Feminism: I Don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means
In an interview for the May issue of Harper’s Bazaar UK, Kirsten Dunst stirred up some controversy with her comments about gender in modern society. “I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued,” she said. “We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking—it’s a valuable thing my mom created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armor. I’m sorry,” she continued, “You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work…”
Unsurprisingly, her opinions garnered some very mixed reactions.
Erin Gloria Ryan of Jezebel tore her a new one (“Kirsten Dunst is not paid to write gender theory so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she’s kind of dumb about it,” she said in a post titled “[Dunst] Thinks Ladies In Relationships Should Wife the Fuck Out”), and Stacy Ritzen of Uproxx mocked both Dunst’s opinion and general existence. On the other end of the spectrum were supportive responses from lesser-known cyberfolk: “A person from Hollywood with common sense? God bless Kirsten Dunst!” one WashingtonTimes.com user commented, while another cheered “Good for Kirsten! It is time to stand up to these liberal fascist feminist thugs.”
Actress Shailene Woodley’s voice rang out across the Internet shortly thereafter, when TIME Magazine asked her if she considered herself a feminist. “No,” she said, “because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.” She added “I’m very in touch with my masculine side,” and that “if men went down and women rose to power, that wouldn’t work either. We have to have a fine balance.”
Not only does this “balance” she’s referring to sound lot like equality, but just a few months ago she told Bust Magazine that feminism “one-hundred percent” consistently influences the way she thinks.
However, according to the magazine, “it’s something she admits she’s still figuring out how to talk about in the press.” Woodley pointed out that “anytime a label comes up, it immediately creates some sort of image in someone’s mind,” and she’s hardly the first female celebrity to back away from the feminist label using that exact defense. Carrie Underwood has stated “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am a feminist,” because “that can come off as a negative connotation. But I am a strong female.” Kelly Clarkson also rejected the label, saying it’s “too strong.” She explained “I think when people hear feminist, it’s like, ‘Get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.’ I love that I’m being taken care of, and I have a man that’s a leader.”
These comments may not be as offensive as pervasive Internet vocabulary like “libtards” and “feminazis,” but idea that feminism is extreme or isolating is on par with accusations of male-bashing and only caring about our ultimate goal of controlling the world. “I am a humanist which means I believe all people of all races and sexes should be treated equally,” said one response to the Dunst interview, “Feminists typically crusade only for females and hate everyone else.”
This is actually an enormous and harmful assumption about feminism, one that takes the label itself out of context. Yes, we call ourselves “feminists” rather than “humanists,” but not because we think women are more important than anyone else; it’s to acknowledge that women are one of the major oppressed groups in the human race, and thus to give ourselves that much more visibility. But that hardly means we fight for women exclusively, or that we don’t fight for men at all; true feminists support all oppressed groups, from women to PoC to the LGBTQ+ community (which both Clarkson and Underwood publicly support), but we also challenge the gender roles and patriarchal structures that condemn men for showing emotion, weakness, or any traditionally “feminine” qualities. And, just to clarify, we don’t want to take the power away from men: we simply want people of all genders, races, and identities to have the same opportunities.
Now, with all of this in mind, let’s take another look at what Dunst said:
“I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued. We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking—it’s a valuable thing my mom created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armor. I’m sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work…”
It’s easy to understand why her words caused so much knee-jerk uproar, but we have to remember one critical thing about feminism: it’s not about every single woman being an ultra-liberal CEO who doesn’t wear makeup or shave her underarms. It’s about every single woman being able to choose how she lives her life, whether it’s as an unmarried lawyer or a stay-at- home mother, or anywhere in between. That’s the fine line that both Dunst and Clarkson walk in their respective interviews—they’re certainly entitled to whichever lifestyle they prefer, but it’s if they attempt to force those preferences onto all women that their beliefs become problematic or “anti-feminist”. Dunst’s wording makes it somewhat hard to tell how universal she wants her beliefs to be, which is why I say “if,” but she does seem to be pushing the anti-feminist boundaries, or at least coming dangerously close to doing so.
Unfortunately, there’s still more at play here than some questionable statements from a celebrity.
Headlines like “Actress sparks feminist ire” and “Kirsten Dunst Offends Feminists,” and some even using the phrase “Feminist thought police” all suggest an air of annoyance (maybe even a Those Darn Feminists eye-roll), as if we’re irritating the whole of society by challenging someone’s opinion on gender roles. If I’m being honest, I think I’m a lot more offended by that insinuation than by any of Dunst’s ideas; she has no control over my personal decisions or lifestyle, but the media can profoundly affect the way a community is perceived, which ironically makes the delivery of the story perhaps more damaging than the story itself.
But it’s not just misinformed celebrities or shitty headlines that are hurting feminism: the movement is doing plenty of damage to itself on a much broader scale, without any help from opposing forces.
Extremely toxic, cissexist environments are fostered when pro-choicers exclude trans* men (who can get pregnant) and include infertile cis women but not trans* women, or when trans* people are left out of the fight against rape culture (“Men don’t run around with genetic test kits when they want to assault someone,” feminist blogger Amy Dentata pointed out, “They look for markers of femininity.”).
Another blogger listed off a brutal summary of the “prescriptive nonsense” plaguing many feminists:
“[The feminist movement] has been guilty of body policing, life choice policing and attacking those women who choose options or exhibit traits that it deems to be part of the sexism aligned axis of kyriarchy. Thin women are attacked with body policing with catchphrases like ‘real women have curves’ and ‘eat a sandwich’. Women who choose to work in porn or in sex work are attacked in some really awful ways, as their self-determination is stripped from them by the women who claim to protect the self-determination of us all.”
She went on to acknowledge the disservice to women of color and women with disabilities that’s been rampant both on the blogosphere and in the real world, but also the lack of self-awareness, or feminists owning up to their errors. “Feminists have this really bad habit of disavowing anything in their movement that makes them look bad,” she said. “[And] since you’re spending your time trying to protect your reputation as an ally or prove feminism doesn’t have bigotry and bullshit instead of actually fighting the issues, you’re actually proving that you’re a bad ally and that you’re part of feminism’s problem.”
It’s cool if Dunst wants to be a stay-at- home mom and let her Knight in Shining Armor bring home the bacon, and if Clarkson enjoys being taken care of by her leading man; neither of these mindsets are inherently anti-feminist. What’s not okay is Dunst or anyone else insisting that all women should want that same thing, or the media shifting unwarranted negativity onto a group of people whose only goal is equality for all human beings, or bored Internet users trying to convince everyone that that’s not the case.
Perhaps magazines and entertainment sites should stop asking celebrities if they identify as feminists, and instead ask them if they understand what feminism is; perhaps then we could stop perpetuating stereotypes and harmful inaccuracies so our favorite singers and actresses will stop running away from the “f-word”.
I pose this idea to Woodley, Underwood, and company: rather than avoiding the feminist label for fear of its negative images or connotations, how about you reinvent them? Don’t dismiss the word as scary or extreme; show everyone how important it is—how human it is—to support the unsupported and to use your own privilege to fight for those who have none.