Are They Feminists?

When you all sent in answers to my questions about feminism, I asked you to name someone famous and tell me whether or not you thought she was a feminist.

But as one Georgetown student pointed out, forcing people into boxes based on our individual perceptions of an idea is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do. So I’d like to make this disclaimer before continuing: I am not explicitly calling any one of these famous women a feminist or not. I am simply using their images to further illustrate how individual respondents view feminism.

After the break: inappropriately using famous women as pawns in an intellectual exercise!!

Several Georgetown students (and some others!) discussed Twilight author Stephanie Meyer and wondered whether her books qualify her as a feminist:

Oops what would I do without Edward??! I would trip over things…

-F, 19, Georgetown

I don’t think she’s very smart or interesting and probably would hate her if we ever met in real life, but she’s doing her thing, putting her thoughts and ideas and creativity out there.  Even if it’s some of the most poorly written anti-feminist crap currently in press, the fact that she’s writing it and publishing it under her real, very obviously female name, is feminist.

-F, 21, Georgetown

The first woman obviously took a quick look at Twilight and decided that the weak, do-nothing but stare at a sparkly man, make-no-choices-for-herself female “protagonist” couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman who saw herself as a feminist or “[treated] others without the influence of stereotypes.” The second respondent, who is quite obviously no Twilight fan herself, determined that Stephanie Meyer, as a writer, is a feminist.

This gives us a pretty good understand of how each of these women understands feminism, which I think makes this exercise kind of intriguing. For reference, both of these women are feminists.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to everyone, but Sarah Palin was a popular target:

I do not think that Sarah Palin is a feminist because she wishes to deny women control over their own lives- from her militant anti-choice stance to her favoring charging victims of rape (most often women) for “rape kits.” She also doesn’t believe in gay marriage, so women who want to marry other women are not afforded the rights of women who want to marry men. Yes, she has held positions of power and wants more, and so she has theoretically opened doors. But as Gloria Steinem put it,  “Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.”

-F, 37, MD

I think that stands fairly well on its own.

Another feminist said:

…whether we lefty “fake america” types like it or not, she is the pop culture embodiment of a strong, independent woman for millions of American women. Obviously her political views are divergent with what I would think of as a pro-woman agenda. That said I think a necessary part of having women fully participate in political society and have their voices be heard is that a lot of them are going to say repugnant things.

-M, 23, DC/CA

Sarah Palin is not just “the pop culture embodiment of a strong, independent woman.” For me, she’s also the embodiment of the struggle to define feminism, to define what the hell it is we’re doing when we talk about “strong, independent women.” I would tend to agree with our first respondent in this case – that Sarah Palin doesn’t exactly act in the best interests of women. Charging women for rape kits is absurd and encourages victim-blaming, and it’s hard for me to accept someone as a feminist who thinks it’s okay that women who love men can get special financial benefits, but that women who love women aren’t allowed access those same, federally- and state-provided benefits.

But I think the second respondent makes a fair point: she is the embodiment of a strong, independent women for so many Americans, and she sees herself as a feminist. She does want equality! I think that maybe Sarah Palin and I see different things as necessary to achieving gender equality. So maybe that makes her a feminist – just not one that I would say is very good at affecting any change whatsoever. Hey, no one said that just because I’m a feminist, I have to agree with all other feminists about the best methods for achieving equality.

From a woman who was reluctant to label herself a feminist:

I think that Sarah Palin absolutely can be considered a feminist because in her own life she has shown ambition and drive for a career and a family and she maintains both (somewhat) successfully. Even if you disagree with everything she’s ever done (can’t say I’m crazy about her either), you have to agree that Palin has proven herself to be a multitasking career woman and mother who defies the traditional roles that feminists have fought so hard to break, and she has taken advantage of that by pursuing a pretty successful run in politics–hey, she got elected governor of a state, and that is more than anyone reading this blog can say as of yet. Feminism shouldn’t come down to political views in the case of Sarah Palin either

-F, 19, Georgetown

So…a person is a feminist because they successfully achieve what women who call themselves feminists have been trying to allow them to achieve? I’m not sure I buy that. It’s true that she’s able to juggle so much, showing her to be competent at life, generally.

And apparently, we really like calling overly competent women feminists:

Michelle Obama is a great example of a feminist. I believe she exemplifies having a career and a family, while also working in the community and supporting women’s rights.

-M, 20, UPenn

One of my friends actually recently wrote a guest post on a similar topic (look for it soon!), so I don’t want to steal her thunder, but wow. So women who are career-oriented, family-oriented, and are also sexy and dress well are now feminists. Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama? Has Michelle even done anything supportive of women other than be badass? Did Sarah Palin ever actually help women before rebranding her image after her failed presidentia- oh, excuse me, vice-presidential campaign?

