Off the beat: The ‘feminist’ sellouts

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2013 was the year being a feminist became cool. From Beyonce to Miley Cyrus to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, A-listers moved the gender equality movement from radical fringes to mainstream culture.

Beyonce challenged stereotypical images of black women and publicized her identification as a feminist in her latest album. Sandberg made it popular for professional women to challenge secretary stereotypes on their own and demand a seat at the table in her book, “Lean In.” Miley Cyrus showed girls they can do whatever they want with her performance at the 2013 VMAs to “We Can’t Stop.” Along with countless other A-listers, activists and bloggers, these women rallied behind Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s claim — as sampled in Beyonce’s new album — that “we should all be feminists.”

Thus, it would seem to be a successful year for the feminist movement — right?

Such iconic moments paint a nice picture of the modern feminist movement. I’m skeptical, however, of the round of applause these A-listers are receiving for their “contributions” to the movement. Has 2013 really been a step forward for feminists?

While it’s great that feminism popped up in mainstream media so often this year, how many of those moments distracted the public from the roots of gender inequality? How many even contradicted what feminism stands for?

And while it’s great that 55 percent of women in the United States now identify as feminists, how many understand their own role in perpetuating the sexism and oppression that bell hooks and other feminists have fought against for centuries? How many are, like The Guardian’s Rhiannon Cosslett, merely “half-arsed, accidental feminists”?

It’s a serious problem that Miley Cyrus — notorious for objectifying her black back-up dancers —  calls herself “one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women to not be scared of anything” and that some are actually believing her. Beyonce leaves the new generation of feminists confused. As Tanya Steele wrote in Indiewire, “Thank goodness my niece was not in the room. Having to explain to any young woman how Beyonce, on her knees, was ‘pro-feminist,’ would have been difficult for me.” And Sandberg blurs the line between a passive feminist and a pragmatist, failing to address the structural roots of gender inequality in order to push women to demand their own equality in the office.

I don’t think these celebrities are “icons” of the feminist movement because I don’t consider celebrities who perpetuate the very images that continue to marginalize women as leaders in the fight for women’s rights — even if such images are perpetuated by choice. Doing whatever one wants might be a way of defining women’s enhanced freedom, but it doesn’t define, defend or determine the equality feminists have strived for throughout the past century. Most importantly, these self-proclaimed feminist celebrities do little to change the structural conditions that lead to a society in which one in three women is raped or beaten in her lifetime; where 6 percent of women, compared to 3 percent of men, receive at or below the minimum wage; and where only 19 percent of seats in Congress are held by women.

I’m not sure feminism’s newfound popularity is a step back for the movement, but I do think that such a wide breadth of identification with feminism makes an already commonly misunderstood movement even more complicated, misunderstood and ineffective.

The truth is, feminism isn’t “sexy”  — which is perhaps why Elle held an entire contest to help “re-brand” the movement to wipe away its negative connotations. But true feminism, almost by definition, is not popular. It’s a movement that demands that those of the ruling party (i.e., men) and those who have accepted promoted, or otherwise unintentionally perpetuated a patriarchal system (i.e., almost all of us) challenge the structural conditions that have led to centuries of sexism and gender inequality. Feminism isn’t “sexy” — its difficult, it’s challenging and it’s wildly contradictory to claim it’s a movement led by pop culture queens, celebrities and millionaires.

The women who embrace this harsher definition of feminism as something truly beautiful and worth fighting for are the real icons you should look to with pride when reflecting on the year for outspoken, fearless women.

Women such as Laura Bates, who founded Her Everyday Sexism Project — which has allowed women worldwide to write about the sexual harassment, discrimination and body-shaming they encounter — and Nimko Ali, who spoke out against female genital mutilation despite death threats, are leaders in today’s feminist movement. The women in Delhi who are protesting against rape culture, spreading their demonstrations to Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are leaders in the feminist movement. And policy advocates such as Heidi Hartmann, who continue to fight for gender equality legislation, are leaders in the feminist movement. These are the icons of the movement. It is through their actions that we must define “feminism.”

Is it bad that more women identify as a feminist today because it’s fun, sexy and exciting? I don’t think so. Is it a problem if this broader definition of feminism ignores the harder side of feminism: the side that demands self-recognition of our role in perpetuating a patriarchal world? Yes. Is it a mistake to allow A-listers’ definition of feminism to frame the debate around gender equality? Definitely.

For if those continue to be the voices that dictate the discussion, then that is where the movement will go. Or rather, that is where it will end.

Alyssa Rosenberg stated in an NPR article earlier this month, “Lean In and Beyonce are exciting not because they push feminism into popular culture but because they push feminism and feminists themselves.”

I hope Rosenberg is right; I hope todays’ feminists are pushed. I hope they’re pushed to question the popular lists of “successes” and today’s trending hashtags. And I dearly hope they don’t accept Miley Cyrus as the champion of the modern movement for equality.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

Contact Alex Berryhill at [email protected].