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Why We Need To Ask Celebrities Whether They're Feminists

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Want to make your boring celebrity interview go viral in one easy step? Ask your subject if she's a feminist -- the media loves a young ingenue denouncing the "-ism" du jour.

When TIME magazine asked Shailene Woodley if she was a feminist in May, the "Divergent" star replied: "No because I love men, and I think the idea of 'raise women to power, take the men away from the power' is never going to work out because you need balance."

Her response predictably set off a veritable media frenzy. The backlash prompted Daily Beast reporter Marlow Stern to write that the question itself is "loaded" and "if you say you're not a feminist these days, the pitchforks come out."

Is the "are you or aren't you" question low-hanging fruit, employed to catch celebrities in the act just to get some buzz? Sometimes. But those of us interested in productive dialogue aren't critical of women for saying "I'm not a feminist," but for what they say after "because."

When we ask high-profile women if they are feminists, we can celebrate and promote their allegiance to a pretty agreeable principle, or discuss their reasoning for rejecting it. The "what" is the headline, but the "why" is the teachable moment.

Too many women still acknowledge a culture-wide misinterpretation of feminism, but when given opportunities to clarify and contextualize contemporary feminism, they instead blame the culture for revoking their right to claim it. Other female celebs find the term feminist "too strong" or think it has a "negative connotation." Lady Gaga and Co. subscribe to the "liking men" and "embracing feminism" as mutually exclusive theory. Oh, and according to Lana del Ray, "the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept."

Rejecting "feminism" for "humanism" is a vestigial tick, left over from a generation when feminism felt too radical and alienating. In the past few years, "feminism" has undergone a semantic evolution (or devolution, depending on your outlook) in pop culture. Its affiliation with political activism and ivory tower philosophy persists -- as it should -- but feminism has long entered the mainstream. The generally agreed-upon definiton of a feminist, said by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and christened by Beyonce, is a "person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes."

The case could be made that such a broad definition of feminism neutralizes its more ambitious elements. But distilling it into a compact, largely unimpeachable dose served with a spoonful of sexy ladies (and gents) certainly makes the medicine go down a bit easier -- which is exactly why there's even more of a story when it doesn't.

Woodley's rejection of feminism was particularly jarring. A woman evolved enough to fashion shampoo from the forest, challenge beauty standards and consistently choose dynamic female roles seems like she should be on board with feminism. But should we even care what she says?

At Salon, Rhian Sasseen argued against elevating celebrities to political icons. She pointed out that female celebrities are required to meet certain standards antagonistic to feminism. As such, they are poor vessels for meaningful feminist dialogue.

But aspiring to celebrity, and enduring the pressure to maintain it, does not absolve our public figures from explaining their philosophical positions. It endows them with the responsibility to do so.

The problem, of course, is when public figures incorrectly present their beliefs as being in opposition to the tenets of feminism. Saying you're not a feminist because it's not sisterhood is like saying you don't like Hawaii because it's cold. Homegirl, you've got it all wrong. And someone should tell you. Women's professed alternatives to feminism -- e.g. "sisterhood" or "humanism" -- are often its fundamental basis.

There are media outlets who will manipulate celebrities' misinterpretations of feminism for cheap clicks. Still, asking celebs if they are feminists sniffs some out from the cozy, non-committal grey area between "feminist" and "not a feminist" long enough for us to show that such a place doesn't actually exist.

If the only legitimate completion of "I'm not a feminist because" is "I do not believe in the social, political, and economic equality of women," every report of a female celebrity -- young ingenue or Hollywood pillar -- side-stepping feminism to avoid man-hating or political posturing is an occasion to remind those listening where the movement truly begins. When Shailene Woodley said she didn't identify as a feminist because she "loves men," it became an opportunity to explain why hating men has nothing to do with feminism.

The dialogue that surrounds the "are you a feminist" question is far more important than whether pop culture icons actually identify as feminists. Every answer given is an opportunity to discuss and clarify the term's truest meaning, inch the movement into more neutral territory and promote a deeper understanding of its core tenets. "Do you consider yourself a feminist" doesn't deserve to be a "loaded" question.

In Marlow Stern's recent interview with Shailene Woodley, they seemed to agree that critiquing a female celebrity for saying she is not a feminist amounts to a violation of "sisterhood." "The word 'feminist' is a word that discriminates, and I'm not into that," Woodley told Stern. "I don't think there has to be a separation in life in anything."

The word feminist only has the power to "discriminate" between those who believe in a basic equality and those who don't. There isn't much that differentiates a feminist from a decent human being. Every chance we have to make that clear, we should take.