The XX Factor

Enough With the Feminist Police

Singer Katy Perry doesn’t call herself a feminist, so there’s that.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Last week, Katy Perry joined Melissa Leo, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Marissa Mayer, and Taylor Swift to become the latest powerful woman (how far can you projectile-ejaculate frosting from your nipples?) to denounce the feminist movement. “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women,” Perry said while accepting Billboard’s Woman of the Year award last week. The statement prompted a flurry of feminist concern. “Why are women scared to call themselves feminists?” Mary Elizabeth Williams asked in Salon before taking a shot at answering her own question: To the women who think the feminist label no longer applies, Williams says, “Ha! HA HA HA!”

Here’s one reason some women might not identify as feminists: Whenever they begin to engage with the material, feminists condescendingly dismiss them as morons, complete with all-caps maniacal laughter. “Hi Katy Perry! At its most simple definition, all feminism means is that you think that women should be equal to men, okay? Cool, thanks, byyyyye!” Jezebel schooled. “It’s like she doesn’t understand what a feminist is. Is this what happens when you’re homeschooled after the age of 15?” the site previously wrote of Swift. Responses like these may amuse declared feminists who must constantly contend with uninformed celebrities misstating their movement. But they’re unlikely to help the cause.

I, too, have beaten the feminist identification horse before. But I’m beginning to realize that the question “Are you a feminist?” tells us much more about the feminist movement’s own branding failures than it does the beliefs of the women prompted to respond. My friend Nona Willis Aronowitz came to the same conclusion years ago when she toured the country asking women about their relationship with feminism for her book Girldrive. I talked with her about what she learned and how the endless policing of that label does us no good today:

Nona Willis Aronowitz: The main thing I learned from writing Girldrive is that the question, “Are you a feminist?” is boring. We asked that question and got some generic-sounding, bullshit answer. Once we moved on and asked about women’s actual lives, we learned the real stuff.

Amanda Hess: Did you end up changing anyone’s mind about the term feminism through Girldrive?

NWA: No. A few women asked us what feminism meant, and when we answered, they were like, “Oh, that sounds nice, sure.” But that was just based on kind of arbitrary definitions we came up with on the spot.

AH: I feel like the entire point of IDing as a feminist is that you have some sort of collective consciousness. Did these women talk to other women about … women problems?

NWA: Not really. The word feminist is definitely a code word for having gender awareness. But ultimately I think it’s a lot more important to look at what someone is doing rather than how they’re labeling themselves. “Are you a feminist?” is often a nonstarter. But when you ask someone, “What pisses you off about being a woman?” people can’t stop talking. … Most of these pieces are written right after some celebrity has disavowed the word, but I think there’s hope. Lady Gaga said the same thing, and now look at her. Views can evolve.

AH: Does she call herself a feminist now?

NWA: She told Ann Powers that she could tell Ann was “a little bit of a feminist, like I am.”

AH: Aww.

NWA: Haha.

AH: How do you think that does happen? I know it’s not by feminists laughing in all caps and then straight-up telling people that they are actually feminists.

NWA: Exactly. I think it happens through your friends and your networks, doesn’t it? I’d like to think someone took Lady Gaga aside and said, “You know, Madonna is a feminist. Joan Jett is a feminist.” Ann Powers told me she had a feeling Lady Gaga just Googled her before their interview. I doubt Gaga’s publicist was saying, “Feministing is upset that you said you weren’t a feminist.” 

AH:  I’m trying to remember how I first started identifying as a feminist, and I think I always kind of did, even before I was that interested in reading about it or even knew what that meant exactly. (My parents likely played a role.) But I think it’s a lot easier to identify as something when it feels organic, and no one is telling you what to do. People—especially people who would likely identify as feminists—do not like to be told what to call themselves.

NWA: Exactly. And there are several different types of “I’m not a feminist” women. I do agree that Carla Bruni saying she’s not a feminist because there’s no more work to do is really lame. But Katy Perry? I’m not worried about her.