Is Beyonce a feminist?

This excellent article says yes, she is, and a big one at that. In fact, the feminist Ms. Magazine chose her for their cover this month.

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Others, however, have disagreed with what’s being called her “fierce feminism,” and it’s worth recapping some of the rather loose ends in the discussion of what, exactly, a feminist role model looks like. How does she act? What does she stand for? And is it enough for her to call herself feminist?

First off, it’s important to note that few famous women call themselves “feminists.” If asked about it, they usually say something along the lines of this, via Taylor Swift:

“I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”

Pretty neutral and meh, right? Other women feel the need to flat out reject the label, as Katy Perry did when she–wait for it–accepted her 2012 Woman of the Year award from Billboard:

“I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”

Hmmm. Okay.

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But in an interview with Vogue UK, Beyonce had this to say about the term:

“That word can be very extreme…But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman.”

So, better. Although I’m not sure about the “modern-day” qualifier. As opposed to what, a 19th century first-wave feminist? A 1970s second waver? I’m certainly not looking to be described as an old, antiquated somewhat stale feminist. I guess it frustrates me that women feel like they have to dance around the issue.

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But, perhaps this hesitance is to be expected, because as soon as Beyonce sort of agreed to the whole feminist thing, she received flak for it. According to the Salon article, several feminists had some on-point things to say about the image of her sexuality:

Freeman insists flashes of underboob and feminist critique don’t mix. Petersen concurs, calling the thigh-baring, lace-meets-leather outfit Beyoncé wore during her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show an “outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishizes the otherwise powerful female body.” A commenter on Jezebel summed up the charge: “That’s pretty much the Beyoncé contradiction right there. Lip service for female fans, fan service for the guys.”

But there is, of course, the very third-wave argument for Beyonce’s display of sexuality as a symbol of her empowerment. After all, Beyonce faces the same challenge that all women do: we must find success in terms of a deeply patriarchal world. We just have to decide and define our own terms.

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It’s kind of like a game, and if Beyonce’s success and self-confidence tells us anything, there is more than one way to win.

The need for new roles (and role models!) in Hollywood

Last week, Lucy Liu spoke with Net-a-Porter’s Graphic Issue about her experiences as an Asian woman working in Hollywood. In particular, she addresses how her race has affected the rather stereotypical roles she has received:

“I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me. You add race to it, and it became, ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.”

Liu has played her fair share of Dragon Lady and martial-arts action roles. As this article on XO Jane puts it:

What she’s not often cast as is a woman who happens to be Chinese-American, a role where her race could be acknowledged and wrapped into the plot, without turning her into a total stereotype.

In short, the way she looks filters the work she is offered, which is not unlike the experience of most “otherly” women in film, television, and fashion. Liu is certainly not the first woman of color to talk about Hollywood’s preference for white actors.

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Recently, Kerry Washington discussed her leading role in the hit television show Scandal–she’s the first black woman to be cast as the main character in a network drama since 1974. The show has an estimated 8 million weekly viewers.

Washington, who also starred in the Oscar-nominated Django Unchained, just scored her first magazine cover, the June issue of Elle. Her image is a refreshing one: In magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue, women of color still appear infrequently.

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But why, exactly? Is this a matter of active racism or more, a matter of few writers creating diverse, non-stereotypical roles for women of “unconventional” colors, shapes, and sizes?

In the big picture, this is not just an issue for non-white women. Smart roles for white women also seem to be dwindling, especially for women over 40.

Women’s lack of representation on the screen is directly related to their lack of presence in the writing rooms. Until Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse behind Shondaland Productions, entered the picture with Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice, television shows revolved around white ensembles–think FriendsSex and the City, How I Met Your Mother, even Mad Men. 

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Rhimes’ characters “happen” to be non-white; they are not defined by their race or gender, nor are these particularities important to the plot, which is important to her:

“When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”

Rhimes’ develops characters that women of any race could play. And she doesn’t particularly like to talk about it: “It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together. And, oh, by the way, it works. Ratings-wise, it works.”

Let’s hope that Rhimes’ example–not to mention success–will influence more writers and producers to think about race and roles in the same way.

Stigmas and standards: Pregnancy past 40

Halle Berry isn’t just pregnant with her second child, she’s pregnant with the second child she’s had past 40.  Big news, everyone, or at least you’d think so by all the way-too-excited headlines reporting it. Here’s the rundown: She had her first daughter at 41 with model Gabriel Aubry, and now at 46 she’s expecting a boy with fiancé Olivier Martinez (of Unfaithful fame). Truth be told, I would not know Berry’s exact age if it weren’t for this pregnancy. For some reason, the number is not to be missed.

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Okay, it’s not just for some reason. Her age is getting so much attention because, let’s be honest, there’s a stigma associated with women who get pregnant past the age of 40 (and really, even past 35). In 2013. No matter who you are (in this case, a famous actress), how much money you make (lots), or what the state of your physical health is (uh, she looks pretty damn fit/perfect to me), if you’re a woman who dares to have a baby “later” in life, prepare to be picked apart.

I’ve already read too many lines about her diabetes, the risks of geriatric pregnancies, and how she will raise children during her “twilight” years. And in the comments sections, readers are scrambling over how she got pregnant in the first place. Everyone calm down. She’s 46, not 86. Besides, why, really, do we care? Of all the pregnant women in the world, I don’t think Berry needs our concern. And on that note, does any pregnant woman deserve the quick judgement of strangers?

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This might be personal for me. I’m more than 20 years younger than Berry, but I’ve already listened to friends talk about when they think they“should” try to have a baby, followed, very clearly, by when they shouldn’t. My objections to these engrained rules are answered with phrases not unlike the ones that come up in articles about Berry’s pregnancy: something about risks and the fear (distaste?) of being an older mom.

