While I was walking to class recently, I noticed the cover for that week’s edition of the Sheaf, the University’s student newspaper. The cover had a photo of the famous World War II propaganda poster “Rosie the Riveter” on it, which had encouraged women’s participation as workers in war industries; except Rosie’s face had been replaced with Taylor Swift’s. Since that moment, I’ve been thinking about the piece, called “In Defense of Pop Culture Feminism.” I’ve been thinking about it so much that I believed a response piece was necessary.
The author of the piece claims that feminism is on the rise in part because celebrities like Emma Watson and Taylor Swift are identifying as feminists. She argues that this is important for the feminist movement, and that “serious” or “academic” feminists need to stop bullying Taylor Swift for her so-called “watered-down feminism.”
First, I take issue with her distinction of “’serious’ feminists,” as though the inclusion of feminist theory in academia is a bad thing. Gloria Steinem, an American radical feminist and journalist, who has expressed rather problematic opinions in the past, has said: “nobody cares about feminist academic writing…these poor women in academia have to talk this silly language that nobody can understand in order to be accepted…knowledge that is not accessible is not helpful.” Many philosophers use this elevated language – Kant or Noonan come to mind – and many of us struggle with their density to the point of frustration. But has anyone ever called them “silly,” or implied that they’re just trying to keep up with the Big Dogs of academia? I am aggravated by the suggestion that feminist theory should not be adopted in the philosophical canon because it is important critical theory in all fields. To criticize those who endeavour to advance the field with scare-quotes on “serious” feminist issues is to further divide the study of feminism in academia. Yet, the author praises pop-culture feminists for supposedly bringing feminists together.
The author further clarifies that pop-culture feminism is “based around ideas of girl power, female solidarity, and that feminism is for everyone.” The author also notes that while pop-culture feminism is deserving of critical analysis, it is valuable in that it makes gender equality appeal to the masses. On its base level, feminism is for everyone. To be sure, that is an important point. Yet, if that’s true, someone should remind Taylor Swift that identifying as a feminist means feminism is for women of colour, women who are not able-bodied, women who are impoverished, transwomen, etc.
I am, of course, assuming that the author did not do an in-depth search of why pop-culture feminists like Taylor Swift face an enormous amount of criticism within contemporary discussions of feminism. Taylor Swift, with the status that she has, has an extremely loud voice. And she has used it, time and time again to dismiss feminist issues that do not directly service her exact type of (tall, white, slim, blonde) “girl power” and “female solidarity.” Other than culturally appropriating in her music videos (see: Wildest Dreams), or glamourizing abusive relationships (see: Blank Space), I can tell you about one important example. Last year Nicki Minaj called out the music industry, arguing that “black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it.” She is very clearly pointing out systemic racism and sexism in the music industry directed against black artists. In short, Nicki Minaj is using her powerful voice to speak for many who don’t get the chance. Taylor Swift, by contrast. nominated for the award Nicki Minaj believed she was snubbed for, hit back: “I’ve done nothing but love and support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Um, this wasn’t about you, Taylor Swift!
The author of the Sheaf article further clarifies the position from which she writes this article: “I am a white, straight-passing, middle-class, cisgender woman. I speak from a position of unearned privilege. I’ve never experienced discrimination based on my race, class or sexual orientation. Also, I’m a huge Taylor Swift fan.”
So I must ask, why is a “white, straight-passing, middle-class, cisgender woman” deciding what is and isn’t problematic within our understanding of feminism and feminist theory? Taylor Swift’s self-serving feminism is not intersectional, and it ignores the serious issue of racism in society, which in “serious feminist” terms would make swift a privileged and wealthy White Feminist. To support this type of ignorance is dangerous because as a white, wealthy woman within feminism, Taylor Swift has a powerful and elevated position. To exploit others in order to elevate herself, is to further diminish the voices of the women below her. Also, to exploit existing patriarchal structures within society – which encompasses sexism and racism – is to ignore these issues to to her own benefit. So when another white woman hails the “feminist” achievements of a White Feminist like Taylor Swift, it in turn diminishes the valid concerns of women of colour, who are given less of a voice already.
This was an extremely frustrating article to read. The Sheaf has a wide-reaching base within our University and I am concerned about the number of people who will be given the wrong idea about feminism after reading it. I agree that feminism should be accessible to everyone (if feminism excluded men completely, we would just be shouting into a vacuum). However, this inclusionary sentiment is necessarily challenged by intersectionalism, which is like feminism 2.0. Intersectionalism is the acknowledgement that feminism does not need to be about raising ourselves to the status of men anymore. In fact, men face a crappy deal due to patriarchy’s expectations of hyper-masculinity and aggression almost as much as women do. Intersectionalism acknowledges that feminism now needs to be about defeating patriarchal standards so that the most marginalized people in society can rise up, and that includes people of colour, people who are not able-bodied, people who are impoverished, LGBTQA+ people, etc. To look at power systems that reward white, slim, able-bodied women like Taylor Swift (who no doubt work very hard) but to question why these systems don’t in turn reward people who look much different that Swift, yet work equally hard (if not more so given the obstacles faced) is essential.
Is this to say that no celebrity can be a good feminist role model? Absolutely not. I do agree that young feminists should have someone to look up, to make feminism “cool” and “accessible” but not to simplify it. Rowan Blanchard, a young Disney Channel actress and great pop-culture feminist has noted: “feminists issues include sexual assault, rape, abortion, Planned Parenthood, domestic violence, equal education, and the wage gap…many [White Feminists] have not accepted the fact that police brutality and race issues are our issues too…the way a black woman experiences sexism and inequality is different from the way a white woman experiences sexism and inequality.” I would genuinely like to see Taylor Swift make an acknowledgement like this.
The author of this Sheaf article concludes that “the job of celebrities [isn’t] to be ‘good feminist activists.’ They’re entertainers. They’re here to sing, act, or market a reality show, not to be feminist scholars.” Wait, so which is it? Celebrities should be hailed for the hard work they do of bringing feminism to the masses? Or they should be praised because we don’t expect more from them in the first place? I’d have to disagree here and note that celebrity women aren’t brainless entertainers, dancing around a stage and incapable of a complex thought; women, even celebrities, should be capable of engaging in a conversation about feminism and social justice.
Everyone has the right to call themselves a feminist, and decide for themselves what that should mean. My issue, however, arises when celebrities use this position of power to further advance themselves at the cost of others.
- Raquel Alvarado