Celebrities, Feminism, and White Flight

Sometimes, you stumble upon a post in social media, and for a moment, you’re completely dumbfounded. You need to take a breath and let whatever it is that just caught your attention slither its way into your psyche.

That’s the way I felt last September when I first saw and clicked through the link for Gawker’s “Privilege Tournament,” an NCAA-style bracket to determine which group of people has the least amount of privilege. As author Hamilton Nolan explains, privilege is “so sweet to have. But even sweeter to not have. Privilege has its benefits, but the lack of privilege confers that sweet, sweet moral superiority.”

There’s a ton to unpack here, but this aggressive display of white resentment couched in college humor is not what I currently want to focus on. I bring it up as an example of a particular taxonomy. One of the things that’s so striking about this bracket is that it demonstrates how we tend to categorize others into a single dimension in our attempts to understand oppression.

The bracket is divided into divisions such as “gender,” “disability,” “race,” and “religion.” Competing for the least amount of privilege are labels like transgender (male to female), homeless, allergic to bee stings, Jewish, and mixed race, as though a person could be only one of these identities at a time as opposed to many of them of them at once.

What this privilege bracket exposes (among other things) is a kind of myopic, one-dimensional thinking that is not only flawed. It’s painful and frustratingly counterproductive in any pursuit of real equity and social justice. It makes it way too easy for people to mistake reshuffling privileges for actual change. And it makes it easy to petition for convenient change and to rail against some privileges while secretly enjoying others. But that’s not what I currently want to focus on either.

I really want to talk about Lana Del Rey.

In an interview in the June/July issue of FADER Magazine, Del Rey states:

For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept… I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.

Hey, full disclosure here: I’m geeky too! Space exploration is the bee’s knees as far as I’m concerned. But I didn’t realize that feminism and “intergalactic possibilities” had to be mutually exclusive intellectual interests. While this might seem like a quirky if not puzzling dodge to a question about personal beliefs from a media outlet, Del Rey is hardly the only famous young woman to say something like this recently.

Shailene Woodley, when asked by Time Magazine if she is a feminist, answered:

No, 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 balance.

Also for Time Magazine, back in October, Kelly Clarkson said:

No, I wouldn’t say [I’m a] feminist — that’s too strong. I think when people hear feminist, it’s like, “Get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.” I love that I’m being taken care of and I have a man that’s a leader. I’m not a feminist in that sense.

Kirsten Dunst, for the May 2014 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armor. I’m sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work.

And, in an article for the Daily Beast, Taylor Swift said:

I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.

Google a few articles, and you’ll turn up more examples of famous, young women distancing themselves from the word “feminism.” Pro-feminist writers have been quick to pounce on the fact that many of these statements smack of ignorance and that maybe these women don’t know what the word “feminism” really means. There’s probably a lot of truth to that. Rhian Sasseen argues in Salon that women in the entertainment industry distance themselves from feminism because it’s too cognitively dissonant with what they are being asked to do to remain successful. And, it would be hard to call yourself a feminist while you’re engaging in the mythmaking of impossible beauty standards and playing romantic interests for a very male-dominated Hollywood. Some even argue the problem might be a branding issue for feminism. Sarah Sobieraj, an associate professor of sociology at Tufts University, argues in Cognoscenti that, “Being seen as a feminist builds a wall between what we have to say and the audience we hope will hear it.”

Is it possible there is something more insidious at work here? In just about every single case of a woman denying she’s a feminist in the media this year, there’s another common denominator:


What I’m suggesting is controversial, but hear me out. One of the singular differentiating characteristics of the third wave of feminism is its intersectionality. You could consider intersectionality to be the opposite point of view from Gawker’s Privilege Tournament. The central idea is that different kinds of oppression can overlap. A black woman experiencing micro-aggressions at work, for example, might not be able to disentangle whether her experiences are due to her race or her sex.

In the last few years, intersectionality has been the root of several public controversies in the feminist community:

1. Back in 2011, myriad Black advocacy groups such as Black Women’s Blueprint, Black Women’s Network, Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, the Prison Birth Project, and many, many more organizations and individuals endorsed an open letter to the organizers of SlutWalk. SlutWalk is a network of advocates committed to holding yearly demonstrations to bring to bear that women, no matter what they wear, how intoxicated they are or how they behave, are not in any way responsible for the sexual assaults against them. In the open letter, these organizations state:

We know the SlutWalk is a call to action and we have heard you. Yet we struggle with the decision to answer this call by joining with or supporting something that even in name exemplifies the ways in which mainstream women’s movements have repeatedly excluded Black women even in spaces where our participation is most critical. We are still struggling with the how, why and when and ask at what impasse should the SlutWalk have included substantial representation of Black women in the building and branding of this U.S. based movement to challenge rape culture?

2. Last summer, Mikki Kendall started the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen in response to an admission by Hugo Schwyzer. Schwyzer, a former professor and male leader in the feminist community confessed publicly via Twitter to being involved in the abuse of women of color and participating in racism. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen opened a Pandora’s box of stories and experiences from women of color who felt their experiences were marginalized by white feminism.

3. And, just this past December, we watched feminist icon Ani DiFranco cancel her four-day writer’s retreat after the event’s Facebook page was flooded with comments from fans angry that the event was scheduled at the Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana, a location with a history of slavery and injustice.

In each of these examples, we saw white feminists react poorly to criticism or leave the discussion entirely. Unfortunately, when a party gets more inclusive, some people opt to leave.

