Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty
“Farewell To ... ” is an end-of-decade series that explores some of the biggest cultural trends of the last 10 years. HuffPost’s culture team says bye to the era of “one queen of hip-hop,” so long to lily white and mostly male literary institutions, R.I.P. to the movie star and more.
In October 2010, Taylor Swift was profiled by The New York Times in advance of the release of her new album, “Speak Now.” The piece homes in on her anger, the way that Swift’s musical genius seems directly correlated to how “incensed” she is at the time. As an aside, journalist Jon Caramanica asked Swift whether she was a feminist.
“I have never really thought about that,” she said.
Over the following decade, Swift — and a whole cohort of famous women — spent a lot of time contemplating that very question. Between 2010 and 2015, the question dogged everyone from pop stars (Beyoncé, Lorde, Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson), to actresses (Sarah Jessica Parker, Kaley Cuoco, Shailene Woodley, Susan Sarandon), to reality TV personalities (Patti Stanger), to CEOs (Marissa Mayer), to Martha Stewart. Each time a famous woman was asked whether or not she was a feminist, her one-to-three sentence answer would become national news. The more misguided — “Feminists hate men!” “Feminists have a chip on their shoulder!” “But I’m a humanist!” — the more newsworthy.
But when 2016 presidential election rolled around, the churn of Are-You-A-Feminist-Check-Yes-Or-No celebrity news headlines had slowed to a crawl, only cropping up when a famous person said something more substantive about the political movement.
The rise and fall of the celebrity feminist litmus test provides a helpful lens to consider the decade in feminism at large. When the decade opened, “feminist” was a label that was still considered unpalatable to the masses. It was a word female celebrities would probably be advised to sidestep, allowing them to capitalize on the amorphous concept of female “empowerment” without actually having to get political. As we look toward the decade’s close, the political and cultural climate has shifted dramatically. Feminism is both mainstream and expansive, an essential — and explicitly political — project in a world in which virulent online misogyny has become de rigeur, and in which celebrities (and others who choose to publicly claim the feminist label) are being asked to do the work of feminism, rather than simply pay it lip service.
“I think into the decade, there was this rising popularity of feminism that started off as a slow burn and then increased toward the middle of the decade,” said Caitlin Lawson, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of communication and media at the University of Michigan, whose research largely focuses on celebrity feminism. She pointed to “Girls,” which premiered in 2012, as well as other female-fronted TV shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock,” as cultural products that helped usher in a feminist pop culture moment.
“These white feminist celebrities [like Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey] were incorporating [feminism], particularly into the television content that they were creating,” Lawson said, “‘Girls,’ I think being a particularly spectacular moment where Lena was out there talking about feminism and was this young cool face of what feminism might be.”
2012 was also the year that Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a viral TED Talk, aptly titled “We Should All Be Feminists.” In that talk, Adichie uses the dictionary definition of feminist: “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
There was a growing, nobly intentioned movement to make feminism more accessible and inclusive, and to combat the decades of misinformation and negative stereotypes that had surrounded the movement.
And it worked.
Kaley Cuoco apologized for offending people and said that her comments were taken “out of context.” Katy Perry admitted that she “used to not really understand what that word meant.” Swift also claimed prior ignorance, saying that she had thought that feminism was akin to hating men, not “just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities.” And Swift notably credited her burgeoning friendship with Dunham with helping to usher in her feminist awakening.
When Beyoncé performed in front of a giant projection of “FEMINIST” at the 2014 Video Music Awards — and received widespread and overwhelmingly positive media attention — it was indicative of a cultural sea change, one which had been building in the years prior.
This feminist pop culture moment also coincided with a rise in visible, internet-fueled misogyny, much of which was centered on and directed at prominent women. (Perhaps in part a reaction to the increased acceptance of feminism.)
Gamergate, the online harassment campaign targeting women in the video game industry, began in August 2014. About a week later, a hacker posted more than 500 private photographs from the iCloud accounts of celebrities, primarily women, to 4Chan. The leak, which would be termed “The Fappening,” included intimate photographs of women like Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Jill Scott, Cuoco and Kirsten Dunst. The images were then widely circulated through 4Chan, Reddit and imgur. Both Gamergate and the celebrity nude photo leak kicked off an extended dialogue about institutional sexism, slut-shaming and harassment.
“More and more we had these examples to point to that showed us that we were not past the need for feminism,” Lawson said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily causal … but that summer of 2014 was a huge shift.”
As Hollywood began to increasingly embrace feminism, at least in word, so too did the culture as a whole. (After all, celebrity culture does not operate in a vacuum.) During the mid-2010s, feminism got ... cool. Feminism became trendy, simple and nonthreatening. No killjoys or feminazis in sight.
“The New Do: Calling Yourself A Feminist,” declared Glamour Magazine in October 2013. The movement was used to sell shampoo and body wash and menstrual pads, and even ended up on the Chanel runway. A simple Google search for “feminist gift guide” pulls up pages upon pages of links. (One that we published on HuffPost Women in 2015 includes a Michelle Obama tote bag, a GRL PWR tee, “feminist as fuck” fine jewelry, and a $250 Queen Queen Queen denim jacket.)
Celebrities started throwing out the f-word casually in interviews. Lorde criticized Selena Gomez’s hit “Come & Get It” for not being feminist, and then Gomez responded by turning feminism back on Lorde. “That’s not feminism,” she said. “[Lorde is] not supporting other women.” Miley Cyrus invoked the term to express the freedom of being a single woman: “It has a lot to do with being a feminist, but I’m finally O.K. with being alone.” Katy Perry, newly enlightened feminist, declared that feminism “just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.”
Yes, feminism is ultimately about equality for people of gender identities. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s about defining what that vision of equality will look like and what pathways are required to get there. It’s about legislation and the courts and elections and knocking on doors and protesting in the streets and joining a union and protecting the most vulnerable among us, even if you are not a member of that group.
