On Friday night, singer Katy Perry was named woman of the year at the Billboard Women in Music Awards. She accepted it graciously saying, “I’m not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”
Millennial women often bewilder their feminist elders. I’m not supposed to say that out loud — it’s thought to be divisive — but it’s true.
We feminists stand there mystified, mouths slightly agape, each time yet another of these young women expresses egalitarian values in one breath, then uses the next to make sure we don’t accidentally mistake her for a feminist. They demand equal opportunity, rail against unacceptable beauty standards, and want control over their reproductive lives. Yet — they pre-qualify each feminist tinged sentiment with “I’m not a feminist, but…”
“I’m not a feminist, but women and men should absolutely receive equal pay for equal work.”
“I’m not a feminist, but the fact that she had been drinking doesn’t mean that she was ‘asking for it.’”
“I’m not a feminist, but women are just as capable of holding high political office as men.”
Who can blame these millennials? Spend a little time on Twitter, reading YouTube comments or listening to talk radio, and you will learn that feminists are fat, ugly, uptight, annoying, man-hating killjoys.
This is an off putting image for young women who live in a world that tells them that their value hinges on whether they are “cool” — wry, laid-back and spontaneous — and the extent to which they are “hot,” with luminous skin and a genetically improbable body that is both thin and curvy.
The caricature of feminism doesn’t do so well on this cool/hot meter. It is no wonder that so many young women keep the label at arm’s length. Saying, “I’m not a feminist, but…” is a proxy for “Please don’t see me as uptight or annoying.”
Furthermore, elder feminists should not be so stunned by millennials’ anxieties. We share them.
Some feminists could care less about how others see them, but plenty of us want to be liked, doing our own “feminist, but…” tango as we work to separate ourselves from the pernicious stereotypes that devalue feminist voices.
We can see this complicated negotiation in blogs with titles like Sexy Feminist and The Funny Feminist, in Jezebel’s pronouncement that it is “The Home of Shiny, Happy Ladies,” in the way feminist scholar Susan Douglas’s book “The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us From Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild” is peppered with confessions about her love of cosmetics. Even Jessica Valenti, co-founder of Feministing.com and author of five books, has a tagline at The Nation that reads: “Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.”
The “feminist, but…” struggle exists because we recognize that it is socially acceptable to express feminist views, but that being seen as a feminist builds a wall between what we have to say and the audience we hope will hear it.
And so, many of us signal that we are “not-your-mother’s-feminists” when we want to be listened to outside of academia, the feminist blogosphere or the advocacy-group circuit. We showcase our physical attractiveness, sense of humor, light-heartedness, or love of sex alongside our feminist perspectives.
Feminists never were the stereotype foisted upon them, and there is nothing wrong with highlighting the hollowness of that construction. But ultimately the coalescence of the feminist caricature and the cool/hot imperative works to whittle away the range of acceptable ways to voice concerns about women’s issues. Talking about problems such as sexual harassment, stereotypes, and violence against women gets harder when anger is taboo. Satire is a wonderful form of social commentary, but it should not be the only one we have at our disposal.
Cool/hot feminism is a valuable tool for reaching outsiders, and is artfully practiced by many, but I can’t help wondering if it runs the risk of undermining some critical achievements of the women’s movement: the right to speak out, the right to be angry, the right to look as you look rather than as you are supposed to look. I’m not sure if this resourceful strategy for reaching out is to be celebrated or condemned, but talking about the pressures that inform feminist work might help to remind us that card-carrying feminists and reluctantly egalitarian millennials have much more in common than meets the eye.