Here’s what Berry has to say about it:

“I’m a much better mother at 46–or 41, when I had her–than if I were like 21 or 25. I mean I was just a little baby trying to figure it out–trying to figure out who I was, let alone having the responsibility of trying to help another little soul develop and grow. I’m so glad I waited.”

By the way, I had to search around a little for Martinez’s age. It isn’t automatically listed in every article (and headline!) like Berry’s. He’s 47.

Ms. Jolie, I’m impressed.

I read in the news yesterday (okay it was E! News–but it was an E! exclusive!) that Angelina Jolie recently opened a primary school for girls outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. Jolie, who’ve we all seen in photos for her role as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, plans to fund the school through the proceeds from her new jewelry line, Style of Jolie.

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Now, although I don’t know the specifics of her involvement withe school (the above plaque thanks her for a generous contribution), I have to say I’m impressed with the actress. Even though we’ve heard about Jolie’s work around the world with child refugees pretty regularly over the last few years, I’d argue that most of us never knew exactly where she was or what she was doing.

We see and hear more about Brad and her brood of adopted children then we do about the specifics of her actual on-the-ground contributions. And of course, there’s a skepticism associated with any celebrity “goodwill” that’s probably deserved. We’re used to celebrities showing up for photos ops and the chance to smack their names on something charitable.

But the Qualai Gudar Girls’ School is real (and not the first school she’s funded, I learned, through her nonprofit organization the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict) and it’s giving Afghani girls real opportunities.

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Bravo, Angelina. I have many questions about how the school was opened, and perhaps more importantly, how it will be kept open as a safe place for girls to get an education. But right now, I just want to say that I’m feeling hopeful. Someone from the most privileged class of American society is making tangible commitments to some of the least powerful, most endangered voices in our world.  And ironically, E! News was the first to report it.

Say something. We won’t judge you (too much).

Although what I’m about to say has definitely been said before, I feel like it’s a feminist topic that needs redress, so here it is: Women judge other women. I don’t like it, but I’ve come to accept that it is, unfortunately, a fact of life. Men judge women, too (and vice versa), but I think we can argue that there is a social dynamic among women based in an active culture of judgement. And whether we realize it or not, we like it. We get something out of it.

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A real housewife giving “the look”

An obsession with female celebrities in our society is, of course, a large part of it. We buy magazines featuring catch lines like “Stars without makeup!” and watch reality TV shows like The Real Housewives. We frequent ridiculously critical celebrity gossip sites. For whatever reason–maybe we’re bored, maybe we’re trying to zone out after a stressful day, or maybe we just need some reassurance that all women have physical flaws–we’re attracted to the actof judging.  We’re drawn to the ritual of seeing and evaluating women’s bodies and behavior. The major problem with all of this? (After all, you may ask, do we really care about judging celebrities? Aren’t they putting themselves out there to be judged? Aren’t they making money off it?) Well, the problem is that it subconsciously conditions us to judge all women.

I started thinking about all of this after a conversation with one of my good friends. For some reason we got on the topic of “the Royals,” and then, of course, to the one and only Kate Middleton. First off, let me say this: I like Kate Middleton (Should I be calling her Catherine now? The Duchess?). At least, I like what limited snapshots I see of her in photos and magazine covers. On an imaginary likability scale she scores pretty high. After all, what’s not to like? At the very least, I think we can agree that she certainly does not offend. My friend, however, thinks otherwise. To be fair, it’s not that she doesn’t like her, exactly. She simply describes the Princess as “boring.”

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Boring is certainly not the way I would describe Kate or her life. I imagine to her it’s not boring at all.  Behind that signature smile and those immaculate outfits, I wonder if she’s exhausted. I wonder if she likes the endless duties and image-related obligations associated with being a Royal. I wonder how she feels about being photographed all the time. I wonder how, in a word, she would really describe her mother-in-law.

Still, I can sort of understand what my friend means by “boring.” In this sense, Kate is boring because she seems perfect, because she’s never messed up. But do we want her to mess up? My friend does, but I can’t say I feel the same way. I admire Kate’s image of grace and class. I like that she seems put together and relaxed.  It’s nice to see a female celebrity who’s not on the edge of a breakdown or constantly on the worst-dressed list (yes, I’m guilty of clicking on those photos, too). If boring means stable or reliable, then I guess Kate is quite guilty.

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Kate is not a train wreck, and I don’t anticipate her ever becoming one. But for some reason she is still the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism. But why do we feel that we need to judge her–to have an opinion about her? To dismiss her?Why do feel like we have the right to categorize someone who we will never actually know?

To be honest, I do have one criticism of Kate, or a curiosity, rather: I’ve never heard her speak. I’ve never read a quote from her. I have to wonder, is she so likable because she is so silent? I’m sure everything she says and does is highly monitored by Royal family rules and what not, but I’d love to hear the woman say something. Preferably something intelligent or meaningful, but I’d even take something purely candid.  She doesn’t need to be a political expert or a social activist, but I’d like to hear or read something of her thoughts. Why? Because she’s a woman in the spotlight who, among other things, seems to have her life together, and it’d be nice to hear her relate. It’d be nice to know something of her personality, her mind.  More than ever, I think we need smart, sophisticated role models, women who are genuine and if not flawed, at least human.

So why doesn’t Kate publicly speak? I’m guessing she doesn’t say much because she doesn’t want to make herself (and her family) open to negative judgment. But if the world wasn’t so predatory, perhaps she’d have the space to pleasantly surprise us. On that note, perhaps a lot more women would.