If you have been hanging around the Internet the past few weeks, you may have stumbled upon some of the R. Kelly controversy. In mid-December, the Village Voice published this article interviewing journalist Jim DeRogatis about his work exposing R. Kelly’s history of sexual predation. This was prompted by R. Kelly’s release of a new album, Black Panties. Jezebel, the feminist-oriented blog, at first heralded the new album. Following the Village Voice blog post and a much needed reality check from readers, bloggers, and media figures, Jezebel changed their tune.
Since then, celebrities have weighed in on the topic. Bloggers have given advice to those who want to listen to R. Kelly without supporting R. Kelly. News sources have questioned our continued support of the celebrity. R. Kelly even responded to the controversy, with the tact and remorse anybody who has been following the case would expect. Ms. Magazine questioned whether you can be a decent person and still listen to R. Kelly. (Their response is a definitive “No”).
I know I said this blog wasn’t about R. Kelly. It’s not. It’s about this blog post: “Can feminists enjoy R. Kelly’s music? Short answer: No.” The blog rehashes some of the same ideas and points made by other media outlets. However, the title specifically targets feminists.
I am not here to say that entertainment figures should not be held accountable for the violence against women, harassment, or sexism portrayed in their personal lives or through their work. I am not here to say that fans should not be accountable for the choices they are making as consumers. But feminist identity is not contingent on one single quality, choice, or decision.
Anyone who identifies as a feminist knows that it is an ongoing process of unlearning. It requires constant negotiation between what we think to be righteous and just and what currently exists in our society. We are working against the dominant culture while also living within it, creating a constant cycle of adapting to and dismantling of culture.
I am not going to ask anyone to hand over their “FEMINIST” card because I do not agree with their choices. We persecute feminists, then wonder why prominent figures do not support feminism. The minute Katy Perry decides she actually is a feminist, the Internet will ask in a frenzy, “Can Katy Perry be a feminist?”
Yes. Katy Perry can be a feminist. And Sheryl Sandberg. And Beyoncé. And people who dance to “Ignition” when it comes on the radio. Your feminist identity is a culmination of an ongoing effort to unlearn culture, critically address structures and institutions of oppression, and liberate those around you. That does not happen overnight, and it is not retracted by a single misstep.
So what should you do when you meet a fellow feminist who makes choices that seem contradictory to those goals? Instead of asking, “Can you really be a feminist and…” I suggest trying the following response: “I’m curious how [INSERT TOPIC] fits in with your feminist identity?”
You might learn that they have thought about it and have come to a conclusion that fits in with their feminist framework. Or maybe the conversation will give them (and you) an opportunity to process the issue in a different way. Or maybe you will learn that they have thought about it, and they know that it is problematic, and they are not ready at the moment to change that specific behavior.
So who gets to decide who is feminist and who is not? Who are the gatekeepers of feminism, protecting it against the wolves disguised in feminist dialogue? Because certainly, those people exist. I mean, Robin Thicke claimed “Blurred Lines” was a feminist movement. Sure, there are behaviors and decisions that are anti-feminist. There are individuals whose track record reveals a consistent support of misogyny and oppression. But I am not talking about those individuals. I am talking about our allies. I am talking about creating a subculture that values curiosity, discussion, and awareness over persecution and alienation. I think it is absolutely necessary for feminists to be critical. I am asking for compassion and understanding so that, as individuals explore and grow in their feminist identity, they have room to make mistakes, compromises, and negotiations while they are figuring it out.
R. Kelly is a person. His actions are part of a greater culture that supports violence against women and hypermasculinity. It is from that culture that our music industry capitalizes off of sexism and the exploitation of women. That music industry is part of a greater economic system that values profits over people, with the most vulnerable and oppressed populations suffering the most. Patriarchy is the problem, and we are all a part of it. We are also all (potentially) part of the solution. So instead of casting stones at each other, I recommend finding the common ground and aiming it at the glass ceiling above.
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.