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Sean P. Means: Celebrities get tripped up over the F-word ('feminism')

Published May 10, 2014 1:24 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Once again this week, the F-word popped up in the pop culture conversation.

Yes, that F-word: "feminism."

This time the conversation started when Eliana Dockterman, a writer for Time magazine, asked actress Shailene Woodley — whose most recent movie role was as a take-charge young woman in a dystopian society in "Divergent" — whether she's a feminist.

Her answer: "No, 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."

Now, granted, taking political and social cues from a 22-year-old movie actor — even one as talented as Woodley — is perilous at best. But Woodley is looked up to by America's youth, particularly young girls who watch her onscreen (in "Divergent" or this summer's romance "The Fault in Our Stars") and see a role model.

Woodley continued that her focus "is really sisterhood more than feminism. I don't know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don't even seem to respect each other." (She went on to find a model for sisterhood in the characters in the awful revenge comedy "The Other Woman" — which proves that she may be a fine role model, but she needs more practice as a movie critic.)

There's been a resurgence in discussing the word "feminism," and the idea of it, by celebrities in recent months. Much of the talk started in January with an essay on Maria Shriver's news website "The Shriver Report" by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. In the essay, with the headline "Gender Equality Is a Myth!," Beyoncé reminded people that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men — and "unless women and men both say this is unacceptable, things will not change."

In the months since Beyoncé's essay, celebrity interviewers and social observers have been keeping score about which female celebrities consider themselves feminists and which do not.

In the "no" column are Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Katy Perry. In the "yes" column are Ellen Page, Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham and Katy Perry. (Perry's answer to the question has been wavering.)

Often, how a celebrity answers is determined by how she defines the word.

Take, for example, this quote from Clarkson in a Time interview last fall: "I wouldn't say [I'm a] feminist, that's too strong. I think when people hear 'feminist' it's just 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 an actual leader. I'm not a feminist in that sense."

For others, the idea of equating "feminism" with "man-hating" is infuriating. Here's Dunham, speaking last year to a British newspaper: "Women saying 'I'm not a feminist' is my greatest pet peeve. Do you believe that women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs? Do you believe that women should be allowed to leave the house? Do you think that women and men both deserve equal rights? Great, then you're a feminist."

Some would say the negativity toward the word "feminism" was prompted by the stridency of some members of the women's rights movement of the '60s and '70s. A bigger share of the blame goes to old-guard men who demonized women's rights because they didn't want to release their grip on power. (Exhibit A: right-wing blowhard Rush Limbaugh's awful coinage of "femi-Nazis.")

If one is still searching for a good definition of "feminism," then the Utah author Shannon Hale ("Austenland," "Princess Academy") served up some great ones on her Twitter feed Monday, after Woodley's Time interview exploded on the Internet.

"Feminism does not mean 'down with men,' " Hale wrote. "Feminism does not mean women are trying to turn into men. Feminism does not mean hatred for men and love for women. …

"Feminism is an idea: 'Wouldn't it be great if gender didn't impede a person's progression?', and then all can differ on how and the details," Hale continued. "Feminism says if a woman is more qualified than a man for a job, then her femaleness shouldn't prevent her getting it. Feminism says that if a man is more qualified for a job than a woman, then he should get it. And then feminism says if men are more qualified than women for certain jobs let's look at why and help girls get educated."

On those terms, I declare myself a feminist. It's hard to imagine a reason, besides bald-faced determination to take advantage of unfairness for personal gain, why anyone wouldn't be.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.