Originally published by Ms. in the Biz

When Beyoncé’s latest album dropped, feminists went nuts. This is not the first time they’ve gone nuts over Beyoncé: When Ms. Magazine put her on its cover earlier this year, its readers erupted in outrage that a woman who “writhes around,” scantily clad “for the benefit of men” could be considered a feminist. Millions of other women came to her defense, arguing that feminism is about allowing women to be whoever they want to be. The editors of Ms. stood by their choice, but the disagreement hasn’t faded, and the new album has only added fuel to the fire. The combination of lyrics sampled from a Ted Talk given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls
‘You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man.’

– and those contributed by Beyoncé’s husband referring to himself as Ike Turner, casting her as Tina, and referencing a well-known episode of domestic abuse between them, debate once again flared as to the validity of Beyoncé’s claim to feminism.

Such controversies may not do much to further the cause of feminism, but they sure do generate page views. Not surprisingly, therefore, in the last few years, Hollywood reporters have taken every opportunity to ask stars, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” While women like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and even Susan Sarandon have eschewed the term, others have boldly taken up the mantle and declared their commitment to changing the status quo for women in Hollywood.

photo2In an interview with the Guardian, Ellen Page spoke freely about her support for reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights and her appreciation for feminism:

I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word? Feminism always gets associated with being a radical movement – good. It should be. A lot of what the radical feminists [in the 1970s] were saying, I don’t disagree with it.

Regarding projects she is writing and directing, she shared, “Of course, if you just write a script in which the woman has control over her destiny and love isn’t the main thing in the film, that’s seen as super feminist. [But] it’s hard to get stuff made, especially if it’s about women. Everything’s about international bankability.”

Geena Davis has thrown the weight of her name, her resume, and her money behind the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a research-based organization working to “engage, educate, and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female portrayals for children’s entertainment.” The Institute found that the ratio of male to female roles in family films – three to one – has not changed since 1946. In a recent guest article in The Hollywood Reporter, she offered some great advice on solving the problem:

Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

By Jerry Avenaim [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Jada Pinkett-Smith, who questioned the feminist policing of Beyoncé by asking “Whose body is this anyway?” on Facebook, also used the social network to defend her daughter, Willow, when she became subject to vitriolic criticism over a haircut: “This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are her domain.”

Pinkett-Smith further defined her brand of feminism with a Facebook post on how sexism harms men as well as women: “There is a deep sadness when I witness a man that can’t recognize the emptiness he feels when he objectifies himself as a bank and truly believes he can buy love with things and status. It is painful to witness the betrayal when a woman takes him up on that offer.” She has also become a spokesperson for the anti-human-trafficking movement through her organization “Don’t Sell Bodies.”

The list goes on and on. Jennifer Lawrence has used her press junket for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to advocate against women calling each other fat and for more reasonable representations of women’s bodies on screen. Evan Rachel Wood loudly protested the MPAA excision of a cunnilingus scene from her film Charlie Countryman. Natalie Portman called representations of women who are vulnerable just as feminist as those of women kicking ass. Amy Poehler told a reporter her feminism is “just who I am, in the same way that I’m a woman, or I’m 5’2″ or whatever.”

The controversy over Beyonce’s feminism shows no sign of fading, but though the singer was “terrified” before the album’s release, she says now she feels liberated, and the dispute certainly hasn’t hurt album sales. If these women aren’t shying away from calling themselves feminist – and haven’t suffered any repercussions to their careers for it – why should anybody else?

So when reporters ask you, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”, what will your answer be?

sarandonOriginally posted at Ms.

This month has been a mixed one for the F word in Hollywood. Just as Ellen Page and Toni Collette showed us what feminists look like, Susan Sarandon baffled many of her women fans by refusing to claim the term.

In an interview with The Guardian, Page put it succinctly:

How could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?

Page even went so far as to admit a problem with Juno, the movie in which she plays a pregnant teenager who decides not to have an abortion after a protestor tells her that the fetus has fingernails. The actor didn’t stop there: She laments the lack of films about women, says she’s writing her own feminist movie, and openly disses Hollywood for its sexism:

It’s constant! It’s how you’re treated, it’s how you’re looked at, how you’re expected to look in a photoshoot, it’s how you’re expected to shut up and not have an opinion … If you’re a girl and you don’t fit the very specific vision of what a girl should be, which is always from a man’s perspective, then you’re a little bit at a loss.

