Retiring the 'F' word is just a step back in our fight to gain equality
Published 06/10/2015 | 02:30
Actresses in Hollywood work in the most sexist industry on the planet, so why are so many of them so reluctant to describe themselves as feminists?
The latest high-profile star to recoil from the 'F word' is Meryl Streep, who ironically chose a promotional tour for her new movie Suffragette to renounce the term.
"I am a humanist. I am for a nice easy balance," she told 'Time Out' magazine, when asked if she considered herself a feminist.
Streep's confession was surprising for a number of reasons, not least because she is a feminist, even if she refuses to embrace the term. Last month, she revealed she had personally written to every single member of Congress asking them to support the Equal Rights Amendment, a campaign seeking to have parity for women enshrined in the US constitution.
"I am writing to ask you to stand up for equality - for your mother, your daughter, your sister, your wife or yourself - by actively supporting the equal rights amendment," she wrote, later expressing disappointment that just five of the 535 politicians she contacted had responded to her message.
Streep has also been a vocal critic of the under-representation of women in the film industry. She jumped out of her seat and applauded at the Oscars this year when Patricia Arquette used her speech to call for equal pay for women, and last month announced she was setting up a screenwriters' lab for female writers over 40.
Meanwhile, confusingly, last year during a raucous speech in which she accused Walt Disney of being a "gender bigot" who "didn't really like women", she proudly proclaimed herself to be a "rabid, man-eating feminist" - a moniker she now seems to have renounced.
So, why, when Streep is unashamedly involved in feminist political campaigns and uses her money and status as Hollywood royalty to exclusively promote female writers, has she suddenly rejected the word that best describes her position?
More importantly, why would an actress many view as a feminist icon - who famously rewrote her dialogue in Kramer v Kramer to make her character more sympathetic and undercut the movie's latent hostility towards the women's movement - not see the glaring disconnect between her words and her deeds?
Streep may be a humanist, but that doesn't mean she's not also a feminist. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they mean different things.
Both humanism and feminism are concerned with equality, but feminists believe special attention needs to be paid to structural inequalities in society that disadvantage women in order for lasting equality between the sexes to be attained.
Streep announcing that she values humans generally is all well and good, but different groups in society suffer discrimination in different ways.
Ignoring the reality of the intersection of gender, race and poverty and pretending we inhabit a meritocratic paradise in which everyone has the same opportunities is just wishful thinking that won't break down entrenched barriers.
Regrettably, people like Streep, whose campaigning work suggests she understands this and is eager to challenge the status quo, seem to think it's more expedient to discard the term feminism and instead couch its aims and ambitions in language that's deemed less divisive and troublesome.
Streep isn't the first actress to prefer the term humanist.
A couple of years ago, Susan Sarandon said she thought of herself as a humanist because "it's less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches".
Ditching the word feminism may appeal to those ignorant knuckle-draggers who view feminists as a homogenous group of shrill harpies who spend their days plotting men's demise, but why should a word laden with history, political theory and tradition be dumped just to appeal to some lowest common denominator?
Instead of admitting defeat and retiring the word feminism, privileged women like Streep and Sarandon, who have benefited from the feminist movement and now find themselves in a position to influence public discourse, should be reclaiming the word.
This is especially true given the industry in which they work is notoriously sexist, disappearing women from view as soon as they have the temerity to live beyond 30.
It's no secret that Hollywood is obsessed with youth, but research conducted by Dr Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg has revealed the extent of the mania.
She found that between 2007 and 2014 women comprised just 30pc of all speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing films distributed in the US, while just 20pc of those parts were of characters aged between 40 and 64. Last year, the representation of women on screen reached its nadir when female actors took just 12pc of leading roles in the 100 top-grossing movies.
This is a subject that was broached by Maggie Gyllenhaal recently, when she revealed that one producer told her she was too old, aged 37, to play the love interest of a male actor aged 55, nearly 20 years her senior.
Anne Hathaway, at the grand old age of 32, has also said she is losing out on parts to actresses who are 10 years younger.
"When I was in my early twenties, parts would be written for women in their fifties and I would get them. And now I'm in my early thirties and I'm like, why did that 24-year old get that part?" she said, in an interview with 'Glamour' magazine.
This is not something that's not just bad for the careers of female actresses. It's also poisoning popular culture by perpetuating a warped representation of women on screen that creates an impossible beauty standard to live up to.
Jennifer Lawrence was just 22 when she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in American Hustle, but her character was supposed to be in her mid-fifties when much of the story took place. Lawrence is a great actor, but was she convincing as a middle-aged housewife?
Streep and Sarandon may think that discarding feminism and adopting humanism is the best way to tackle inequality in their industry, but all it does is give succour to those who stereotype feminists as men-hating or believe the movement is antiquated and redundant.
Actors like Streep, who is among the most revered of her generation, have a responsibility to a younger generation not to pull the ladder up behind them.