Fame and Feminism: Celebrity Activism and Performative Femininity

 

“When celebrities choose to express their feminism or femininity online, the reactions and responses can reflect our cultural understandings of both.”

by Emily Murphy

In early September of 1968, a live sheep was crowned ‘Miss America’ on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Nearby, a ‘freedom trash can’ collected discarded make-up, bras, high heels, and copies of Cosmopolitan and Playboy. ‘Women are enslaved by beauty standards’ one poster read, ‘If you want meat go to the butcher’, said another. This was ‘No More Miss America!’, a demonstration attended by over 400 women, who likened the beauty pageant to livestock competitions at a county fair. These feminist protestors viewed ‘Miss America’ as the ultimate symbol of the way women are objectified and lessened based on their physical appearance. The main goal of the protest was to highlight, and reject, the suffocating ideals of normative femininity, with one participant remarking: “Every day in a woman’s life is a walking Miss World Contest”.[1]

Fast forward fifty years – ‘feminist’ is now a word you can find splashed across the pages of Cosmopolitan and Playboy, defined in a Beyoncé song, or printed on a $710 Dior t-shirt. This is popular feminism; it’s glossy, digestible, and commercialised. Like any other brand, it requires ambassadors, and this is where celebrities come into play. The increase in celebrity involvement in feminist activism produces an interesting dichotomy, as many celebrities who advocate for women’s rights, often embody, or even actively promote, the very chokeholds of femininity that feminism challenges. As a feminist and a pop culture addict, I am fascinated by the tension that exists between celebrity feminist activism and ideals of femininity. When I decided to explore this in my own research, I concentrated on two women who feature prominently in this debate: Emma Watson and Kim Kardashian.

The Internet is a space where celebrity culture and activism collide. As a consequence, much of the debate around celebrity feminism first emerges online. Emma Watson and Kim Kardashian both have a monumental following across various social media sites. On Twitter alone, Watson has 28.3 million followers, and Kardashian doubles that with 58.5 million followers. These numbers illustrate the massive sphere of influence each woman has on the Internet, and this is only scratching the surface of their online presence. Popular culture is often dismissed as vapid or shallow, but when Watson or Kardashian engage with feminist activism, their millions of followers are not a passive audience. This is a realm where “collective understandings are created”[2], and when celebrities choose to express their feminism or femininity online, the reactions and responses can reflect our cultural understandings of both.

Traditionally, gender has been understood as biologically innate, and wholly predetermined. Theorists and scholars like Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and Sandra Lee Bartky rejected this assumption by arguing that femininity is instead informed and cultivated by social norms and expectations. De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ is a text that inspired many women to question the confines and origins of femininity, by suggesting ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. The book discusses the many versions of femininity that women can portray, and explores how these are received and responded to. Butler built on these ideas when she introduced the idea of performative femininity in ‘Gender Trouble’, suggesting that gender is an effect that is “produced through stylisation of the body”[3]. Similarly, Bartky’s work focuses on how femininity is represented and reproduced physically, but steers her focus towards beauty, fashion, self-image, and self-discipline.

Using these theories to think about how Watson and Kardashian represent femininity in their activism, I chose to analyse viral texts that had sparked widespread media attention. These included a photo from a Vanity Fair feature on Emma Watson in early 2017, and a selfie posted by Kim Kardashian in the lead up to International Women’s Day in 2016. These images proved to be controversial, and ignited much debate on the feminist movement, celebrity activism, female sexuality, and femininity.

 

 

 

 

When I compared her selfie to Bartky’s understandings of feminine ideals, Kim Kardashian ticked all the boxes of ‘ideal woman’. She avoids a strong facial expression, her arms are close to her body, and she takes up little space in the room. Kardashian’s pose accurately depicts the paradoxes of female movement described by Bartky, as she appears gracefully constricted, erotic yet refined, with her stomach pulled in, shoulders back and chest out[4]. The image is contemporary in the way it has been shared online, but traditional in many of the ways femininity is represented. However, in her reply to the criticism she faced for this photograph, Kim disrupted assumptions and expectations of female sexuality, and the relationship between sexuality and motherhood.

Much of the media response to this photo described it as a nude selfie, despite, as Kim herself pointed out, the black bars covering more than most bikinis would. It’s interesting that even the notion of Kardashian being naked under the bars still caused such a reaction, and demonstrates the constant sexualisation and scrutiny women face when it comes to their bodily expression. A large portion of the criticism Kim Kardashian received for her selfie was due to her role as a mother. In response, she published an essay on International Women’s Day writing, “I am a mother. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, an entrepreneur and I am allowed to be sexy”[5]. While many commentators found her photo ridiculous or inappropriate, their reactions proved that Kardashian was making an important point: Why must motherhood and sexuality be mutually exclusive?

While Kim Kardashian was criticised for not measuring up as a mother, Emma Watson was shamed for not measuring up as a feminist. When Watson was photographed for Vanity Fair, she shunned many feminine ideals in the images. She stared straight down the camera lens and wore boxy clothing that gave her a broader, more ‘masculine’ appearance. Her hair was cropped short, and she wore minimal make-up. This created a striking and unique photo, which was ignored by the media who instead focused on Watson’s outfit. The hint of cleavage displayed by Emma’s sheer blouse was deemed incompatible with her feminist activism, and the photo was sexualised by the media for its “nudity” and its perceived sexual nature. Many post-feminist theorists are concerned with the unflinching sexualisation of women’s bodies in media culture, and when you consider the response to this photo, it is clear to see why. This raises the question of why sexuality and feminism, or femininity and feminism, are believed to be at odds. As Watson herself responded, “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.”[6]

How we understand people is important to how we then react to them, and the way Watson and Kardashian’s displays of femininity are received can act as an indicator for how femininity is received more broadly. When Butler talks about gender performativity, she compares it to theatrical performances, but notes an important difference: “gender performances in nontheatrical contexts are governed by more clearly punitive and regulatory social conventions”[7]. If gender performativity is a game, it appears to be a difficult one to win. Women are expected to show off their body, and the body is deemed to be an incredibly vital part of what it is to be a woman, but if you show too much of your body, or in the wrong circumstances, or as a mother, you will be criticised. Watson and Kardashian not only present two different styles of activism, they also present two very different types of femininity—and neither is immune from disparagement. At the intersection of stardom and activism, it’s worth asking: Is the entertainment industry guilty of perpetuating normative, narrow understandings of femininity? Or does it act as a mirror to our own social expectations of how a woman should be?

[1] Walters, M. 2005. Feminism: A Very Short Introduction. 1st ed. Oxford University Press.

[2] Storey, J. 2013. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 6th edn. New York: Routledge.

[3] Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity, New York: Routledge.

[4] Bartky, S. 1988. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernisation of Patriarchal Power. In: Rose Weitz. The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Kardashian, K. 2016. Happy International Women’s Day, Available at: https://www.kimkardashianwest.com/behind-the-scenes/776-kim-kardashian-nude-instagram/ (Accessed: 25 July 2017).

[6] The Guardian. 2017. ‘Emma Watson on Vanity Fair cover: ‘Feminism is about giving women choice’, The Guardian, 6 March 2017, accessed: 15 August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/05/emma-watson-vanity-fair-cover-feminism

[7] Butler, J. 1997. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In: Carole R. McCann, Seung-kyung Kim. Feminist Theory Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 462-473.

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