It is not, however, a selfish proposition of inward acceptance. When it comes to feminism, “loving yourself” is not enough.
After years of watching famous women get grilled about feminism — and answer with varying degrees of ignorance — some feminist journalists began to wonder whether the question itself was contributing to the movement’s hollowing out in the public discourse.
“As more and more female celebrities have flipped to a default yes, the question has yielded diminishing returns,” wrote Amanda Hess in a 2015 piece for Slate, pointing to Cyrus, Cuoco and “Twilight” author Stephanie Meyer. “While stepping up to claim oneself as a feminist used to be somewhat meaningful, the word has now been flattened into a press tour sound bite. And for many celebrities who take it on, the word itself has been reduced to its most benign interpretation — the idea that men and women ought to be equal.”
And then Donald Trump was elected.
Not only had an eminently qualified woman been defeated by an eminently unqualified (and emphatically racist and sexist!) man, but many white women had assisted in that outcome. Overnight, it became abundantly clear to even the most privileged feminists that a backlash — prompted by the fears of “voters threatened by the increased influence of women and people of color,” as Rebecca Traister put it — was upon us.
In this more widely exposed reality, repeatedly asking famous women whether or not they were feminists became even more obviously useless.
“With Donald Trump’s explicitly racist and misogynistic rhetoric, this was another moment where it became clear that the stakes were higher,” Lawson said. “There were serious problems that we needed feminism to address, and it was not going to be addressed through Kaley Cuoco being asked seven times if she’s a feminist and then finally saying, ‘Yes, I guess I am.’”
So many women were angry after the election. And that anger simmered, burned and burst out over the latter half of the decade. Combine this rage with the ease of giving celebrities instantaneous feedback via social media, and you have a perfect recipe for pushback if a famous person who has claimed to be a feminist in the media doesn’t back that assertion up with action.
“You can’t get away with a stupid, pithy definition of feminism and expect to get a cookie for it [anymore],” Lawson said. “You have to be able to speak about it in a more educated, thoughtful, action-based way, or everyone is going to come for you.”
This feedback loop can be used to shame celebrities into more responsible engagement with political issues, and can also be a means of education itself.
Just look at Kim Kardashian West, whose political awakening in the latter half of the decade began because she was “scrolling through Twitter” and came upon the story of Alice Marie Johnson’s fight for clemency. For years, Kardashian West has been the subject of is-she-a-feminist debate. And while there are certainly many things to criticize about Kardashian West’s personal brand (especially with regards to her family’s blindspots about race), she has become an interesting example of a celebrity who has not just talked, but done.
Kardashian West started the decade seen as a “famous for nothing” reality star, and ends it as a bonafide business mogul and a surprisingly effective advocate for prison reform. She is even in the process of getting a law degree, with plans of taking the bar in 2022.
“I just felt like the system could be so different, and I wanted to fight to fix it, and if I knew more, I could do more,” Kardashian West told Vogue earlier this year when explaining her decision to begin a four-year apprenticeship.
And then there’s Swift, who had spent years hyping her feminist awakening and her growing girl squad, but had remained resistant to being overtly political, even when the stakes were high. After she posted an Instagram urging people to vote in November 2016 without endorsing a candidate, she was roundly criticized. The same happened when she tacitly endorsed the January 2017 Women’s March in a tweet without attending.
“As a fan of yours, this is some bullshit,” tweeted one young woman. “You do not get to pick and choose when feminism benefits you.”
Before the 2018 midterm elections, Swift course corrected, openly endorsing a Democratic Senate candidate in her home state of Tennessee. She acknowledged that she had “been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now,” citing her commitment to fighting for LGBTQ rights and against gender discrimination and systemic racism. She also called on her fans to educate themselves and register to vote.
“Whether fans align themselves with her political leanings or not, Swift’s statement helps rectify one of her biggest contradictions as a star,” wrote Maeve McDermott over at USA Today at the time, “that she’s advocated for feminism, the LGBTQ community and the #MeToo movement, making progressive ideals central to her public persona, while declining to share her party affiliation or endorse specific candidates.”
And that brings us to Me Too. First coined by Tarana Burke and then popularized as a hashtag by Alyssa Milano in the wake of mounting allegations against Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, the Me Too movement is probably the single most potent force in moving celebrity feminism out of the realm of one-liners and into the realm of action.
Since the movement initially centered on the entertainment industry, with A-List actresses like Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale, Mira Sorvino and Salma Hayek all speaking out, the battle against sexual harassment in the workplace became inextricably linked to celebrity.
Blessedly, the Me Too movement has also moved beyond just the famous in the entertainment industry, and spread to the workplaces of many non-famous women and people of all genders, from McDonald’s employees to domestic workers to farm workers. But this initial and enduring tie of Hollywood and Me Too further pushed an elevation of the dialogue surrounding celebrity culture and feminism.
“We’re in a very different place than we were in, say, 2013, in terms of the level of conversation that’s going on ... about celebrity culture related to feminism,” Lawson said. “I think Me Too had a part to play in that.”
So, what comes next? Lawson says in an ideal world, the future of celebrity feminism would be based on collective action and substance, rather than soundbites.
And there’s hope for that future to materialize. This year, Jane Fonda moved to D.C. to dedicate her Fridays to protesting inaction on climate change. Sam Waterston, Ted Danson, Sally Field, Diane Lane and Catherine Keener have all joined her ― and gotten arrested with her. And Lawson also pointed to Time’s Up and its Legal Defense Fund as a “really excellent example of what the hope of celebrity feminism might be.”
It might not make for as catchy a headline as “Taylor Swift Is Totally Still A Feminist,” but it’s far more impactful.