Katy Perry's Aversion to Feminism Shows Feminism Is Still Radical

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Why it's not so bad that the singer, like some other women, doesn't want to call herself a feminist

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Evan Agostini/AP Images

Katy Perry accepted the Woman of the Year award from Billboard on Friday by declaring, "I'm not a feminist, but I do believe in the power of women."

This isn't an especially surprising statement. As a number of folks have pointed out, many young women—and a good number of not-so-young women as well—are uncomfortable with being labeled as feminists even though they embrace many feminist goals. Last month, for example, Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer eschewed the feminist label while simultaneously declaring that she "believed in equal rights." It's tempting to simply dismiss such comments as incoherent, but I think doing so risks missing out on insights and criticism that might be of value to feminism.

Understandably, many feminist writers don't see things this way. Instead, they find such rhetorical contradictions infuriating. Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon, for example, explains with barely-restrained snark: "Let me just point out that if you believe in the strength of women, Ms. Perry, or their equality, Ms. Mayer, you're soaking in feminism." Madeleine Davis at Jezebel adds, with less restraint, "the ignorance and ridiculousness of Perry's comments—especially in the context of accepting the Woman of the Year award—is enough to set the teeth of any feminist on edge."

Again, the frustration is understandable—you've got people in the public limelight standing up, saying they agree with your principles in one breath and then denouncing you in the next. Getting kicked by your enemies sucks, but is at least expected. Being spit on by your friends, on the other hands, is a betrayal.

Still, as Slate's Amanda Hess points out, condemning women for not embracing feminism probably isn't that helpful. As Hess says, "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." Hess adds, "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."

Hess concludes that what women do is more important than whether they call themselves feminist or not. To some degree that's true, obviously; a world in which sexism was abolished but no one called herself a feminist would be a better world than the one we've got. But we're a long way from abolishing sexism—and so I think it is worth thinking about why many of those who oppose sexism are so leery of being part of the movement that is dedicated to doing just that. Even if it is basically a marketing failure, feminism is in many ways a message. Marketing matters.

One reason Perry and other public figures may forswear feminism, of course, is because feminism is controversial; embracing it may irritate fans. More charitably, as Sarah Sobieraj argues, women may worry that the feminist label and its stereotypes prevent people from listening to, and buying into, a feminist message.

Either way, Perry's unwillingness to be called a feminist might from this perspective be seen as a sign, not of feminism's failures, but of its continuing relevance. It would be better if feminism were more widely accepted. But failing that, the least a movement for radical social change can do is to freak people out a little. Feminism still provokes resistance; it still has enemies; it still makes many people in the mainstream nervous. Maybe, for example, as Davis suggests in Jezebel, Perry has some sense that the song she wrote in which she flirtatiously semi-endorsed date rape was not an ideal feminist stance. In a perfect world, everyone would embrace feminism, but as long as we're not in that world, feminism's job is at least in part to make people uncomfortable.

There are other, less hopeful, reasons that women might be alienated from feminism, though. Last month, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy said she was not a feminist because, "I'm not at all an active feminist. On the contrary, I'm a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day."

Of course, as Mary Elizabeth Williams points out, there's no reason you can't do all of those things and be a feminist. And yet, at the same time, that note about loving "family life" has a disturbing resonance.

The fact is, feminism has had a complicated relationship with traditional family roles, and, indeed, with traditional femininity more generally. As feminist and trans activist Julia Serano argues in her book Whipping Girl:

the scapegoating of femininity has become the Achilles' heel of the feminist movement. While past feminists have gone to great lengths to empower femaleness and to tear away all of the negative connotations that have plagued women's bodies and biology, they have allowed the negative connotations associated with femininity to persist relatively unabated. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that, while most reasonable people see women and men as equals, few (if any) dare to claim that femininity is masculinity's equal. Indeed, much of what has historically been called misogyny—a hatred of women—has clearly gone underground, disguising itself as the less reprehensible derision of femininity.

Thus, for Serano, some women may feel alienated from feminism because feminism doesn't like them. Women who value traditional expressions of femininity—whether that means wearing pink, or prioritizing family life like Bruni-Sarkozy or sacrificing themselves for their children—can feel scorned and belittled by the feminist movement. The scorn can, as Serano says, feel similar to the misogyny that feminism is supposed to oppose.

It's true that third-wave feminists (like Serano) have gone some way towards addressing these problems. But Serano's critique, and the ongoing discomfort with feminism felt by many women, suggests that there's still work to be done. At the very least, it seems like it's worth listening to women when they say they're not happy with feminism, rather than simply dismissing them as ignorant or explaining why their critiques aren't important. Asking women, famous or otherwise, whether they are feminists, and why or why not, seems like a useful exercise in self-criticism—a way for feminists to figure out how they are and how they are not reaching their sisters.

In fact, I think the question "Are you a feminist?" could stand to be used more widely than it is. In particular, it might be useful to start routinely asking the question not just of women, but of men. In the first place, as I said, feminism should make people uncomfortable—and that definitely means male people as well as female. And in the second place, I suspect that the best way to convince Katy Perry that she's a feminist would be to have some of her male celebrity peers explain why they aren't.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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