Translating Female Pop Stars’ Quotes on Feminism

The media likes to ask female pop stars about feminism. A lot. In fact, for some reason, young female singers are bombarded with this question so much that it has become its own news category. When someone like Taylor Swift or Beyonce answers the question, “Are you a feminist?”, the Internet blows up with critique. There never seems to be a right answer.

There’s a problem in both the phrasing of the question and also in these women’s comprehension of it. The media, particularly certain feminist blogs, are looking for provocative discourse and celebrities are easy targets. (Feministing subtly calls this an “annoying conversation.”) But it’s more than that. It’s problematic not only because it makes women the targets of scorn by other women, but also overlooks the bigger forces at work behind the entertainment industry that promote a patriarchal business structure and overwhelmingly value female artists for their sexuality rather than their talent.

These young women (and they are always young when they get this question for the first time) are not thinking about what it means to be a feminist at the exact moment a reporter points her microphone at them and asks them to identify with something they’re not quite sure of yet. They are not dumb, but perhaps they haven’t yet evolved into their feminist identities. And you know what? That’s perfectly okay, even for someone righteously living like a feminist without knowing it yet.

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What Nora Ephron Taught Us

Nora Ephron is an icon for women, for writers and for feminism. Her passing marks the loss of one of our greatest heroes.

Ephron dominated the male-run industries of journalism, publishing, Broadway and Hollywood, earning the accolades and awards of her male peers and practically inventing a genre that remains the most successful in all of film: the romantic comedy. And Ephron made rom-com an artform, exploring deep issues of female friendship, death, divorce, single motherhood and unconventional love in all its forms. Her success as a humor writer stands as a permanent rebuttal to any chauvinist writer who decides to script another “women aren’t funny” headline. And every time a sexist film masquerading as a romantic comedy sweeps the nation, we’re comforted by her canon of thoughtful, provocative and heartfelt films.

To celebrate her life and her work, here are a few of the best lessons we’ve learned through Nora Ephron films, every one of them worth viewing for a gazillionth time.

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"When Harry Met Sally": Falling in love with your best friend doesn't have to be all mopey pining or an impossible love triangle where one woman always loses. Ephron’s most successful film consistently makes critics’ best lists and remains a cultural talking point even today for its smart, honest take on guy and girl relationships.

5 Steps to a More Feminist Lifestyle…

… And You’re Probably Already Taking Them

Most of our readers have a clear feminist identity already—snaps to you and your participation in the movement! But not every feminist is born that way. It took me till my early thirties to understand my own brand of feminism and what it means to my every day life. Each woman’s journey to that understanding is different. And the path isn’t necessarily paved with protest marches, feminist theory books or daily blogging on the subject, as much as we love those.

The Sexy Feminist (that’s me and Jennifer Armstrong) is writing a book on new feminism (“The Feminist Bombshell” is slated for early 2012) to help demystify it for the modern woman. One of our goals is to show women how feminist they already are. Here are five life decisions with serious feminist implications you may not have considered, but may have already made:

Going Vegetarian: Altering your diet even a little bit—be it eschewing just red meat, buying only organic/cage-free poultry and dairy or going full vegan—is a major decision that affects more than your colon. It’s easy to toss off “for health reasons” as the answer to the prying questions about your brand of vegetarianism, but there’s a deeper answer—a recent study argues a strong feminist case that’s fascinating. Here are a few more:

  • You know cow farts are more than just stinky. In fact, the methane gas from cows is one of the primary sources of global warming and it’s our mass consumption of them that’s led to a bovine overpopulation and a depleting ozone layer.
  • You love chicken, but care where it comes from. Most chickens are farmed in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable—starved of light and fresh air, forced to live in their own feces and contained in brutally tight quarters.
  • You buy organic as much as possible. This supports farms that care about the environment, your health and (more likely than mass chains) fair working conditions for its employees.
  • Reading up on the companies/farms you support can help guarantee a conscious decision with every bite.

Shopping Consciously: Where you buy your designer denim and underwear matters.

