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Living in an age of celebrity feminism

The Oscars are like prom for Hollywood: a time for glitz, glamour, and celebration of (debatably) the best films of the year.

They’ve also steadily gained a reputation as a hub for sexism disguised as admiration, as women on the red carpet are inevitably asked, “Who are you wearing?” and consequently criticized or applauded all over the Internet and television as the telecast goes on.

This year’s ceremony, however, indicated something a little different for the state of Hollywood and gender: It proved we live in an age of celebrity feminism.

Reese Witherspoon championed the #AskHerMore campaign, developed by The Representation Project and Smart Girls, and Patricia Arquette — now somewhat infamously — used her acceptance speech to call for wage equality between men and women in the United States.

Witherspoon and Arquette are not unique in their supposed celebrity “endorsements” of feminism. 2014 was something of a watershed for the reputation of the movement among young people: Celebrities like Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé openly declared that they were feminists, and no one can forget Emma Watson’s notable speech at the United Nations in September.

It’s great that the word “feminism” might be losing some of its recently garnered sting, but the process by which that’s happening is problematic.

“Feminism” isn’t becoming acceptable (as if it ever should have been unacceptable) because people have begun to understand it organically, but because pretty, popular women have chosen to endorse it like it’s their latest new CoverGirl deal. Roxane Gay, a US columnist for The Guardian, recently wrote:

“But it irks me that we more easily embrace feminism and feminist messages when delivered in the right package — one that generally includes youth, a particular kind of beauty, fame and/or self-deprecating humour. It frustrates me that the very idea of women enjoying the same inalienable rights as men is so unappealing that we require — even demand — that the person asking for these rights must embody the standards we’re supposedly trying to challenge.”

Professor Gay goes on to say that these feminist brand ambassadors are a “gateway to feminism,” and I fully agree: none of these female celebrities (or male, if you count men like Harry Styles) are substantive voices of feminism. These are people who might understand an ideology, but none of them should be considered the Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem of our generation.

Instead, we need to pay attention to the feminists to whom they might point (e.g. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Beyoncé’s song “***Flawless”).

Even Emma Watson’s heralded speech did not contain groundbreaking ideas. While Watson propagated the idea that men need feminism to be free from gender stereotypes (specifically, to be able to emote without consequence), we must remember that Ruth Bader Ginsburg built her career as a lawyer by using male plaintiffs in equal protection cases.

For example, in Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975), Ginsburg argued against a provision in the Social Security Act that denied widowed fathers benefits afforded to widowed mothers, including in her claims (according to the American Civil Liberties Union) that the law “denied men the same opportunity as women to care personally for their children.

According to Ginsburg’s legal partner Brenda Feigen, “Both of us agreed that we didn’t want to deprive the fathers of our children of the experience of being fathers — or the children of having fathers involved in their daily lives.” It is clear that the way Watson pointed out male discrimination in order to shed light on female discrimination is not a novel concept. Watson, therefore, is simply a gateway to feminism.

No one can argue that female celebrity feminists are not living up to feminist ideals in their own right — after all, they are successful women who are comfortable and eager to be in the spotlight, something that was impermissible in the United States for centuries.

One can argue that Taylor Swift is a feminist icon because she declared her worth by pulling her music off Spotify. The accomplishments of Swift and other celebrities are tangible, but they are the products of waves of feminism that came before them.

We must prevent anyone from thinking that these celebrities are the women who fully define feminism. We must see them as guides to the women who have done the legwork before them.

Caitlin Lansing is a 2014 graduate of Princeton University, where an adamant belief that “freak shows turned into beauty pageants” propelled her to write a 90-page history thesis about it. A former dancer and college cheerleader, she is no stranger to body scrutiny, and seeks to challenge the idea that one’s worth is intimately tied to appearance.

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