What do celebrities like Taylor Swift, Lorde and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have in common? They are all part of a recent wave of public figures who have publicly declared themselves feminists. For many, the embrace of feminism comes after realizing the misconceptions they had harbored about the term. Others, like Beyonce, have begun to weave the feminist movement into their art. Though celebrity feminism may be an unexpected vehicle for popularizing the feminist movement, we have high hopes for the change it can catalyze.
The celebrity feminism movement has the potential to launch to the fore broader conversations about feminism and social justice that heretofore have remained largely taboo. Pop culture icons are, in a way, ideal vehicles for spreading ideas, given their unique access to and influence over a broad range of people. By encouraging people to have conversations about feminism, they can galvanize people to learn, reflect and think critically. Artists like Beyonce have taken the next step to incorporate feminism into their music, slowly introducing the term to common vernacular via the radio or MTV. Take, for example, Beyonce’s new song, Flawless, in which she features Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of feminism from her Ted Talk, “We should all be feminists”—“Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” Not to mention, Beyonce’s performance of the song at the MTV Video Music Awards before the giant word “FEMINIST.”
Part of the power of the celebrity feminism movement is its effect of simplifying feminism. At Duke and in the greater community, many shy away from feminism or perceive it to be a taboo subject in part because of common misconceptions. Namely, the image of feminists as crazy, bra-burning women. Yet the hesitance may also stem from the fact that feminism, with its myriad distinct and oftentimes radically different branches, is simply too complex to understand. By simplifying and distilling the message, these celebrities are opening the doors to conversations. This celebrity feminism is also beneficial in the way that it has promoted greater thinking of how other aspects of identity, such as race, relate to feminism.
Yet simplification is a double-edged sword that can lead to unintended consequences. The complexities that get lost in translation could deter, rather than galvanize, people towards feminism. Celebrities and audience alike should thus take the opportunity to truly engage with feminism.
Any problem as large as gender inequality won’t be solved by a celebrity making a stand for it, or even a wave of celebrity feminists. Even at Duke, problems will continue to persist. We do believe, however, that it can be a positive start to a conversation about feminism. The keyword is start—this movement is not perfect, but it can encourage greater understanding and galvanize action on the problem of gender inequality. The term “feminist” has at last hit popular mass airwaves, and it is up to us, the masses, to tune in.