I am often asked what I think of “celebrity feminism”. Specifically, when I talk to young people, I’m asked what I think of various famous women and their followers who have taken up the F-word since the whole concept became cool a few years ago. In the past week alone I’ve been asked to judge Emma Watson, Beyoncé and Kesha, the pop star whose public fight with her record company for the right not to make music with her alleged rapist has mobilised an army of online support around the world.
You know, I thought feminism was about supporting women fighting structural misogyny in every industry and none. Apparently I was wrong. What it’s really about is determining which women are most politically pure and ranking them accordingly, after we’ve finished judging them on their hairstyles and sexual choices.
Feminism has hit the mainstream in a serious way, and that’s causing a bit of an identity crisis. Can we still be radical when pop stars proudly use the F-word? Can we still fight for unglamorous things such as maternity leave and abortion rights when Chanel is marching models down the runway dressed as banner-waving feminist protesters? Can you maintain a critique of capitalist patriarchy if you bought the “feminist” slogan T-shirt?
Celebrity feminists make it easy to fall back on purity politics, because celebrity feminists always fail: partly because they’re mostly young, creative women living under the sort of relentless public scrutiny that makes Airstrip One look like a yoga retreat. The latest to mess up in public is Emma Watson, the young actress and UN goodwill ambassador best known for playing Hermione Granger, “the brightest witch of her age”, in the Harry Potter films.
Let’s make no bones about it: it was a big mistake for Watson to lend her face to a Lancôme “skin brightening” cream in 2013. Never mind the question of whether someone with a passion for equality should be shilling for the beauty industry at all – it was distinctly un-Hermione-like behaviour. The whole thing was a sad-trombone moment, not least because it cried out for some catty writer to describe Watson as “the whitest witch of her age”.
You see? I was mean just then and I’m not proud of it, and patriarchy remains unshaken. I’d like to apologise to Emma Watson. I remember when I used to spot her sitting at the bus stop in Oxford by herself. She probably can’t take the bus any more, because when she’s not being harassed by the hordes of sexist photographers and creepy fans who’ve followed her around since her teens, she has to deal with snobby feminists like me getting all superior because we were reading theory while she was quite busy being a child star.
Just because I was a feminist before it was cool doesn’t mean I have to be a snooty hipster about it. I think Watson’s analysis is pretty basic, but in this messed-up world someone’s got to put on a pretty frock and make the bare argument that women are human so that the rest of us can get on with undermining the gender binary and destroying the wage gap. Trying to develop your politics in the public eye is like being forced to sight-read a sheet of music in front of an audience of thousands, half of whom are screaming insults at you from every side.
Yes, Emma Watson messed up, and she has since apologised for hawking products “which do not always reflect the diverse beauty of all women”, and so she should.
Yet if this is the feminist hunger games, we should remember who the real enemy is: it’s the companies that make money by telling us we all need to be thinner, prettier and whiter. Sure, I’d like Emma Watson to do better. I’d like Lena Dunham to do better. I’d like to do better myself. We could all do better – within the women’s movement, within the left – but we never will if we make witch-burning part of our political practice, or judge ourselves too harshly when we wear an outfit or make a decision that doesn’t seem “correctly feminist”. It’s the same broken logic of blame that insists that you can’t be anti-capitalist if you own a smartphone, or have ever, in a moment of weakness, let a drop of imperialist chain cappuccino pass your sinful lips.
And then there’s Kesha.
I have so much love for Kesha. Kesha is a weird, sexy wreck of a woman who spells her name with a dollar sign, sings about getting wasted and partying all night, and cries constantly in public. She is almost nobody’s idea of what a feminist icon should look like, and that’s exactly why she is brilliant.
Feminism, you see, is not about who you are. It’s about what you do. Right now, Kesha is doing feminism in the bravest and most important way she can – by refusing to “save” her career by dropping her allegations against her producer. With that simple, brave act, she is inspiring an entire industry, and millions of women and girls to take a stand against abuse. It doesn’t matter whether she identifies as a feminist. It doesn’t matter if she’s ever read The Second Sex. It doesn’t matter that she’s wealthy and famous and dresses like a mad stripper clown. In fact, the last thing actively helps.
Celebrity women, too, are living in a patriarchy, compromising to survive, and working within a system whose rules they did not choose. Many of them are young and vulnerable. Kesha’s court battle is a public reminder of that fact.
Patriarchy, I think, holds women to impossible standards and shames them when inevitably they fail to meet these. Feminism must not do the same. And if “pop-feminism” means a young woman in the public eye can fight rape culture, challenge the inequity of a whole industry and expect to be believed, then I’m all for it. You sing it, and I’ll dance. Oh, and #FreeKesha.
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war