My friend and colleague, Riley Holden recently wrote an article for Feminist Fever about why interviewers should not ask female celebrities if they are feminists. Riley, as usual, made a lot of excellent points. Nevertheless, I still believe that interviewers should ask public figures about feminism – and do it intelligently. As long as we stay silent about the F word, feminists will continue to be marginalized and there will be no progress.
Three years ago, when it was common for feminists to suffer in silence after someone had trashed the movement, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy told Vogue magazine that her generation of women doesn’t need feminism. Just a few hours after she made that stupid comment, the French feminist group, Osez le Féminisme, shocked the media and started a Twitter protest. 2000 French women immediately started educating the former Première Dame about the pay gap, domestic violence, rape statistics, sexual harassment, the housework gap, you-name-it. As Linda Ramoul tweeted: “#ChèreCarlaBruni, My generation needs feminism because I am on sale for 27% off every day of the year,” referring to the notorious wage gap.
The Twitter protest forced Bruni-Sarkozy to quickly backpedal and issue a clarification, if not an outright apology. It also let the world know that feminists are not going to stay silent anymore when a public figure makes stupid or abusive comments about the movement. After the Bruni-Sarkozy moment, it started to become fairly common for feminists to stage protests on social media whenever a celebrity trashed the movement. Indeed, it became so widespread that Time Magazine included feminist in a readers’ poll of words to ban in 2015. However, the editor of Time apologized because so many people protested.
If interviewers had never asked Bruni-Sarkozy and other celebrities if they were feminists and if nobody had protested after they had lambasted the movement, feminism would have continued to be ignored, people would feel completely free to skewer it, and women like Taylor Swift may have never found out what feminism really means. Asking female celebrities if they are feminists does reek of gotcha catfight journalism, but I believe it has helped to revitalize a movement that had lost a lot of its energy during the Bush years.
So yes, I believe that journalists should ask ALL major public figures, including men, about feminism. However, they need to do it intelligently. They need to show me that they’ve done their homework, that they respect the movement, and that they aren’t just trying to spark up a dull interview. It’s amateurish to ask a Katy Perry if she is a feminist. However, it’s smart to ask Perry if her Roar song was inspired by the Hear Me Roar line in Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem, I Am Woman. And it would be pretty darned impressive if a journalist asked Perry if she was planning to do her own rendition of feminist classics like You Don’t Own Me and Respect.
I know that asking public figures intelligent questions about feminism is not going to remove the stigma immediately, especially if they keep giving dumb or abusive responses. Even if a Tim Cook starts making great comments about feminism and actually apologizes for Apple’s brogrammer culture, most feminists will continue to stay in the closet out of a legitimate fear of losing their jobs and relationships.
But the solution to that stigma is not silence. The solution is for feminists to start anti-defamation and education organizations, or at least, to have “stop the smears” troops in activist groups. For several years, I suffered in silence whenever Dr. Laura Schlessinger trashed feminism and women’s rights organizations ignored her because the leaders said “they have bigger fish to fry” or they had to “choose their fights.” However, when Rush Limbaugh called the birth control activist, Sandra Fluke, a slut and a prostitute and feminist groups protested so much that he issued a kindasorta apology, I felt like the movement had found its voice again.
So yes, there are problems with asking female celebrities, “Are you a feminist?”, as Riley pointed out so well. But there are even bigger problems with not asking. The way forward is to insist that interviewers ask all major public figures intelligent questions about feminism and that the media interview not just female entertainers but feminist women who are challenging the status quo in all lines of endeavor. And the ultimate way forward is for the interview to go to on to greater heights about the strengths and challenges of feminism when a famous person gives an unqualified and enthusiastic YES response after a clueless interviewer asks the hackneyed question, “Are you a feminist?”