find her on Twitter at @CousinDangereux or on the web at www.samanthaleighallen.com.