At the MTV Video Music Awards on Monday night, Beyoncé stood in front of an enormous projection of the word “FEMINIST,” because now she is one without qualification. A little over a year ago, after announcing the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour (pause for leftover side-eye), Beyoncé conceded she guessed she was a “modern-day feminist,” whatever that was supposed to mean, but then said “Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything?” which is the feminism equivalent of your boyfriend saying, “I like hanging out, why do we have to call it ‘dating’?” But she’s said it, so we’re cool now, right?
Nah. Points for visibility, Bey, it just feels a little late is all. But shouldn’t everyone be thrilled? Aren’t we all overjoyed that Beyoncé has finally “reclaimed” the word feminism for attractive popular people and also middle America? Yes, of course. Beyonce is a standout among female public figures, many of whom have talked their way around “the ‘F’ word,” or flat-out denied it. If Jezebel is to be believed, this is due to the frustratingly narrow interpretation and fundamental misunderstanding of feminism that permeates popular culture. The notion of feminists as bra-burning, man-hating, militant lesbians is both anti-lesbian and anti-female. Women must feel free to advocate for themselves without being labeled man-hating or militant, especially by other women.
Beyoncé herself not necessarily denigrated feminists, the way some female celebrities have, but she has shied away from “labels” in the past—in particular, the label she had projected behind her before the eyes of the country. Thinking can change, of course. We saw the first glimmer of change in “Flawless,” which features a vocal sample from a TED talk given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she talks about what feminism means. To be fair, Bey, that doesn’t really count as saying it. (Though this troubling gif makes the hopefully uncommon mistake of thinking Adichie is Bey.) And, now that I think of it, neither does a video projection.
But it’s something. To whatever extent Beyoncé can “reclaim” the word for herself and expose her fans to it in a way that doesn’t make them think of k.d. lang, it is certainly a Good Thing. But to people already standing on the right side of progress, it feels not only safe but calculatedly so. Claiming the label of “feminist” is still seen as strong but without being radical—like tearing up a picture of the pope, for instance. It is still a strong stance, but only so strong.
Many people may cry “snark” at this tepid criticism, but this “me too” association with polarizing-but-increasingly-mainstream stances seems to be the purview of public figures with their likability and appeal in mind. Speak out too soon in favor of something controversial and you may be caught out; speak out just after the wave of public opinion has crested and you may just be able to ride it.
Over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together… at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.
This just days after a classic Biden gaffe saying just the same thing, with a good deal less hedging. Both statements are a net positive, but after almost an entire term in office and DOMA nearly dead and buried, it feels a little soft.
This past weekend, in an interview with the Guardian, Taylor Swift spoke about feminism, which she seemed just super confused about in the past.
As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means… Becoming friends with Lena [Dunham]… has made me realize that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.
And then she continues not to say so. At least not directly. And while it may feel like splitting hairs, it must be acknowledged that there is more power in saying “I am a feminist” than saying “I guess I’ve been doing feminist things for a while without ever saying it.” Right?
Feminism may be having a moment, but it needs more than a trend. It needs a movement, a sea change, a cultural shift in ways of thinking and modes of expression. “Feminist” cannot be simply the flavor of the month. Beyoncé’s “reclaiming” of the word may be a step in the right direction, but the path forward must continue.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.