The XX Factor

Why Are We Always Asking Rich Famous Ladies If They Are Feminists?

Marion Cotillard at the Cannes film festival in May.


For the past several years, reporters have delighted in subjecting woman celebrities to a gender-specific litmus test: “Are you a feminist?” Those who demur or question the term are vilified in progressive circles as feeble-minded dandelions blowing in the winds of patriarchy; those who identify with it often reduce its meaning to the blandest, most innocuous strain.

And still, the query persists. In a Q&A in today’s inaugural Lenny newsletter, Lena Dunham posed it to Hillary Clinton, a woman whose personal statements and extraordinary professional accomplishments are so deeply aligned with feminism that any answer she could give would be almost irrelevant. Still, Dunham declared, the question was “on every Lenny reader’s lips.” Clinton passed the test:

I’m always a little bit puzzled when any woman…says something like, ‘Well, I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist.’ Well, a feminist is by definition someone who believes in equal rights…It’s not going to be good for you as a woman to be denying the fact that you are entitled to equal rights.

Today’s out-and-proud non-feminist is Marion Cotillard, who’s played sympathetic, admirable women in films such as Two Days, One Night and the Édith Piaf biopic La Vie en rose. In an interview with Porter magazine, the actress and singer waffled when asked about the Cannes film festival’s gender diversity problem:

Filmmaking is not about gender. You cannot ask a president in a festival like Cannes to have, like, five movies directed by women and five by men. For me it doesn’t create equality; it creates separation. I mean, I don’t qualify myself as a feminist. We need to fight for women’s rights but I don’t want to separate women from men. We’re separated already because we’re not made the same and it’s the difference that creates this energy in creation and love. Sometimes in the word feminism there’s too much separation.

Though the feminist-identification question has become a moot indicator of a celebrity’s politics, Cotillard’s thoughts on gender inequity in the film industry are telling. Her words recall a statement made by then–Cannes head Gilles Jacob in 2012, when all of the festival’s 22 major films were directed by men. Jacob blamed the previous year’s abundance of woman-made films (four in total!) for the 2012 protests. “That was maybe a wrong move,” he told the Observer. “Now everyone this year was expecting five films, then six, then seven. In France nowadays, they speak of parity. They want parity in government, parity everywhere, so why not at the Cannes film festival?”

Both Cotillard and Jacob misconstrue the point of calls for equal representation in the film industry, or any industry, really. Gender parity for the sake of appearances isn’t a goal in and of itself, but gender disparity is a symptom of bias further down the pipeline. Cotillard’s privileged status as a sought-after movie star and all-around rich lady might insulate her from some of the more severe consequences of sex discrimination; she was, after all, featured in one of 2012’s man-made Cannes films, and the very real gender pay gap among high-profile stars—until recently, not even Jennifer Lawrence could escape it!—still leaves actresses with abundant piles of cash to soften the blow.

But the gender differences that Cotillard claims spur “energy in creation and love” also limit the salaries of women working behind the scenes and the roles available to Cotillard and her peers. In fact, the state of affairs in Hollywood is so bad for women, the ACLU has gotten involved. Women exist in the film industry, ergo sexism does, too, ergo filmmaking is at least in part about gender.

Now that I’ve disproven Cotillard’s contention that discussions of gender are out of place in the film world (sorry, Marion), what to make of her anti-feminist declaration? On the one hand, it’s sad to hear an actress who’s benefited from feminism and promoted feminist principles in her work boil the concept down to a battle of the sexes. But even the most visible advocates for gender equality in Hollywood—looking at you, Patricia Arquette—have some troubling ideas about what feminism is (in Arquette’s case, it does not include, but should be heartily championed by, queer people and people of color). The feminist movement is broad and strong enough to serve both of these women, but not fragile enough to buckle under a few throwaway comments from either.