Saturday 16 November 2019

We should all be 'better' feminists?

Feminism in the Age of Celebrity is a tricky business, with Emma Watson and Beyonce doing as much damage with their silly feuds as they do good by striking the pose. Lucky for us, here in Ireland, we have very clear targets

Emma Watson was called a hypocrite by Beyonce fans after taking part in this 'Vanity Fair' shoot
Emma Watson was called a hypocrite by Beyonce fans after taking part in this 'Vanity Fair' shoot
Beyonce performs on stage
Beyonce places herself firmly in the feminist camp
Research has found that Taylor Swift turns people off feminism
Chrissie Hynde lost all her feminist credentials
Daniella Moyles. Photo: David Conachy
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Caitlin Moran
Madonna poses backstage at Brooklyn Museum

Emily Hourican

We should all be feminists. That, taken from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2013 Ted Talk, is the line that appeared on a series of Dior T-shirts last year, snapped up and proudly worn by heaps of celebrities, including Rihanna and Natalie Portman.

And, of course, we should all be feminists. Indeed, many of us are. The problem is - maybe has always been - what exactly does a feminist look like? Now, I know Benedict Cumberbatch and Barack Obama, among many others, have tried to answer this via the time-honoured medium of T-shirt slogans, but, good intentions aside, it's not that easy and may even be getting harder.

Actually, Irish feminists may be lucky. Let me explain. Ok, it's tough to live in a country where our reproductive rights are the property of other people - indeed, of old-fashioned, male-dominated institutions; where 93pc of childcare is done by women (the worst record out of 37 countries recently surveyed by the Overseas Development Institute, including Iraq and Algeria); where the gender pay gap is over 14pc; and our very Constitution patronises and squashes us. But what this kind of blatant sexism does provide is a series of clear and visible targets; a number of giant 'Xs' to aim at.

There need be nothing woolly about Irish feminism. 'Repeal The Eighth', for example, is a rallying cry being heard by thousands, a cry that cuts through any amount of vague and uncommitted discourse like a red-hot knife through butter, slicing efficiently through all the tedious 'Well, I don't call myself a feminist, but …' type stuff.

Which is not to say that the women's movement in Ireland is any kind of fairy-tale sisterhood, all happy-clappy and braiding each other's hair. There is plenty of dissent, many differing priorities, even a fair bit of antagonism over who is getting it 'right'.

But there are also clear and common goals. Common enemies and indignities. And that is always very galvanising, whether we're talking the anyone-but-England rule in sport or modern feminism. Where the women of other developed nations may be humming and hawing around where exactly to put their energies, Irish feminists have plenty of wonderfully obvious attack-points.

Magical thinking

And what's interesting is just how much more effective it is when there are real and glaring targets to hone in on, rather than relying on the magical thinking of celebrity-feminist inspiration.

For a while, it seemed as if celebrity endorsement might work for feminism in the same way it worked for cosmetic and fashion brands - that young women would take to active, committed feminism because Rihanna and Beyonce declared themselves in favour.

Except they didn't. Quite the opposite, in fact.

A study done late last year - a proper study involving 6,000 people and two years of research - found that celebrity involvement is actually making women's rights seem like a trivial matter, and causing people to care less about it. Only 20pc of people said they cared more about gender equality issues due to a celebrity's involvement, with many more (30pc) saying that Taylor Swift's involvement in any feminist issue made them care less about it.

Now, that may just be the specific effect of Taylor Swift but, on balance, I think not.

Beyonce rocking out in front of a giant lit-up sign spelling 'Feminist' is somehow not having the desired effect either. Even Emma Watson getting pious about how "feminism is about freedom", or Amy Schumer saying that anyone who is not a feminist is "an insane person", are not quite cutting it.

And frankly, this is as much because the celebrities have blown it, as it is because young women are starting to realise that there is a limit to how much Natalie Portman or Sheryl Sandberg, no matter how well-meaning, can ever really identify with their lives.

The problem - one of them, anyway - is the way in which celebrities have fallen into the trap of trying to out-feminist each other.

Yes, we should all be feminists, but right now some of us think we are 'more feminist' or 'better feminists' than others. Perhaps some always did - Camille Paglia versus Naomi Wolf, anyone? - but recently we have seen this kind of antagonistic approach increasing, guided into place by a few high-profile celebrity-feminist death-matches. And, irritatingly, this is happening exactly at the same time as a genuine groundswell of popular interest and enthusiasm seems to be finally dispelling the apathy and confusion of recent years around what precisely feminism is, who it's for and why we should be bothered with it.

