After watching reactions from Emma Watson’s UN speech this weekend, I couldn’t help but think, “Whoa, whoa, did feminism just go mainstream?” Well maybe. Also, well maybe some type of feminism. But let’s not get caught up in that quite yet. Even in the age of Shailene Woodley’s clunky and disappointing answer to the “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” bait question (and let’s be real, every female celebrity is going to get baited from now on), there are mainstream celebrities out there who have embraced the term and have begun doing work on it.
There are discussions up the wazoo about whether feminism is too alienating, whether it needs rebranding, or whether it’s too synonymous with man-hating. I’m of the school of thought that women demanding most things (rights or otherwise) will be interpreted as militant man-haters, and seen as alienating, simply due to sexism that polices women’s behavior. So there really is no need to change the word “feminism” since the word isn’t the root of the problem. And yet, the way feminism has been easing itself again into popular culture, and therefore again into American consciousness, makes me wonder if a rebranding is exactly what is happening.
For every Shailine Woodley or Katy Perry, there is an equally likeable and well respected celebrity that self-identifies as feminist. The first to become especially visible to those around my age is probably Amy Poehler, who made her politics no secret when she began her side project Smart Girls. There was also the trendy Lena Dunham. More recently there has been Beyonce, who has arguably not only had a hand in rebranding feminism, but who has also used it for her personal brand. Beyonce was previously under attack for her brand of feminism, but she arguably had the greatest reach in terms of putting the word on everyone’s tongue.
Laverne Cox is another figure who changed the game, not only advocating for feminism, but doing so under the lens of queer and trans women of color. When Orange is the New Black became a hit, her character stuck with audiences as charismatic, sympathetic, and honest—qualities that translated offscreen and which went directly into her political activism.
There’s Joseph Gordon Levitt, who takes the “scary” mask off the word feminism, and says there’s really nothing to be afraid of. As a man, he’s not afraid. He talks about his mother, a second wave feminist, with the charming half-squint that makes everything he says sound sincere. He also uses his own project, HitRecord, to open up a dialogue with viewers and fans, inviting them to discuss what feminism means to them. He invites those who do not consider themselves feminists to participate, which definitely encourages participation from so-called egalitarian viewers who wrongly advocate for humanism, but also opens up a conversation for women of color or queer people who have previously felt left out of the feminist movement. The form is particularly inclusive and less top-down than a lot of feminist conversations.
And now most recently there’s Emma Watson, whose UN speech from this past weekend made her come off as somewhat of an adult Hermione Granger. She is a celebrity who is seen as thoughtful, learned, and who people either want or want to be. To some it feels like pandering. It feels like wrapping feminism up in a way that appeals to men when in fact it was never about men in the first place, and never should be. While I and many others are skeptical of the HeForShe brand, Emma Watson has made it clear that her goal is to recruit allies and open up feminism to men in a way that acknowledges the way men suffer under traditional gender roles, but also urges them to be advocates for women and take responsibility.
What does rebranding mean for feminism? There are definite risks. Traditionally, rebranding often nullifies the previous “brand,” which risks erasure of the efforts that have been made before. On the other hand, rebranding can breathe new life into a company, or in this case, a movement. While feminists like me will have a lingering worry about who still gets left out of the movement, I can’t help but get a little excited that these conversations seem to be gaining traction in a positive way. It’s still important to have a human face to feminism, especially when these faces belong to people who are already considered likeable, reasonable, and on your side, rather than people who are considered antagonizing or superfluous. This is by no means diminishing the efforts of feminists such as Anita Sarkeesian, for example, who are constantly at the ire of men, despite being basically right about everything. I do still believe divisive feminists serve to push a movement (and movements should always be pushed). But the more people sign on to feminism due to a change in perception, the more the perception changes, like a feedback loop. I wonder if this is what is happening now. I want to be optimistic. I want to view these as successes, and I guess I tentatively do.