  • You’re either hooked on American Apparel T-shirts no matter what or you know why it’s a feminist decision not to shop there. Two words: sexual harassment. Okay, seven more: promoting over sexualized, virginal women as the ideal.
  • When you heard that H&M throws away its overstock rather than donating or recycling it, you got sorta grossed out and went to Forever 21 for your cheap trends instead.
  • You buy brands such as Joe’s Jeans and Stella McCartney because they’re made fabulously, but they’re also made with consciousness.
  • You know that buying vintage, used or upcycling your own clothes does more for the world than save you a few bucks—though that’s nice too.

Idolizing the Right Women: Feminist icons are made not born. Sure, you should love Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Jessica Valenti, but you can follow fierce feminists in the pages of US Weekly too.

  • Consider why you’re a Beyoncé devotee. Is it only the beats or her sheer determination to kill it in anything she tries?
  • Why are you Team Christina instead of Team Britney? Could it be because Christina is a working mother, philanthropist and outspoken sex-positive feminist (you can call it “girl power,” but it means the same thing). Personal note: Here’s hoping Britney has her own feminist awakening one of these days soon …
  • Is “30 Rock” your favorite TV show for Alec Baldwin (we wouldn’t blame you) or Tina Fey—no matter your answer, you’re rooting for one of the most feminist TV shows ever. Here are 10 more.
  • Do you watch ABC or CBS evening news because that’s just what channel you were last on or because Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer are doing the job previously exclusively held by men?

Consuming News from Trusted Sources: You Tweet, Facebook and text like the rest of us, but when it comes to finding out what’s going on in the world, you look to the (sadly, few) reputable, journalistic outlets for your information.

  • Fox News pisses you off; MSNBC kinda does too.
  • A black-and-white, physical newspaper comes to your home; you read it.
  • Gawker is merely voyeuristic entertainment, not information source.
  • You seek out blogs and voices that challenge the status quo (thanks for that!).

Using Birth Control: No matter your reasons or method, taking charge of your own reproductive system—and its health—is one of the rights feminism was founded upon.

  • You always carry condoms for those “oops, I forgot, babe” moments guys can sometimes have.
  • You see your gynecologist at least once a year, perform self breast exams and read up on the latest breakthroughs in women’s health.
  • You support sex education in schools.
  • You’re one of the 100 million women on the pill and you say a little prayer for it every day.
  • You’re a mom because you wanted to be one.

Rihanna: Taking Sexy Feminism to the Extreme

Rihanna’s turning out to be quite the complicated figure, isn’t she? The gorgeous girl who gave us one of the greatest pop gifts ever in “Umbrella” once seemed headed for pretty-woman-who-sings-dance-hits-with-little-meaning territory; then, she became national news in the most unfortunate of ways, by being beaten by then-boyfriend Chris Brown at a pre-Grammy event two years ago. Now she’s emerged as a fascinating presence in pop: Yes, she still dabbles in those fluffy dance tunes (see her duet with Drake, “What’s My Name,” performed quite sexily at last night’s Grammys), but she’s made going pantsless into an act of empowerment (with a strong assist from Gaga and Beyonce, of course). And, more than anything, she also packs the occasional single with an unexpected truckload of meaning.

Case in point, her newest single, “S&M.” Though she certainly pushed some buttons last year with her Eminem collaboration “Love the Way You Lie” — in which she sings, “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/But that’s alright because I like the way it hurts” — her latest challenges listeners to process her personal life and artistic expressions at a whole different level. First, there’s the (extremely singable) refrain, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me.” Then, there’s the video, which plays as both a critique on the media coverage of her troubles (reporters are shown gagged at a press conference while she’s trapped under cellophane against a wall, and she walks gossip blogger Perez Hilton on a leash) and, more provocatively, her penchant for S&M (she’s shown tied up, in latex, and wearing a Playboy Bunny costume, among other scenarios). There’s no actual sex, and everything is art-directed to the hilt, giving it a heightened, pop-art vibe — it’s hardly realistic. And yet it’s been banned in 11 countries and protected by an 18-plus filter on YouTube. The song itself has been relegated to evening-play-only on many radio stations, and she wasn’t allowed to perform it at the recent Brit Awards. All this hysteria seems a bit overblown, to the point where it’s hard not to suspect a bit of sexism. Women are objectified constantly in rap and rock videos by male artists, yet apparently aren’t allowed to express specific desires themselves. Remember Justin Timberlake’s once-omnipresent “SexyBack,” in which he sings, “You see these shackles/Baby, I’m your slave”? That, it seems, was just fine. As Charlsie at College Candy points out, it’s likely no one would have trouble handling JT in such an oversexed video. And it must be noted that “Love the Way You Lie” — in which Eminem raps about tying a girlfriend to the bed and setting it afire — was praised widely, played without restrictions, and featured at the Grammys. I support this — I see it as a nuanced look behind the cycle of domestic violence, and a discussion-provoker. But why can’t Rihanna express her kinkier side as well?

