New guest writer, Claire Sedgwick, whose PhD is in feminist theory, details the week that Meryl Streep renounced feminism. White privilege feminism sucks so bad right now.
It has become a lazy tradition to ask female celebrities if they’re feminists, and this week has been full of more irksome examples of female celebrities not quite getting what feminism actually is. First, I read that Marion Cotillard wheeled out the age old argument that feminism doesn’t ‘create equality, it creates separation.’ In the same article, I learned that Emily Watson (please note this is EMILY Watson not EMMA Watson – things haven’t gone so completely wrong that Emma is betraying us, yet) is ‘so grateful’ that people are willing to employ her that she doesn’t really give a shit that her male co-stars are statistically likely to be earning more than her for doing the same job. This news was annoying, but barely registers compared to the latest bit of ‘celebrities don’t understand feminism’ news, which cannot be so easily brushed aside.
Meryl Streep, yes the same Meryl Streep who recently wrote to all members of Congress to ask them to support the ERA, who was seen cheering Patricia Arquette’s speech on unequal pay in Hollywood at the Oscars, and who is currently promoting a film where she is playing one of the most famous feminists to have ever lived (Emmeline Pankhurst, FYI) is NOT a feminist. She is a humanist because…of course she is. Google handily informs me that the definition of humanism is: ‘a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters’, whilst the definition of feminism is ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ These two things can co-exist together. You can be more than one thing! Or so I used to think, but Meryl’s not the only one. SJP also recently proclaimed herself a humanist and not a feminist.
Of course, all this celebrity talk of humanism is not really about being a humanist. It’s about wanting to reject feminism, because feminism is still a dirty word. And this is why Meryl’s refusal to identify as a feminist is so fucking galling. I’m totally fly with you campaigning for women’s rights and choosing not to call yourself a feminist and there are tons of valid reasons for doing so. For example, a Woman of Colour might feel that the term ‘womanist’ is a more accurate reflection of her identity, or a trans woman might feel that feminism is a lost cause given the despicable transphobia that some feminists have recently and frequently displayed. What I’m not down for is this ‘I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist’ bullshit.
Streep goes on to say that she is ‘for nice easy balance.’ First of all, what does this even mean? It is pretty much a nothing statement. Second, and most annoyingly, this quest for balance buys into the hackneyed idea that feminists actually want to be better than men. At this point in time, despite the huge advances that women have made to gain equality (including Emmeline Pankhurst who Streep plays in Suffragette) the scales are certainly still not swinging anywhere near equal. This is why feminism exists, to highlight the extent to which our society is STILL unequal (on a myriad of issues including, but by no means limited to, abortion, unequal pay, woeful access to maternity rights in countries like the US, sexual violence, violence against women, and harmful media representations) and to see why feminism is still so vital.
“But…” I hear you ask, “what does it matter what Meryl calls herself if she’s doing all this cool activist shit anyway?” It matters a great deal, because every time you refuse to call yourself a feminist, despite the fact you do some pretty feminist shit in your spare time, you reinforce the idea that the women who do call themselves feminists are extremists. What’s more, you totally shit on the legacy of all of the women who have faced the reputational attacks that feminists still face today. The Suffragettes were mauled in the media for being neglectful mothers, trying to get above their station, trying to become like men. The ERA, which Streep is so rightly bothered about, was a key concern of feminists in the seventies who, like the Suffragettes before them, were ridiculed in mainstream media by those who refused to take their concerns seriously.
Every once in a while, however, a celebrity deals with the ‘Are you a feminist?’ question in the coolest possible way. After wanting to cry reading Streep’s comments, I Googled ‘Ellen Page feminist’. Page, alongside Emma (not Emily, obv) Watson and Beyonce (who, after some fence-sitting on the matter is probably a feminist, what with her dancing in front of a ten foot lit up ‘FEMINIST’ sign at the VMAs) show that some celebrities can see past the fabricated feminist/humanist dichotomy. Page pretty much caused my heart to swell when, in an interview with The Guardian, she not only called herself a feminist but acknowledged that patriarchy existed. And this is important, because it is patriarchy, and not feminism, that makes women separate from men, that the balance is not equal, showing that feminism is vital.
Claire Sedgwick is a final year PhD student at De Montfort University. The title of her thesis is Feminist Magazines: Spare Rib and Ms and the historicising of feminism. She spends her spare time burning toast and arguing with people.