I’ll buy that they’re both feminists (even though I don’t think Michelle Obama has done much to prove it). But I don’t know if being badass women in American politics makes it so. It’s pretty clear that the two people who responded here see feminism as something you can tangibly achieve, which is definitely an interesting perspective.

A few other intriguing responses:

I think K-stew (yes, of twilight fame) is a budding feminist. Blooomm, K-stew! The films she chooses to be in (besides Twilight…) are really interesting. I know she compared the paparazzi to being raped the other day, but–she took the great step of apologizing, which is rare…I think that maybe maybe she will start her journey down the path of feminism! I do hope so!

-F, 22, WA

As for a feminist, I wouldn’t want to identify someone for you (again with the self-identifying), but I agree that anything or anyone to do with Twilight is decidedly anti-healthy relationships.  I pretty sure that it is a bad idea for young adults, both male and female, to look at Bella and Edward and miss some really big, really red relationship-red flags

-F, 20, Georgetown

Imma go with Lady Gaga. I believe you were the one who I’d had the discussion with about how her songs are awesomely empowering in their own way. Her songs are not desperately man-seeking. She’s not sitting around waitin for her man, she’s not upset cause her man cheated, she’s not singing angrily about a breakup. She is singing about casual sex (with both women and men, woot woot.) She is genderless enough that there was mass speculation that Lady Gaga is actually a drag queen. Thus, to me she embodies what I wish feminism would be. An embracing of a genderless ideal that condones (safe) sex for all according to their own wishes and desires.

-F, 19, Rochester

I want to thank you all again for your fantastic responses. Reading all your emails really gave me a new perspective on what feminism is and why it is so accessible to some people and so unaccessible to others. Really, for me, the most productive part of this whole project was learning to justify my own ideas – and sometimes, altering them, because you all made very good points.

I want to continue this kind of discussion, because I think part of feminism’s problem, right now, is that a lot of people don’t see it as a discussion. They see feminism as a thing, in the world, that already exists and is whole, and they may feel like they don’t belong in this completed entity.

But gender equality for everyone – poor men, gay women, transgendered people, sex workers, college students, investment bankers, brass and jazz musicians, airline pilots – is not that radical of an idea, but it’s also pretty clear that it’s not something we see everyday. So let’s make feminism a discussion. Let’s make gender equality something so basic that we can’t believe anyone ever saw the world differently.

And if anyone figures out how to do that, let me know! It would probably save several hundred years of grunt work.

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    • Eileen
    • July 18th, 2010

    I don’t think you can compare Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama. Sarah Palin is a politician. Michelle Obama is a politician’s wife. More specifically, she is the President’s wife, and her responsibility with that job is, basically, to be a reflection of what Americans at the time think a good wife and, in her case, mother should be. Not that she wouldn’t make a perfectly good politician in her own right – but she’s not one. Her name has never appeared on a ballot, and so the standards are different for her than for Sarah Palin. A First Lady is expected to be attractive, well dressed, at least reasonably intelligent, well mannered, tasteful; to be an unofficial diplomat and to support a cause important to her. Basically, a First Lady is Miss America, after she’s married and dutifully changed her name.

    A governor, on the other hand – or a Senator, MOC, Cabinet official, etc. – is expected to be intelligent, savvy, tough, persuasive, strong-minded, and strong-willed (among others). Unlike the First Lady, who is supposed to be the personification of ideal womanhood, actual politicians are expected to take on more stereotypically masculine roles. Typically, women who hold these roles spend a lot of time trying to prove they’re as “tough” as men, but then, because they’re women, they get accused of being “unwomanly” for not showing their emotions. They can’t be too attractive, because that’s threatening, but their wardrobes, makeup, and hairstyles will get picked apart and ridiculed. Sarah Palin is more interesting as a feminist object, I think, than as a feminist or nonfeminist herself, because she’s unashamedly a feminine woman, and there frankly aren’t many of them who are successful in politics.

    Partly, this dearth is attributable to sexist standards, but I think a fair amount of it comes from women who come to accept these sexist standards as the norm. Most people, men and women alike, want to be thought of as attractive. They want to be happily married someday. Many want children. For men, these desires don’t limit career paths: look at President Obama, or at John Edwards before Rielle Hunter – attractive, happily married men with kids go very well with politics. Women…not so much. But Sarah Palin is attractive. She and her very attractive husband, Todd, seem to be happy together. And she has five attractive children. To see a woman with political power who also has a fulfilled personal life is empowering, I think, because it demonstrates that women can have it all just as much as men can (not that it’s easy for either, but it should be equally difficult for both); that they don’t have to choose between being beautiful and demure and being plain and opinionated.

    I think almost everyone can agree that there aren’t enough women in politics. If Sarah Palin can help to encourage women to believe that they can be feminine and politically powerful – that, as you put it, they can be women and still effect change – I think that that’s a good thing.

    At the very least let’s stop calling her Caribou Barbie.

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