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New Feminist Icons: Beyond Gloria Steinem and Virginia Woolf

We believe any woman can be a feminist icon, but these ladies are currently leading the way.

Women wouldn’t be where we are today without the feminist icons who first fought for and inspired us. We owe our right to vote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Sojourner Truth spoke up for all women when the slavery-era abolitionist delivered her groundbreaking speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Betty Friedan gave us one of the most important feminist texts in The Feminine Mystique, helping women to break out of their happy-homemaker bonds—and she co-founded the National Organization for Women. Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker were among the first to give voice to the emotional depth and biting wit of women during times of extreme sexism. Shirley Chisholm paved the way for Hillary Rodham Clinton and any other female presidential hopeful. And Gloria Steinem made fighting for gender justice chic to generations of women. These icons—and countless others—were our mothers’ and grandmothers’ feminist role models. They planted the seeds for what’s become a blooming revolution that advances and changes with every move we make.

And, boy, how it’s changed. Just as feminism has evolved from elite to radical, from first-wave to third-wave, so too has the concept of role models. The above women were instrumental in the feminist movement, but these days many young women look to public figures and entertainers for inspiration—in everything from how to style their hair (see: Jennifer Aniston) to what books they should read (see: Oprah). That’s why we love seeing some great female stars using their powers for good. After all, tackling Anna Karenina because you heard that Reese Witherspoon loved it doesn’t make your reading it any less valid. Incorporating environmental, free-trade consciousness into your diet and purchasing habits because you were inspired by an article you read on Alicia Silverstone doesn’t weaken the impact of those decisions. Contributing to Planned Parenthood and reading up on gender justice because an abortion-themed episode of Friday Night Lights moved you doesn’t make your activism less legitimate.

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Girl Power On the Web

Two of our favorite ladies are using their powers to empower women and girls online — today’s best method to reach the masses. It’s this kind of work that makes Lisa Ling and Amy Poehler new feminist icons:

Smart Girls At the Party: Funnymom Amy Poehler and her two best friends and co-hosts have taken the idea of the viral comedic video and spun it to relate to — and encourage — young girls. The site hosts webisodes about extraordinary individuals changing the world by being themselves — such as an 11-year-old who builds robots, sisters (9 and 11) who think the coolest person in the world is each other, and Ruby the feminist, a 7-year-old who’s already met her hero: Gloria Steinem.  And every episode ends with a dance party (because who doesn’t love to dance?!) and the adorably catchy theme song, “Smart Girls Have Move Fun.” The positive message is one girls of any age should embrace

Secret Society of Women: This friendly forum for women was co-founded by Lisa Ling, who’s been kicking down doors in broadcast media for more than a decade, and not using her body or beauty (both of which she’s rockin’) to do it. Motivated by her need to talk about a difficult miscarriage, she took to the Web to let it all out and discovered that there are so many women seeking a similar outlet. She’s turned that desire into a safe place for women to write about the “secrets” in their lives that they’ve perhaps been keeping in too long.

Even though communication is instant — and everywhere — in our modern, technological times, women still feel the pressure to keep their fears and emotions to themselves. Here, women can join the society and blog (anonymously if they wish) about anything — from heartbreaking losses, to never-confessed feelings of rage, to hilarious/embarrassing antics.

Anything that gets women talking about the truth and being their authentic selves is a step in the right direction.

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