Shake it off?
Illustration by Mary Delaney.
The role of pop stars in feminism
Abigail Johnson ponders the question of when and how our pop stars became politicians.
Feminism is nuanced and difficult – all critical thinking is. Once you become aware of the sexism present in what we previously considered ‘the norm’, the scale of the issue can appear overwhelming. Think of the colour blue, now look around. Suddenly you see it everywhere.
Feminism has also never felt so intertwined with entertainment. Do we need another think piece on Taylor Swift's feminism? Certainly not. Do we agree that her one buck lawsuit against Mr Ass Grabber was badass as hell? Shit yeah. Do we also understand that the Swift brand of feminism, which means little more than having girlfriends while being basically apolitical, demonising a black man while capitalising on black culture and continuing the most boring of pop feuds with another woman, is at least somewhat problematic? Let's.
'Feminism' can send you into a tailspin. Or rather, being aware of sexism can. When I find myself at the edge of what I think I can take — on the precipice of burning my computer, and perhaps myself, and catapulting the flaming mess out the window — I breathe. I remember my privileges. I remember my anger is, for the most part, on behalf of others, of womankind. Or, if I'm angry on my own behalf, that it's usually over a micro-aggression, like a slow-poisoning mosquito that's been circling my head for 24 years. Oh, hell, it's excruciating. But others, in the past or in the present, have had it far worse. 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light' I tell myself. Sometimes, I have to say it out loud. Sometimes, a few times. Sometimes, I'm a hard sell on the fight.
The truth is, of course, that feminism is not about pop stars. Feminism is about women. Indeed, many pop stars are women but, in the end, the movement is political. It’s about the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes. So, when did pop stars become politicians?
I would wager it happened when politics, particularly American politics, became entertainment. I don’t know when that was, exactly. Was it the Monica Lewinsky scandal? Or when Obama charmed the socks off the world? Perhaps it started with JFK and Marilyn Monroe. I’m no historian.
"Did we critique the Spice Girls for screaming 'Girl Power' while having no real political agenda?"
Sure, celebrities can make great fodder for late-night political discussions; why for example, do we find joy in taking down Swift, while Eminem gets a free pass? (I point this question squarely at myself). Entertainment figures should be a facet of our conversations; heightened examples of public consciousness. But, for the most part, they are not our thought leaders.
By constantly asking Swift for her take on the 'big F', and then all but crucifying her in 2012 when she wasn’t completely on board with the feminist label, we’ve told pop stars that their politics matter. They matter as much as a politician’s does. We’ve essentially told celebrities they are politicians.
Swift caught a lot of flak for staying silent through the 2016 US election, for never once denouncing Trump, or supporting Clinton, for having a ‘feminist awakening’, while being a no-show at the Women’s March. I’m fairly certain this type of scrutiny is a new phenomenon. Did we critique the Spice Girls for screaming 'Girl Power' while having no real political agenda? And do we really expect a word from Swift would have changed the election result? Clinton was followed around the USA by a hoard of pop divas, and if anything, it hurt her. I don't think Swift was the missing piece of that uninspiring puzzle.
I’m not a huge Swiftie, but I don’t have a hard-on for hating her, either. She wants to write songs about boys who (by her account) have wronged her. Shouldn’t we just let her be a pop star? If we keep on this path of treating our entertainers like thought leaders, and our politicians like pop stars, we’ll barrel our way towards... I don’t know, a reality TV star with no government experience sitting in the most powerful office in the world.