Girls on Film: Why Do Powerful Hollywood Women Refuse to Call Themselves Feminists?

Girls on Film: Why Do Powerful Hollywood Women Refuse to Call Themselves Feminists?

Aug 23, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


Melissa Leo film still

“I don’t think of myself as a feminist at all. As soon as we start labeling and categorizing ourselves and others, that’s going to shut down the world. I would never say that… I have to go at things without judgment, and that is part of my upbringing, and who I am and the time I was brought up in the world.”

The above came from Melissa Leo, the actress who made a name for herself as the tough Detective Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Street, before defying convention and becoming an Oscar-winning, cinematic phenomenon in her forties. As sad as it is to see Leo, of all people, define feminism as some judgmental category that will “shut down the world,” her opinion is far from rare, or the worst that has come out of the mouths of female celebrities.

Though Mae West was an early supporter of women’s lib, she said she wasn’t a feminist. Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played feminist icon Buffy Summers, once stated that she hated the word and: “I don’t call myself a feminist because feminism has a negative connotation. It makes you think of women who don’t shave their legs.” Even though Rooney Mara doesn’t know what the word means, she thinks Lisbeth Salander would not categorize herself as feminist… though the character fought for women’s rights and some of her only friends were a hard rock band that met “on Tuesday nights to talk trash about boys and discuss feminism.”  Julie Delpy isn’t a feminist because she was raised by them and doesn’t need to be.

Bjork refuses the term because it would “isolate” her and that “it’s more important to be asking than complaining.” But she thinks maybe her mom was one since she “watched her isolate herself all her life from men, and therefore from society.” Lady Gaga once said she couldn’t be a feminist because she loved men and celebrating “American male culture and beer and bars and muscle cars.” Yahoo honcho Marissa Mayer wouldn’t call herself a feminist, though she believes in equal rights, because she isn’t “militant” and doesn’t have “the chip on the shoulder that comes with that.” Juliette Binoche thinks the “term just puts people in a stereotyped way of thinking.” Marina Abramovic is “very clear that I am not a feminist” because it “puts you into a category.” Madonna and Demi Moore are too evolved to call themselves feminists, and are only “humanists.” The same goes for Marjane Satrapi, the woman behind Persepolis. She, however, refuses the term because: “I don’t think women are better than the men.”

Persepolis film still

If there is any victory that sexist men could celebrate, it’s that women sporting distinct and recognizable power openly speak out against feminism. These are some of the most notable and powerful women in the public eye, many of whom have made a career out of authority and equality, yet one word – that helped foster the opportunity for these women to fulfill their dreams – sends them into fits of isolating, militant, anti-men nightmares. These women aren’t just refusing the label, but linking it to a whole slew of nasty tropes that make the fight for equality seem questionable.

Those tropes aren’t a part of the word’s definition or ultimate meaning. “Feminism” is “the doctrine advocating social, political and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” There isn’t a bill of requirements that limits entry only to the most militant, hairy, man-hating women. If you believe women and men are equal, you’re a feminist.

It’s sad that this idea is so hard to understand. We’re always accepting different manifestations of a similar premise – the existence of God and the many religions that offer wildly different variations of the spiritual world, the many ways you can be an artist or creator, how you can show your patriotism, be a hero or villain, an activist, or to be anything. The allergy, so to speak, to feminism shows just how prevalent and insidious some anti-women sentiments can become. Smart people are looking at instances of feminism and making them all-encompassing treatises. It’s sadly ironic that these powerful women fear the label and condemn it rather than destigmatizing it and striving to show alternate manifestations. They’re quite obviously feeding the stereotype rather than fighting it.

Kat Dennings in THORKat Dennings might star in one hell of an ideologically questionable show, but she also said something pretty apt: “The way I view feminism — and I know there are a lot of different things going on — but, at its purest form, to me, it’s a very positive, supportive, nurturing, empowerment thing. I mean, God, who isn’t a feminist? If you don’t think women are as good as men, you’re not a good person. I like to think that most of the population of people worth being friends with are feminists, if that’s what feminism means.”

The above emphasis is mine, because it’s so true and the exact opposite of the dialogue you usually hear about feminism. What these women fail to recognize, in their rush to not label themselves, is that influence is so very important. Their statements set up an “us vs. them” dichotomy that teaches the masses that being a feminist (fighting for equality) is a bad thing – something to condemn and distance yourself from. However, if you support the dreams and aspirations of yourself (if you’re a woman) and the other women in your life, you’re a feminist, and you should strive to make that world equal and inviting for everyone.  Power is in the example, and if you believe in equal rights, it’s ludicrous to set up a dialogue that demonizes those fighting for it, especially when even a little positive dialogue can go a long way.

A couple years ago I met a young 20-something who professed: “I am the exact opposite of a feminist.” It was rather silly, of course, since this was a free-spirited woman who was smart, funny and outspoken. We became friends in spite of her audacious claim, mainly because it stood at odds with who she was. The “f-word” didn’t come up again until this year. She was writing feminist papers in school, and revealed that she was reading this column. I wondered what motivated the change. When I ranted about Mayer’s use of the word “militant” last week, she told me that I started her down her feminist path and changed her ways. I hadn’t lectured her, or gone “militant” on her ass. In fact, we had avoided the topic altogether. It was the influence of proximity and access. She got to hear something different than the usual “feminazi” fearmongering and her opinions evolved. It was a great ego boost and heartwarming moment, but it was also one hell of an important lesson.

Being a feminist doesn’t shut down the world, but marginalizing the fight for female equality sure does.

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