It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that I’ve long considered myself a feminist. I also thought that I could identify a sister feminist when I saw one. I would not have picked Taylor Swift as one, but in September’s Rolling Stone, I was surprised to read that, in fact, she considers herself a feminist. That little gal in pigtails who pops up from the bowels of the stage and prances around with pigtails and a guitar? Sure, she’s a gal with a good heart who goes out of her way to please her fans (teenage girls), but, seriously, does she have any feminist credentials?
Girls creator Lena Dunham says she does: “She runs a company. She creates music that connects with women, and no one is in control of her. If that’s not feminism, what is?” Hmm . . . let me ponder that, Lena.
But, even more strange, was Beyoncé’s claim of sisterhood. If you caught her at the Video Music Awards, you saw her sing, “Bow down, Bitches,” then, in big lights, the single word Feminist appears!
The VMAs typically fly under my radar screen, but I got caught up on the Beyoncé appearance while listening to NPR’s talk show, On Point, with Tom Ashbrook. He posed the question to his “experts” and the public at large: Is Beyoncé a Feminist? I hadn’t seen the awards show, so I was intrigued . . . what a question! I expected there to be a real difference of opinion about this performer who seems to be selling sex as much as her music. In fact, I thought there’d be quite a few guffaws at the notion. So, needless to say, I was dumbfounded when no one was laughing; most guests expressed agreement with Beyoncé’s adoption of the feminist label. Even the moderator, Ashbrook seemed to forego his normal role as devil’s advocate repeatedly during the show. He even ended the segment with a rousing “Go, Beyonce!!”
What was I missing? The consensus on Ashbrook’s show seemed to center on the fact that Beyoncé controls her own business, career, and body. Hence, she’s a feminist. She meets the Lena Dunham standard.
But, doesn’t being a feminist mean more than running your own business as a performer and calling the shots creatively. After all, these gals aren’t running Bank of America. They are just running their own lives as creative artists. Isn’t that what a lot of female artists do, e.g., Cher or Madonna? And what feminist issue are they advancing? Certainly not equal pay for equal work, since these megastars are paid very well for their efforts. If they are pushing any particular cause of benefit to regular women, any message gets lost in all the glamour and glitz.
I was glad to see, therefore, that it wasn’t just me, a grumpy old woman in Austin, with these questions. Singer Annie Lennox also questioned the feminist label as claimed by Beyoncé and other women performers: I see a lot of it as them taking the word hostage and using it to promote themselves, but I don’t think they necessarily represent wholeheartedly the depths of feminism. I think for many it’s very convenient and it looks great and it looks radical, but . . . I think it’s a cheap shot.
In regards to their sexually-charged lyrics, Lennox went on to say: I think what they do with it is cheap. What can I tell you? Sex always sells. And there’s nothing wrong with sex selling, but it depends on your audience. If they’re 7-year-old kids, I have issues with it.
It was refreshing, therefore, to see a young actress describing feminism and advocating for it in a form and forum that made sense. Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame who has been designated a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for women, helped launch the “HeForShe” campaign which aims to galvanize one billion men and boys as advocates for ending the inequalities that women and girls face globally.
In a speech at the U.N. that was met with a thunderous standing ovation, she explained her own confusion about feminism:
I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. . .
Why is the word such an uncomfortable one? I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my country. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights.
In short, she explains, feminism is about the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.
As I looked more into her UN appearance and the HeForShe campaign, I learned that it is designed as a reaction to the Women Against Feminism movement. A Tumblr for this movement features women holding photos of themselves with signs explaining why they don’t need feminism, e.g., “I don’t need feminism . . . my boyfriend treats me right.” Similar inanities have popped up on Twitter and Facebook, where the Women Against Feminism page boasts more than 16,000 likes!! I was stunned.
Obviously, I needed Google to update my thinking on feminism. Search results educated me about the three waves of feminism, with the first beginning in the late 1800s centering on suffrage issues, along with equal property, marriage, and contract rights.
The second wave was characterized by “The Personal is Political” slogan which was meant to clarify that aspects of women’s personal lives were deeply politicized and reflecting sexist power structures, e.g., women clean and cook, men don’t. We are now in the third wave (started in early 1990s) which seems to be a hodgepodge of views, including a backlash against the second wave. It also celebrates female sexuality as a means of female empowerment. One article referred to it as “f…g and shopping feminism.” If I understand it correctly, the gals in Sex and the City are perfect role models for third wave feminism — with the exception of Charlotte who represented the confused-about-feminism woman. Apparently, it’s largely about shopping, having sex like a man, and being your own boss at work.
If this is the current definition of feminist, I guess Beyoncé can call herself one, even while I remain uncomfortable with the notion that a woman with so much power to influence young women would center her career around sexual titillation. You can say that her music is the defining characteristic of her career, but you’d be confusing Adele with Beyoncé. Music is her side act – the focus is on the body, the provocative dancing, the face, the hair, the image! [Remind me, why didn’t Beyonce, the songbird, sing the national anthem at President Obama’s inaugural?]
As for the third wavers in general, I believe the feminist movement has been trivialized by women who think it’s all about “f…g and shopping.” The reality of what women in the working world face and why feminism is important was made manifest this past week at a gathering of female engineers at Microsoft. The speaker at this gathering was Satya Nadella, the male CEO of Microsoft, who was asked what advice he would give women who are uncomfortable asking for raises. His response: “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that this system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” Nadella went on to say that women who don’t ask for raises obtain an “additional superpower . . . because that’s good karma, it’ll come back.” Whoa, grasshoppers!!
Just wondering, Satya, how many bills can you pay with a big helping of karma? Or, more pointedly, would you have given the same advice to a group of men? Hell, no!! In fact, the question wouldn’t have come up because men don’t feel uncomfortable asking for raises!
I’m hoping that we are about to see a fourth wave of feminism, one that recognizes that most women cannot be their own boss, must learn to ask for raises, and don’t get paychecks that will purchase mass quantities of shoes at Nordstrom, much less at the Manolo Blahnik stores. Maybe it will be led by women of the millennial generation, those who still struggle with getting raises and promotions despite the value they bring to their workplaces, the young women who are lapping up bestselling books like Knowing your Value (Mika Brzezinski) and Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg).
In fact, Emma Watson has made a great start, as one of those leaders. As she so eloquently told the United Nations’ assembly:
You might be thinking who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN. . . All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.
And having seen what I’ve seen—and given the chance—I feel it is my duty to say something. English statesman Edmund Burke said: “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men and women to do nothing.”
And as one feminist looking for others to take the baton, I’ll just say, “Sing it from the rooftops, Emma!!! Yours is a voice worth hearing and a body worth seeing – right there on the frontline of feminism!!!” Go, Emma!!