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Before making a textbook feminist remark, Katy Perry recently swatted back the feminist label. Why? What is it about the mantle that has like-minded women running for the hills? In this photo, Perry performs at the 2008 European MTV Awards. (Joel Ryan/AP)

In our never-ending quest for new Cog voices, we were introduced to Sarah Sobieraj, an associate professor of sociology at Tufts University. For her first piece, she was interested in writing about millennial women who seemed loath to associate themselves with feminism. Before making a textbook feminist remark, they would say, “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 women are just as capable of holding high political office as men.”

And it wasn’t just the younger generation. Even avowed feminists — consciously or not — seemed eager to distance themselves from the stigmatized stereotypes of the label.

I told her to go for it, and she soon produced a draft. Though her ideas were as fascinating as her cultural observations were spot-on, we both agreed that it needed something else. An anecdotal example, I offered, might help guide the reader through her analysis.

Then, as it so often does — the universe provided. A few days later, at Billboard’s “Woman of the Year” awards, honoree Katy Perry served up exactly what the piece-in-progress had been craving.

Early on in her acceptance speech, the pop superstar shared her personal mantra: “If you believe in yourself, you can be anything.”

That’s a nice enough sentiment, right? But then she added, “So, I’m not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”

Hmmm. Last time I checked, the two weren’t mutually exclusive. Why was Perry — a proud and vocal advocate of grrrl power — swatting back the feminist label?

These were the very observations and questions Sobieraj had been wrestling with in her piece. And now, in Perry, we had a perfect example: a modern woman who espouses feminist ideals but at the same time rejects the label.

With a new lede and some very minor tweaking, we published Sobieraj’s piece, “”Why Doesn’t Katy Perry Want To Be Called A Feminist?” on Dec. 5, 2012.

The response was fast and furious. Here are some selected comments from Disqus, Facebook and Twitter:

theo j. williams: ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ used to be a code phrase meaning “I’m no lesbian, but…” Evidently we’ve backslid to the point that women have to proclaim their non-threatening status publicly. Now THAT’s depressing.

Lauren Robbins: Being a self-proclaimed feminist since I was 19, YES feminist is a bad word, and has been as long as I’ve been alive.

Martin Geldhof: Has it come to anyone’s mind that she isn’t a feminist?

Life of Her Own Well, Katy Perry is probably NOT a feminist. I think that there is a difference in believing in the strength of women and wanting equality. On another note, any time that I hear younger woman say “I am not a feminist but”, I say, “Well, I am a feminist and I’m proud of it”. Sooner or later it seems that they start identifying themselves as feminist too. They have been brainwashed to think that being feminist is a bad thing, but the more that some of us proudly identify as feminist, then they learn a different perspective.

Jean Powers: Dear Katy Perry — We don’t want you either.

edeslee: As a millenial myself, I have to admit that I am very ambivalent about the word “feminism”. I’ll also admit that when I saw the title of this article I thought, “Oh no, it’s going to be another old school feminist blaming us young women for not acting or thinking the way she thinks we should.” It was refreshing to find that it was actually an insightful article that doesn’t place all the blame on us … “Feminism,” like any other label, encompasses a broad spectrum of attitudes and ideals. However, I think to a lot of women my age the word itself strikes us as somewhat divisive … I think what we call ourselves is not as important as what we believe, however, and I think most people (men & women) in my generation do believe that all people should get the same respect, treatment & opportunities, no matter what their gender is.

In a segment on WBUR’s Radio Boston it was pointed out that Katy Perry isn’t alone — that other celebrities (Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, among them) have also distanced themselves from the label. Co-host Meghna Chakrabarti wondered, does it really matter if women identify themselves as feminists if they believe in feminist “values”? To hear Sobieraj’s response, listen to the segment below:

For her part, in this author’s update, Sobieraj says she was pleased the piece generated so much discussion:

What I find important isn’t what Katy Perry does, or even whether women identify as feminist, but rather the way stereotypes about feminism shape how we talk (or don’t talk) about gender inequality. It is a bitter irony if the sexist pressure to be physically attractive and cool above all else — essentially to be one type of woman — may be making us reluctant to fight against the very stereotyping and discrimination that constrains us. Most women want equal opportunity, safety and respect, and I think it’s crucial that we reach a point where people who work toward those goals — however they identify themselves — feel empowered and valued, not self-conscious or marginalized.

— S.S. 12/17/12

You can read the original piece here.

Tags: Best Of Cog, Gender

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  • http://twitter.com/Feuerbach11 Jason Phillips

    A powerful moment in my life: In an undergrad English class the prof asked, “Who here is a feminist?” About 5 or 6 people raised their hands. The prof then asked, “So, the rest of you don’t think men and women should be treated equally?” After much stammering and “Oh, well…”-ing, he asked the original question again and received unanimous response.

  • Ken

    The reason so many young women reject the feminist label is that feminist got a lot of things wrong about what men and women really want from each other and how they relate to each other. Feminist also really only addressed half the equation concerning inequality between the sexes. They wanted to free women from their traditional roles, but did not really seek to offer men the same freedom. Young women today are seeing where traditional feminists went wrong, where they went right, and they are course correcting. They are feminist without blaming of men for every problem. They are feminist but with a much clearer view of biological and social evolution. They are feminist,who are being more honest about their sexuality. Like all social movements, the feminist movement has evolved, and it is become much less ideological and more practical.

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