Regarding celebrities, this is a difficult hypothesis to prove. It’s not popular to be overtly racist. Nevertheless, it’s possible that young, white celebrities are ducking out of feminism because, as it becomes more colorful and complicated, feminism seems to be more and more about something else — something less fluent. If you hold the world view that people experience oppression based on a singular attribute at a time, than being a woman and being a person of color seem like two totally different things. When feminism starts to represent all women, including women of color, it might really threaten some assumptions and biases a person might not even know she has.

It doesn’t have to be the case that white women are avoiding feminism knowingly. Feminism could be something they don’t understand yet. But, what inspires interest in feminism? And, what could detract from that interest? What tips the scales between, “Am I a feminist? I’d like to find out,” and, “Am I a feminist? I don’t really care right now”?

In the last two decades, we’ve seen the development and application of a new, computer-based measure in social psychology called the Implicit-Association Test (IAT). The IAT is designed to detect a person’s automatic associations for concepts like “black” or “disabled” and determine the strength of those associations. When taking an IAT, you’re asked to quickly sort combinations of words and pictures into certain categories. Based on your reaction speed, the test can measure which combinations are easier for you to process and what biases you may unknowingly hold.

The racial bias test has been taken more than one million times on its own, and it usually reveals some kind of bias. In 2009, a study from the University of Washington revealed that about 70 percent of test takers demonstrate an unconscious preference for white people compared to black people. According to the media release:

“In socially sensitive areas, especially black-white interracial behavior, the test had significantly greater predictive value than self-reports. This finding establishes the Implicit Association Test’s value in research to understand the roots of race and other discrimination,” said Greenwald. “What was especially surprising was how ineffective standard self-report measurers were in the areas in which the test measures have been of greatest interest — predicting interracial behavior.

If you’re interested, you can test yourself right here on a range of subjects like race, religion, age, weight, even the relationship between gender and aptitude for science. I bring this up because a simple implicit bias could mean the difference between being curious or dismissive about a subject that someone doesn’t understand. If your brain works like the privilege tournament, you might dump feminism into the “issues for people of color” category before you’ve had a chance to consider what it is.

Back to Lana Del Rey. Twice now, Del Rey has gotten into some hot water over cultural appropriation. First, in October 2012, Del Rey wore a Native American head-dress in her 10-minute long short film for the song Ride; second, in late 2013, she dressed in the hallmarks of Latino gang culture for the song Tropico. For a young woman, a one-time mistake like this could be chalked up to ignorance. But, twice? Why does it not concern her that she’s not just stirring up controversy, but she’s being identified as a racist? Other women who have denied feminism such as Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have also indulged in cultural appropriation as well.

Look, I know I don’t have a smoking gun. You can find plenty of cultural appropriation from women who identify as feminists. But is the suggestion that intersectionality and race play a role in whether or not white women identify as feminists harder to believe than suggesting those same women are just stupid or too lazy to use Google?

We have symptoms of white flight from feminism right in front of us. It’s time to dig in deeper. We can stop pursuing celebrity endorsements or we can work to raise consciousness around the complicated intersection of racism and sexism. But, letting young women off the hook when they say, “That doesn’t look like my problem,” or dismissing them and their racial biases by calling them stupid undermines us all.

By Kristin Lynn

Die-hard generalist, ice cream enthusiast, feminist, functioning dogoholic, kind of a pistol.

7 replies on “Celebrities, Feminism, and White Flight”

I thought this was an interesting take on the whole issue. I think if you add to this the idea that racism is simply not a thing that many white women understand because the burden of liberation is often put on the people of color (rather than it be on white people to stop being so damn racist), it isn’t surprising to see young women saying they aren’t feminists because they themselves feel liberated enough, and don’t see themselves as responsible for anyone else’s liberation.

This is a problem not so much, I think, with their world view, as how poorly we educate people on race, racism, and feminist issues.

Either way, this is an interesting thesis that I would like to see people explore. I think it has merit and passes the sniff test — it just maybe needs some more data to back it up.

Hi Alyson, Lana’s definitely no stranger to controversy. I think it can be such a tough call to figure out when you can like the art and not the artist vs. when no matter how good the art is, you can’t enjoy someone’s work because of what they stand for.

I’m not a Feminist. As a Black woman, I am a Womanist. But I find too few people in meat-space know what that is, and rather than explain it (because of reasons) I just tell people I’m a Feminist, because that’s a term they are familiar with. And more often than not, people will scoff or challenge my Feminist identity with nonsense (“So you hate men!” and “But you’re so nice/not ugly!”) But I’m not a Feminist for all the reasons stated above, and many many more.

This was an interesting read, though I found there was rather a lot going on within it. I think the identification of celebrities as feminists is a different issue to – for instance – cultural appropriation; one is about how a person identifies themselves, the other is about their knowledge of, well, cultural appropriation. My (totally un-researched) guess would be that the lack of willing among some celebrities to identify as being feminist is because the definition is so fluid when their images aren’t necessarily as flexible. Then again, I’m someone (a young female white someone) who doesn’t generally identify as a feminist.

Hi Juniper, Thanks for the comment! I think your guess is definitely a possibility for why people are hesitant to identify as feminists. And, I fully admit my theory – that white women are not identifying with feminism because it’s becoming more intersectional – might be a stretch. But, like any issue, this one is a big, hairy beast of complication, and I think it’s valuable to examine all these overlapping and strange variables influencing how we make decisions about our identity.

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