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