Nothing makes me flinch quite like the sound of a journalist asking a female celebrity if she identifies as a feminist. It’s not that I have a problem with the question. It’s not that I, personally, would mind answering the question (with a resounding, “Yes, of course”). No, the reason it makes me cringe is because of the inevitable lose-lose reverberation it creates around the internet.
Let’s say a female celerity demures and admits she doesn’t know what feminism means, exactly. Like Rooney Mara did when she was on her The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo press tour. We deride those women as ignorant disappointments to womankind. Let’s say a female celebrity answers that she is not a feminist and then follows up with an inaccurate definition of feminism. Like when Taylor Swift told The Daily Beast her understanding of feminism is “guys versus girls” and so no, she’s not a feminist. We call her a traitor and a moron. But what about if a female celebrity answers that question by saying she is “one of the biggest feminists in the world” or that she is a “modern day feminist.” Like Miley Cyrus told BBC News and Beyonce told Glamour magazine, respectively. Well, of course we then ask ourselves how often those female celebrities appear in their underwear in public and allow men to spring boners to their antics; then we decide whether or not those male-gaze-mongers can truly call themselves feminists.
Feminism is a whole collection of movements and ideologies that are constantly evolving, and when you take the dogma out of the ether and try to live it out in the messy, complicated world, things can get really heated really quickly. One of the smartest things I’ve read about the feminist internet’s cyclical outrage over celebrities answering questions about feminism was a Salon article, written by Amanda Hess, that addressed Katy Perry‘s shunning of the label last December.
[Caustic, aggressive] responses like these may amuse declared feminists who must constantly contend with uninformed celebrities misstating their movement. But they’re unlikely to help the cause. I, too, have beaten the feminist identification horse before. But I’m beginning to realize that the question “Are you a feminist?” tells us much more about the feminist movement’s own branding failures than it does the beliefs of the women prompted to respond.
When Hess asked her friend Nona Willis Aronowitz, author of Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, about the question “Are you a feminist?”, she responded with equal candor:
The main thing I learned from writing Girldrive is that the question, “Are you a feminist?” is boring. We asked that question and got some generic-sounding, bullshit answer. Once we moved on and asked about women’s actual lives, we learned the real stuff.
So, for the good of us all, I have created a handy flowchart to help you determine if you are a feminist, and to help you determine whether or not someone else is a feminist.
And hey, would you look at that: exactly zero questions about whether or not you twerk in a teddy bear costume in public.