Toni Collette, whose new show Hostages premiers on CBS this fall, went off in an interview with Refinery 29 about the ways Hollywood enforces a narrow code of appropriate appearance and behavior:

Some of the characters I’ve played have not felt comfortable in themselves, and so there’s a physical counterpart to that. That’s what happens in life, you know? We do things to protect ourselves, to deny ourselves, or to present something we’re not, or to hide something we are. … Now, the media has other agendas: It’s not about reflecting humanity, it’s about dictatorship and being dogmatic in telling people how to dress, how to look, what to say, what to do with your life, how to spend your time, everything.

Collette’s embrace of the term feminist is new, but she no longer hesitates to call her philosophy what it is:

For years people would say to me, ‘You are [a feminist]! You are! You really are!’ And I’d say, ‘No, I’m not. I’m a humanist. I think it’s sexist to say I’m a feminist.’ Now, I see a great imbalance not only in my industry, but also in the world at large. I want to change it. … It needs to be varied and real.

Unfortunately, Susan Sarandon is still playing the humanist card. Despite being a frequent speaker on reproductive rights, Sarandon told The Guardian that she thinks “feminist” is “a bit of an old-fashioned word. It’s used more in a way to minimize you.” But unlike when Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Marissa Mayer declared their lack of allegiance to the sisterhood, Sarandon has suffered little backlash for her statement, a fact that Lizzie Crocker at The Daily Beast attributes to her longstanding and outspoken support for feminist causes.

No doubt for some, Sarandon’s activist cred warrants giving her a pass. But the response may also have been muted because, unlike Perry, Swift and Taylor, who stated categorically that they do not believe in feminism, Sarandon did not reject feminist beliefs, she simply said that she does not call herself a feminist. In fact in the same interview she intimated that she does “want everyone to have equal pay, equal rights, education and healthcare,” all of which are feminist ideals.

Whereas Swift rejected feminism because she thinks it’s a “guys versus girls thing,” Sarandon seems to understand both the philosophy of and need for feminism. She frames her rejection of the label as strategic: Feminist is a word that is used to dismiss women. She’s right, of course. The more progress feminists make in achieving parity, the harder opponents have to work to discredit them, and redefining feminist to mean man-hater has proven to be a very successful strategy.

What feminists disagree with Sarandon on is whether this foreswearing of the name constitutes a good strategy or not. Sarandon may very well be tired of having to justify her beliefs to haters—no doubt she’s had to do so many times. The constant demand that we defend ourselves is a big part of what has made some feminists so quick to take offense at anyone who rejects the term. But are we really at the point where we need to cede authority over the meaning of the word entirely?

Yes, feminism has taken on some negative connotations. But those connotations are not accurate; they’re the product of years of backlash. I don’t know a single feminist who sees what they do as “guys versus girls.” None of them have, as Melissa Mayer claimed, a chip on their shoulder. Most of them don’t even share the exact definition of feminism. What they do share is a conviction that action is needed in order to make our world a more peaceful and equitable place. Sarandon’s activism indicates that she shares this conviction, though she will only call herself a humanist.

Collette, on the other hand, recognizes an important distinction: Humanism is not really an alternative to feminism. Humanism is a cultural and educational philosophy that defines mankind as capable of betterment through study and reason. In this case, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet: Though there are various definitions of feminism, there really is no synonym, no other word that accurately describes our beliefs.

Perhaps Sarandon sees activism as something more appropriate to rallies and fundraisers than to Hollywood. That Page and Collette — women who have far more to risk from being openly political than the long-established Sarandon — are not afraid to call themselves feminist is heartening. That they are actively engaged in using their positions to change the equation in Hollywood is more than heartening. It’s inspiring.

Photo of Susan Sarandon at 2012 Toronto Film Festival by Flickr user Josh Jensen under license from Creative Commons 2.0