Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Dish on Celebrities and Feminism

Jamie R. Abrams's picture

More from this month's guest blogger, Professor Jamie Abrams from the University of Louisville School of Law. Her scholarly interests include integrating masculinities theory in feminist law reforms such as military integration and domestic violence; examining the tort complexities governing standards of care in childbirth; gendered conceptualizations of citizenship; and legal education pedagogy.

Perhaps this post is just legitimizing my excessive consumption of media coverage of celebrity scuttlebutt, but I am at least thinly veiling it under my attempt to consider the longevity and adaptability of feminism.  The NYT covered the question of “Who is a Feminist Now” describing yet another celebrity who distanced herself from feminism.  Most recently, Shailene Woodley said she was not feminist “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 some balance.”  Putting aside the obvious logical flags in her suggestion that women and men in positions of power is not “balance,” the larger point of the article is the trend of young celebrities distancing themselves from feminism. 

The undercurrent of this article, and so many others like it, reveals a troubling disconnect in the definition of feminism’s goals and its application as a movement.  Part of the issue is the framing of the question “are you a feminist?”  The article ends with an interesting profile of students at the University of North Carolina who conducted a successful public relations campaign for feminism in which individuals needed to complete the sentence “I need feminism because . . .”  By reframing the question, the UNC project then concluded that “rather than claiming it as an identity, young people were able to say this is a toolkit I can use without making it ‘this is who I am and this is only who I am.’”

This connects to a broader point about the education of young people about women and feminism.  Youth are taught about events in women’s history, such as the Seneca Falls Convention and the ratification of the 19th Amendment.  They are taught about people in women’s history, such as Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Are they, however, taught about feminism as a tool for achieving historical and modern social and legal change?  If not explicitly taught, from what sources are women framing their definitions?  

I certainly am not overly alarmist regarding the longevity of feminism based on the views of a handful of celebrities, but the question remains, how did they develop their definition of feminism that frames the need for distancing?  In thinking about the sustainability of feminism, we must think about how, when, and why young people are introduced to feminism itself, if at all.  Just as the UNC project revealed, it needs to be presented as an adaptive tool to achieve a specific result that can address individual needs and achieve change that benefits all.  Such an approach reveals that historical celebration of the who and what of women’s history is insufficient without the why and how, which feminism addresses much more directly.

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