So You’re a Celebrity Who Calls Yourself a Feminist. Now What?

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Demi Lovato isn't here for Twitter activism.
Demi Lovato isn't here for Twitter activism.

It’s been less than a week since Kesha became a celeb-feminist cause célèbre. On Friday, a New York court ruled that the glitter-strewn pop star would not be released from her contract with Sony — despite her insistence that producer Dr. Luke assaulted and abused her.

Famous feminists swung into action. Over the weekend, Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to Kesha. Kelly Clarkson, Fiona Apple, and Lady Gaga tweeted their support. Sky Ferreira ’grammed herself with a poster that read, “Kesha, I am so angry for you. They were wrong.” And then there was Demi Lovato, who tweeted “Take something to Capitol Hill or actually speak out about something and then I’ll be impressed.”

Swift’s fans cried foul, interpreting the tweet as a swipe at her hefty donation. On Instagram, Lovato clarified, “I didn’t shade Taylor… I’m just tired of seeing women use ‘women empowerment’ and ‘feminism’ to further brands without actually being the ones that have the uncomfortable conversations.” She later added, “All I want to see is women coming together and making a difference.” (Lovato, for the record, supports a dozen or so causes, most notably mental health and addiction, and recently met with the White House drug czar. You’ll have to decide based on your own feminist politics whether you feel she’s advancing the cause of “women empowerment.”)

This exchange was familiar to many non-famous feminists. Most of us have had our values, actions, or intentions challenged by someone who fundamentally agrees with us — a conflict that arises not in spite of the fact that we all embrace the feminist label, but because we do. I’d like to welcome pop stars to the wonderful world of low-key intra-feminist fighting. Most of us who call ourselves feminists have very different ideas about what that means in practice. It’s a natural consequence of feminism being an ideology rather than a formal organization whose members share agreed-upon tenets. Things get complicated quickly. Some feminists would even quibble with Lovato’s implied definition of feminism as centrally about “women empowerment,” preferring to prioritize a bigger concept like “gender justice” instead.

The stakes are higher for celebrity feminists, though. Their words and actions are closely tracked—which I’m sure feels restrictive at times, but also translates to more power. They’re the faces of charitable causes, the financial forces behind campaigns, and headline-makers who can attract media attention by merely walking to buy a latte. We all make decisions that contradict our beliefs in little ways, but celebrities are more subject to criticism for their missteps. Sure, I might listen to “Blurred Lines” in private, but I’ve never had to decide whether to rub my butt up against Robin Thicke on national TV. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say.

“It’s been disturbing to see how much blowback Demi Lovato got for her tweets because I think she was right on,” says Andi Zeisler, author of the forthcoming book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “If you’re going to be all about female empowerment, it’s not always going to be cute. It’s not always going to be convenient. For the most part, feminist celebrities are engaging with feminism not as an ethic that is complex and evolving, but as this static brand identity.”

Over the past few years, there’s been a noticeable uptick in celebrities talking about feminism. At the 2014 VMAs we watched Beyoncé power-pose in front of the word “FEMINIST.” That same year, we listened to Emma Watson address the UN about gender inequality. We heard Miley Cyrus’s proclamation that she was “one of the biggest feminists.” Even some famous men have embraced the term. Fashion magazines run features like “25 Inspiring Women Who Changed the Face of Feminism” alongside links to articles about “diet pills that work.” By now, the label is mainstream. But, as Lovato seemed to be asking, what about the politics that go along with it?

I’m not interested in the inevitable beef over “who is the real feminist.” I’m not interested in making sure all celebrity women embrace the label or live their beliefs in a specific way. I love that it is cool for celebs to speak up in defense of women. And I agree with Roxane Gay that stars like Taylor Swift are more like brand ambassadors who provide soft introductions to feminism, not the movement itself. But at what point is the mainstream feminist conversation sophisticated enough that we start expecting more from people who embrace the label? And what does “more” look like?

Perhaps it looks like old-fashioned political activism. It’s easy to tweet #FreeKesha. It’s harder to educate yourself about the policies that harm domestic violence survivors in your state, and to use your fame or wealth to demand your legislator improve them. This week, Lena Dunham penned a vociferous defense of Kesha in Lenny Letter, connecting the singer’s plight to that of non-famous abuse victims who struggle to keep their jobs and houses. She also praised the chorus of celebrities supporting the singer. “It wasn’t long ago that women in the public eye didn’t have a loose-enough leash to reach out and support one another, for fear of losing all they had worked so hard to create,” wrote Dunham. “Instead they quietly watched on their televisions, hoping they wouldn’t be next. Those days are over. They are fucking done.”

Indeed, thanks to social media and a generally more feminist culture, they’re free to speak up. But those celebrities still have to work within industries renowned for their sexism and racism. After Watson’s much-lauded 2014 UN speech, the actress’s next role was announced: She would play Belle in an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast — a Disney-fied fairy tale about a kidnapped woman who falls in love with her brutish captor. “How deep can celebrity feminism really go if it has to stop short of interrogating the systems that create cultural products that are influential?” Zeisler asks. If Dunham is to be believed, individual celebrities have more freedom than ever to speak out about injustices within their industries. But one also has to assume that there is still some price to be paid for calling attention to predatory producers or racist casting choices. Watson hasn’t said much about stepping into the historically fraught role of a Disney princess, but some of her fans made the feminist leap for her. “There is no doubt that this adaption of Beauty and the Beast will portray Belle as a powerful, strong, independent woman,” wrote an optimist at Bustle. I suppose we’ll see for ourselves soon enough.

As the stigma of the feminist label fades, we’re at a turning point. The mainstream press is less interested in who’s calling herself a feminist, and has turned its attention to infighting, like the perceived squabble between Swift and Lovato. Bobby Finger, who blogs about tabloids for Jezebel and co-hosts the Who? Weekly podcast, says that when you see feminism pop up in Us Weekly or InTouch, “it typically happens only if there’s a feud about feminism between two women.” His co-host Lindsey Weber adds, “It’s turned into FEMALE vs. FEMALE with ‘feminism’ coming into play when they don’t agree. Or when they ‘subtweet’ each other.”

Celebrities’ task — and ours — is to turn the conversation toward questions of action. How does feminism inform their professional choices? What does feminism look like in their daily lives? What specific issues or problems are they actively working to solve, and how is that work influenced by feminism? We’re watching the first generation of mainstream-famous feminists figure out how to live their politics in real time. Of course it’s going to be conflicted and messy, heavy on the rhetoric and light on the action. That’s how it was for me as a newly minted feminist, and I’m grateful that there is no tweet-trail of my evolution. But if there were, it would include prompts — not unlike Demi Lovato’s — from friends and mentors who encouraged me not only to think deeper about my politics, but to act on them decisively.