I love the day that my Ms. magazine arrives in the mail-- I look forward to my Saturday morning of drinking coffee and reading magazines. Ms. is one of the few that I read cover to cover. The current issue features none other than Beyonce; a face that many are familiar with and a woman who has received increased media attention in the past few months. Her half-time performance at the Super Bowl brought the house (lights) down. A recent photoshoot and interview in GQ magazine along with her decision to name her latest tour "Mrs. Carter" have led to criticism about whether she is a "true" feminist. Yet these same venues have emphasized her feminism; her remarks in the GQ interview focused on gender inequality in the music business. She and her husband (Shawn Knowles-Carter, a.k.a. hip hop mogul Jay-Z) both hyphenated their last names when they got married. All these factors (and more) have led to numerous "is she or isn't she" articles, blog posts, facebook status updates. Some adamantly defend her as a feminist. Others assert that she is either not a feminist or if she is feminism itself is in trouble. Others have done an incredible job discussing Beyonce (see the aforementioned Ms piece as well as an article in Bitch magazine) and I encourage you to check them out. Reading these articles made me think about the bigger issue here, what I call the "feminist police."
Because that is what is happening here, right? The debates, and the questions and the assertions all come down to the question, who decides whether Beyonce (or anyone else) is a feminist? Does saying "I am a feminist!" make you one, regardless of what you believe? What about all the women and men who say "I am not a feminist, but...." only to espouse their passion for gender equality? Is there only one way to be a feminist? While I think it is important to have conversations about the meaning of feminism (and to question "empowerment" that is sold to us), I think it is dangerous when we start to become the feminist police--deciding when and how someone qualifies for the label. Being a feminist isn't like being in the Girl Scouts--you don't get a badge after completing a designated number of tasks. Feminism grows and changes and adapts with us. And I am thankful for that. Otherwise, feminism dies.
Don't get me wrong, there is a utility at times to measuring someone's feminism. I am a researcher and a psychologist and I know the importance of being able to quantify variable A (feminism) to understand how it relates to variable B (say, well-being). But I am at heart a constructivist. I don't believe there is one Truth out there to find. What we are measuring is just a snapshot in time, and one defined by the photographer (or researcher, as the case may be). The person in power decides what it means to be a feminist in that moment and for that purpose. Ultimately, I think that research is more meaningful when it connects back to the lives of people and acknowledges the limitations of any one definition.
The reality is that being a feminist, like being anything else, is messy, complicated, and dynamic. Being feminist in a sexist world requires lots of negotiations (internally and externally) and navigation through murky waters. Many of the criticisms lobed at Beyonce focus on what people consider contradictions, as though you can't be feminist and sexy. Or you can't be feminist and in a heterosexual marriage. It is these arguments that upset me the most. Being a feminist isn't about trading in one set of expectations (patriarchal definitions of femininity) for another (one woman's definition of the liberated woman). It is about being authentic and honest, celebrating differences, expanding options of who and what we can become, creating a world based on equality and dignity for all people. Which is WAY harder than just following a step-by-step guide to being the perfect feminist. It requires choosing your battles, listening to others, questioning your own motives, weighing the costs and benefits of different choices. Sometimes it means being criticized for doing something that others think is "traditional" or not feminist; but doing it anyway because it is the right choice for you.
While the goals of feminism (a world without sexism, racism, classism, homophobia...) may be aspirational, I don't believe that being a feminist is. Being a feminist is about facing the day to day struggles head on. It is about believing in something bigger than yourself, and being willing to fight for the dignity of all people. My feminism isn't something I try to live up to; it is something that provides me hope and strength when things get tough. My brand of feminism doesn't forgive us our humanity, it is built upon it.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.