Pitched battle

Feminism is hitting its stride again with the recent Women's Marches. On a macro level, these are against Trump; for girl power and greater equality; and against oppression. Locally, we have Repeal The Eighth to get our teeth into; an ongoing fight for basic gender equality; a pitched battle against pornography; and the relatively newer Waking the Feminists, something Emma Donoghue, Deirdre O'Kane, Gabriel Byrne and Saoirse Ronan have all come out in support of.

It's working. This kind of agitation is happening in a way that feels wonderfully broad-based, inclusive, tolerant and cheerful, and yet, on an individual level, the movement is as splintered as ever, with way too much media attention taken up by a series of feminist feuds among various celebrities and writers.

This is confusing for those of us who look to celebrities for guidance, and irritating for the many of us who don't, but would like them at least to behave with decorum and not let down the side by scrapping and nipping at each other's heels.

The Emma Watson-versus-Beyonce celebrity-feminist death-match has been going on for years now. It began with odious comparisons between Beyonce's album Beyonce and Watson's UN speech launching the HeForShe campaign, pitting them against each other. Even Vanity Fair got on board, saying that Watson's "widespread influence on young minds (still forming their opinions on gender roles and advocacy) is even stronger than other high-profile defenders of the F-word like Beyonce".

This, of course, was just what we all needed - an arena, a few sharpened sticks and the galvanising news that there can be only one victor.

Watson herself had previously added petrol to the flames by saying, a bit pompously, that she felt "conflicted" over Beyonce's music videos: "On the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her ..." Although she ultimately concluded that Bey was "making her sexuality empowering because it was her choice", the damage, in an era of soundbites and 140-word manifestos, was done.

Then, last month, Watson posed for a series of photos for Vanity Fair, some of which are a bit boob-y, and the battle was back on. "Hypocrite" screamed a legion of Beyonce fans, who demanded Watson apologise to Beyonce.

Chrissie Hynde, who surely has all the credentials to be considered a 'good' feminist - creative, articulate, independent, successful on her own terms in a male-managed industry, still hot at 65 - apparently blew the whole lot, yes, all those hard-earned years of feminist capital, a year ago when she dared to say that she felt that she was responsible for a rape that happened when she was 21 because she was off her face and foolish. "You can't paint yourself into a corner and then say 'whose brush is this?'" she said. "You have to take responsibility. I mean, I was naive," and later "If you play with fire, you get burnt. It's not any secret, is it?"

She was promptly reviled, accused of 'victim-blaming' and sending 'a dangerous message'. In the People Versus Chrissie Hynde, Chrissie was very definitely the loser.

The Future Is Feminist And it's not just the celebrities. Writers and intellectuals too are getting sucked in. Germaine Greer seems to have angered an entire generation of feminists with her comments about transgender women not being 'real' women, to the point where, on International Women's Day last month, there were calls to boycott her appearance at an event in Brighton.

If even Germaine isn't safe - and she's like Boxer in Animal Farm for goodness' sake; the spirit of feminism - then what hope have any of us?

Sooner or later, unless we all adopt the blandest form of feminism around, one that is non-confrontational, non-judgmental, entirely open and accepting, then it looks like we are all going to fall foul of someone or something claiming to be 'more' feminist than we are.

And the problem with all this infighting - apart from the fact that it is undignified and distracting (how are we meant to fight the patriarchy if we are busy fighting each other?) - is that it plays to ancient and unhelpful stereotypes around women. That we can't get along; that we are all 'bitchy' and need men to keep us in order and give us a wider focus, otherwise we go down in a tangle of flailing arms and legs, scrapping over whose cherry pie recipe is better and who flirted with whose husband.

Plus, it turns all that wonderful energy inwards, not outwards. What a waste to be berating Lena Dunham for focussing too much of her comedy around sex and body image, when we could be using that breath to scream 'no way' at Donald Trump again.

Feminism never will be a single homogenous entity, its aims and objectives formally agreed by committee and never deviated from. It can't, and shouldn't be. Feminism is a messy, broad-based collective of individuals - all with their own lives, problems, hopes and dreams - loosely unified by concerns that cross all faultlines.

