Thinking about Women in the Public Eye and Saying the word “Feminism”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we expect of the people who we’ve chosen as role models.

When Shailene Woodley recently said she was not a feminist, many in the feminist blogosphere were upset. Was I saddened? Yes. But I wasn’t exactly surprised. Shay is after all, a 23 year-old actress. Her focus is her craft. She hasn’t had the benefit of a university education that critically discusses gender and feminism. So I’m not surprised it’s not an identity that she claims for herself.

I am 27 years old. And I’ve been proud to call myself a feminist for about 6 years? 7 years? It definitely wasn’t until after a couple years of university. I don’t remember if there was a moment where I suddenly thought about feminism, I do remember being confused about the concept in first year university and now here I am, considering myself a feminist scholar. So somewhere in the middle of my undergraduate degree, sometime after I’d taken a couple of courses that discussed gender and feminism in a way that I hadn’t experienced before, I considered myself a feminist. And through this type of education, and the women I talked to who spoke their minds and spoke about feminism, I came to realize that feminism spoke to me as well.

It’s not just Shailene, there are other examples of women and girls, actresses, singers, people in the public eye that get this question and panic. What comes to mind for them is the pervasive post- or anti-feminist narratives that have been so successful at undermining and discrediting feminism while at the same time declaring it’s mission accomplished and using elements that align with neoliberalism (choice in purchasing, choice amongst a series of preset options that primarily benefit neoliberal economic imperatives). What must come to mind for them is the breadth and depth of criticism women in the public eye face for their feminist views. So they say that they are not feminists, and we react and speak out online about how upset we are or how sad we are that these women have said such things and have damaged the cause of feminism yet again.

This doesn’t sit well for me. Maybe it’s my dislike of confrontation, but more likely I think, it is my own history with feminism and my found role as an educator.

When our young girls and women are shown how society works throughout their lives, from pop culture and the media, the failing public education system, and an increasingly sexualized society, that is postfeminist in its narratives and everyday workings, when they routinely hear stories about man-hating and bra-burning from those who fear feminist voices, when they routinely see trending topics like #feministsareugly or men saying they won’t date feminists. What conclusion can they be left with other than that this popular narrative is correct (or at least the default) if they’ve never been taught a different story or seen a different take on the matter.

We need to teach feminism in elementary school. Beforehand. We need to stop putting little girls in a prefabricated social box where everything is pink and if you aren’t a perfect woman no one will like you and you will never find love.

I know so many women who work hard to educate girls and women about important social issues. Women who raise their daughters and sons to be feminists. Girl Guide Leaders who try to give girl the tools they need to navigate today’s society with fearlessness and an assured sense of self.

I know women whose mothers taught them about feminism (whether explicitly or through their actions), I know women who educated themselves in high school about feminism and social issues. And I know women like me, who didn’t realize what this movement was about until university. Or even afterwards.

We should always be striving to do better, to be more intersectional, to listen to more voices. But that doesn’t mean we can’t tell someone “good start” every once in a while.

Look at Emma Watson’s recent speech at the UN. On the one hand I am so happy to see someone who young women look up to call herself a feminist. I am unconditionally and unapologetically happy about this.

There are problems with the #HeForShe campaign for some. But I don’t think we should be focussing on this as a problem with Emma’s speech, or Emma’s feminism. For me they are the same problems that a body like the UN faces in coming up with an initiative that fits all parts of the UN and is therefore somewhat sanitized in what it can ask for and what it can accomplish. These are the same problems that so many other UN campaigns had as well.

And I do see the need for some sort of campaign aimed at men. If you think of the fight for gender equality as some sort of world wide fight I see a need for a campaign aimed at men who wouldn’t necessarily listen to the more radical aspects of feminism right off the bat. Lure them in with the least scary stuff and then mould them into intersectional male feminist allies.

Everything starts somewhere, even the most radical or revolutionary social change. And if you’re willing to listen and willing to try, you’re allowed to start somewhere small. Learning can follow.

I’m still learning. And I’m still willing to try because of the generosity and time that my mentors and my books have afforded me time and time again.

The skyrocketing amount of hate that women in the public eye receive on a daily basis – they should not be on the receiving end of similar from feminists and feminist organizations online as well. We should encourage them to do better, but also afford them the chance and the space in which to learn from all of us who have been on this journey longer.

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