WOMEN
05/03/2016 12:03 pm ET Updated May 03, 2016

How Feminism Became 'Trendy' (And Why We Should Care)

Is "cool feminism" a bad thing?
Is celebrity feminism better than nothing at all?
Getty Images
Is celebrity feminism better than nothing at all?

Beyoncé. Emma Watson. Miley Cyrus. Oprah. Lena Dunham.

What do all of these celebrities have in common, beside being famous ladies? They've all publicly identified as feminists in the past few years, during the era of the celebrity feminist -- or, as Andi Zeisler writes in her new book, the time in which "feminism got cool." 

Zeisler, author and co-founder of Bitch Media, chronicles feminism's recent rise to mainstream popularity in her new book We Were Feminists OnceFrom celebrities jumping on the feminist bandwagon, to brands like Always and Dove creating entire ad campaigns around empowering women -- feminism has undoubtedly become "trendy." 

"It's this very weird parallel world where on the one hand feminism is now considered very cool -- it's an aesthetic, it's something that celebrities embrace, it's something mainstream media uses as a hook to get people interested," Zeisler told The Huffington Post. "But at the same time, feminism itself -- the need for feminism and the many ways in which it's an unfinished project -- seems increasingly disconnected to that 'cool feminism.'" 

One look at your Facebook feed and you'll probably see viral videos telling women to "throw like a girl" or reminding men to #ShareTheLoad when it comes to household chores. These tag lines are feel-good and empowering, but they're also ultimately used to sell products like laundry detergent, sanitary pads and paper towels

Zeisler dubs this recent phenomenon "marketplace feminism." "It involves picking and choosing and taking on the parts of the ideology or practice that appeal to you and then ignoring those that don't," Zeisler said.

So is celebrity and marketplace feminism better than nothing at all? Or are we just watering down a movement that still has a lot of work to do? The Huffington Post spoke with Zeisler to find out what she thinks. 

Why do you think it’s important to discuss the intersection of feminism with pop culture?

Pop culture is such an important conduit in terms of how people form their impressions about the world, and how they identify who they are and what they like. We kind of organize ourselves from when we're very young into affinity groups in part based on the movies, the sports and the books we like. As culture becomes more mediated, it's important to be able to look at pop culture critically and really think about its messages, what it's trying to sell us and what kind of values it's imparting.

How do you feel about the fact that feminism, as you write in your book, has just recently “become cool?”

It's this very weird parallel world where on the one hand feminism is now considered very cool -- it's an aesthetic, it's something that celebrities embrace, it's something that certainly mainstream media uses as a hook to get people interested. But at the same time feminism itself -- the need for feminism and the many ways in which it's an unfinished project -- seems sort of increasingly disconnected to that "cool feminism." That's a very strange dynamic because the conclusion it ends up pressing is that the people who can't afford to buy into this "cool feminism" don't matter. When, in fact, those are the people we need to be trying to reach, those are the people for whom feminism is still incredibly crucial. I mean it's still incredibly crucial for all of us, but it can't just be a product and end there. It has to still be a living ethic and a way to look at what we value and how we value things. 

In your book, you have a chapter called “Our Beyoncé, Ourselves” in which you discuss Beyoncé and celebrities who have publicly identified as feminists. Do you think it's better to have celebrity feminism than to not have it at all?

Yeah, I do. When I was growing up, feminism still had this incredibly bad reputation. You had a lot of famous people actively distancing themselves from the word and the movement. So many of us who grew up in that time came to feminism despite its really unflattering legacy. Whereas, when I saw Beyoncé do her performance at the 2014 Video Music Awards, my first thought was: it's so amazing that there's going to be a whole generation of young people who are going to see this and this is going to be their formative experience. They're going to come to feminism as this very positive thing that's associated with Beyoncé, who's incredibly strong and powerful and beautiful and successful. That can't be the end of it, but just that is an incredibly powerful thing. I don't necessarily think that everyone who saw that performance and thought it was great is going to go on to really dig deep into feminism as an ideology or as a political lens. But just having feminism that's not connected to this idea of anger or man-hating or hairy legs -- that's powerful. That should never have been the connection in the first place, but since it is I think it's important that we have alternative visions of it. 

Definitely. I remember seeing Beyoncé in concert and she splashed "feminist" across the stage and I full-out cried. It was such a powerful moment.

Oh yea, I was fully teary-eyed.  

How do you think “femvertising" and “empowertising” impact the mainstream conversation about feminism?