So many questions

There is never just one 'race question', or one 'women's question'. There are many - ever-changing, transmogrifying and adapting to complex circumstances.

Within the overarching reflection: 'How can the world be made more equal for women?', there are a thousand sub-sections: How can I get paid more? Be better educated? Spend more time with my kids? Stop my co-worker sending me dick pics? Protect my daughter from the kind of abuse that masquerades as cultural norms?

Sometimes, these will be subsumed into a wider urgency - how can we stop Donald Trump ruining everything we and our mothers fought for? - and other times, in the absence of a unifying wider urgency, we will all go off on our separate tangents again, finding common cause mainly with women who have similar life circumstances to ours.

There is no one kind of feminism, but, right now, you'd be forgiven for thinking there should be, because of the level of public attention paid to the infighting of a few.

The point about Emma Watson, Beyonce, Taylor Swift is that they are celebrities first, women and feminists second. Which means that their urgencies are far more likely to be based around the need for headlines and publicity than anything else, no matter how worthy. And sometimes, a good feud is a better way of generating these than a new hairstyle or romance, or political stance.

So yes, they mean it when they talk the feminist talk, but are also easily distractable when something new and shiny flashes across their path. And celebrities are not known for their consistency. Emma Watson may be a credible UN ambassador, but she is also the star of Beauty and the Beast, a heart-warming tale about Stockholm syndrome, where the heroine falls in love with the man who overpowered her and locked her in a castle.

Which is not to be snide, but simply to point out that there are imperatives to the celebrity life that have nothing to do with the rest of us, and that mean we must resist taking them too seriously, no matter how much they seem to want us to.

Feminism is poised to become the big collective movement of our age, gathering causes such as ecology, race and poverty into one irresistible, rolling mass. Somehow - among all the outrage and upset caused by Trump, by Brexit, by refugees, racism and a thousand different forms of discrimination and oppression - it is the women's movement that seems to be rising to the occasion: marching, mobilising, standing tall. And this feels exciting in a way that feminism hasn't since the 1970s. Here in Ireland, we have both a headstart and a few highly mobilising issues.

If the celebs want to get on board with this - great. But let's not look to them for guidance. The answers and inspiration lie here, close to home, not in Hollywood.

A who's who of celebrity feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Queen of Feminism, and everyone's latest favourite fem-crush, above. Her word is law, her approval like magic pixie dust. Crosses boundaries effortlessly: author, intellectual, style icon, fashion collaborator and friend-to-the-famous.

Caitlin Moran

Feminist-Zero. Sometimes it seems as if Caitlin, right, single-handedly revived our seriously flagging feminist spirits. Funny, rude, whip-smart, she took a whole lot of nonsense out of the debate, instructing us to put our hands down our pants: "a) Do you have a vagina? and b) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said 'yes' to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist". Decades of antagonistic debate sorted, right there.

Emma Watson

The Earnest Feminist. Watson takes her role as public feminist very, very seriously. Which makes her, perhaps, a little lacking in humour, but so very worthy. For those who like their feminism with a dose of piety.


The Fierce Feminist. Got-it-flaunt-it-own-it feminist. Reclaimed 'expressing your sexuality' and turned it into the kind of statement we all want to make. Good at conveying the very essence of feminism via a perfectly executed twerk.

Taylor Swift

The Reluctant Feminist. Maybe even the unconvincing feminist? No matter how much Swift claims the label, she has yet to do anything very meaningful with it. The people are not loving her, or feeling very convinced by her.


Madonna feminist.jpg
Madonna poses backstage at Brooklyn Museum

Events may have somewhat overtaken Madge, right, but for those of us who reached the age of feminist enlightenment - I'm putting this at 14 - any time in the early to mid 1980s, Madonna will always be up there with Germaine Greer. With The Female Eunuch in one hand, and Material Girl blasting behind us, we were unstoppable. Now, seeing Madonna blaze a trail for 'I'm-60-(nearly)-but-I'm-sexy' is both appalling and wonderful. Exactly as it should be.

Daniella Moyles

Daniella Moyles. Photo: David Conachy

The DJ and model, above, seems to live it effortlessly, using her newspaper column to champion women's marches and take good, hard swipes at trolls, Trump, Piers Morgan and anyone else trying to restrict freedom or shame women.

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