Advertising has a very long history of dovetailing and co-opting feminist movements. In such a mediated time when there's so much competing for our eyes and competing for our clicks, it's easy to say, "You know what, it's just advertising. I know better. I can differentiate what's real and what's advertising."

I also feel like it's very seductive to see brands like Dove and Always actively reach for the emotions of women, and really place advertising in the realm of "We're trying to do better. Do you believe us? If you believe us, buy our product." There's this real sense of: "It seems like there's sincerity here, and since I'm going to be advertised to anyway, this is the least bad form of advertising. This is advertising that's not actively trying to make me feel like crap." When you remove the language of shame or insecurity from advertising to women, it can be really powerful. In that sense, it can be really easy to lose sight of the fact that you end up doing the work of multinational corporations by sharing viral videos. The important thing is to have a degree of literacy about it.

Do you think “marketplace feminism” creates any real change for on-the-ground feminist issues?

I do think it's worth noting that some of the corporations whose brands are highlighted in these ads are taking steps to be the change their ads suggest they want to see in the world. They do seem to take at least some socially responsible steps. I think there's the potential to widen people's eyes with representation and get people to understand that we don't have to accept the status quo because that's what we've been given. Sometimes it does take a viral video to see things a little bit differently. At the same time, corporations are not in the social justice business -- they're in the money business, and ultimately capitalism is not something that is compatible with social movements.

I certainly think that celebrities and TV shows have the potential to create change, and knowing more about how and why things get created has the potential to change things. The really important thing about pop culture and media now is that it is more and more transparent. We do understand where it comes from, who's responsible for making it, the fact that we need more diverse voices, and how having a large scope of representation can ultimately translate into more equity.

Corporations are not in the social justice business -- they’re in the money business, and ultimately capitalism is not something that is compatible with social movements.

So often the loudest famous voices we hear on feminist topics are those of straight, white, cisgender women.  What role do you think intersectionality plays in celebrity feminism?

This is definitely a crucial conversation to have when we're talking about celebrity feminism because there's a massive double standard. I think the fact that more people are aware of it and more people are writing about it is really important. It has been and can be a vastly different perception when a white celebrity flies the feminist flag and when a celebrity who's non-white flies that flag. I think Beyoncé is a really good example of that, because for almost 10 years now she's been this flashpoint where people are strenuously arguing for and against her feminism based mostly on very superficial things like her appearance or what she wears on stage or her marriage or her status as a mother. Whereas when someone like Miley Cyrus is like "I'm the world's biggest feminist," and we have very much taken that at face value.

I think especially when the conversation becomes about sexual autonomy and having pride in one's body, that's a very charged conversation. People like Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lawrence and even Emma Watson have been able to say things to unanimous applause that Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé might have also said in slightly different ways and had their words and images questioned.

"It has been and can be a vastly different perception when a white celebrity flies the feminist flag and when a celebrity who
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"It has been and can be a vastly different perception when a white celebrity flies the feminist flag and when a celebrity who's non-white flies that flag." 

There's obviously a huge double standard that exists when it comes to race, and it's pretty blatant. 

It's pretty overt. I think we also see this with celebrities who are men who become outspoken feminist allies. They're able to say things that women  -- regardless of color -- could not get away with because women would be seen as too angry. It can be very frustrating to realize that certain voices will always be privileged over other voices. Certainly I recognize that I have a role in that too.

[Celebrity men] are able to say things that women -- regardless of color -- could not get away with because women would be seen as too angry.

Where do you think we’ll go from here? 

The way the feminism is used as this way to frame content, especially online content, I don't necessarily think that can last. I think something else will come along. The comparison I often draw is to when environmentalism became kind of the media buzzword about 10 years ago, after "Inconvenient Truth" came out and a lot of celebrities were like, "Oh I drive a Prius now!" A lot of people were talking about it and environmentalism really became a buzzword in the way that feminism has become a buzzword. That went away in the sense that the tenor of it in the media wound down, but it didn't mean that people stop caring about the Earth.

There are lasting benefits to the fact that we had our consciousness raised on some level by celebrities and by popular culture around environmentalism and I certainly think that will happen for feminism. I do think in a few years there will be something else that celebrities will be asked about on the red carpet as sort of the new social issue. And I don't think that's bad. I think the people who care are hopefully the people who care enough to do something about it. And the people who just cared when it's trendy, weren't going to do anything about it to begin with.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Public Affairs
HuffPost

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