Praise of feminist celebrities must be earned

What does Jennifer Lawrence's equal pay essay do for women?

Jennifer Lawrence at San Diego cominc con in 2015.
Supplied by Flickr

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘feminist'?

These days, it wouldn’t be odd to think of Beyoncé, Amy Schumer or even Taylor Swift. It’s a label that’s historically radical and presently trendy.

While it can be encouraging to see women in the public eye take on the feminist label and all of the flack that comes with it, mainstream proponents don’t face the same problems that regular women do.

Jennifer Lawrence’s infamous essay “Why do I make less than my male co-stars?” comes to mind. When I graduate and eventually (hopefully) find a job, will Jennifer Lawrence’s heavily praised diatribe against the sexist standards of Hollywood do anything for me? Probably not.

When Lawrence chastises herself for not standing up for herself and asking for more pay, she is asking an important question: “Are we [women] socially conditioned to behave this way?”

Considering her situation as a template for how women are socially conditioned to behave ignores the disconnect between Lawrence’s four-million dollar salary and the average woman’s financial struggles.

Lawrence’s essay is pointing out the gap in pay for women in the entertainment industry; however, she is out of touch with the average woman’s everyday experiences.

Lawrence states that until this essay she had been “ever-so-slightly quiet” about feminism because it’s what she describes as a “trending topic.”

Feminism is not a trend; it’s a political statement. 

Why did she decide to speak? Because she was affected by gender inequality when she was paid less than half of what her male co-stars were paid for appearing in the film American Hustle. Compared to the problems of the rest of the women on the planet who are barred from education, choice, opportunities and an equal wage, these injustices, such as being paid only four million dollars, are miniscule.

If vocal celebrities only tackle issues that concern them specifically, many women’s voices are never heard.

When celebrities have a problem, people know, people become outraged, and, as Lawrence writes in her essay, “with a lot of talk comes change.” The power to inspire change is something Lawrence still seems to take for granted.

The problem with celebrities speaking only about issues that affect them is that most issues don’t. A willingness to embrace the label only when it accentuates your brand doesn’t equal feminist heroism.

Lena Dunham, the creator of Lenny Letters — which published Lawrence’s essay — and the successful female-driven show Girls, cited her reason for having no people of colour on her show (aside from background roles such as “Tibetan Nanny”, “Young Black Guy”, and “Jamaican Nanny”) as that she can’t comment on a person of colour’s experience because she’s white.

Her show is all about portraying the millennial female experience, but stops short of including women of color in that category. Dunham self-describes as a feminist, but her influential writing seems only open to the white female experience and white female problems.

The issue with this selective outrage, like the examples I’ve discussed here, is that Lawrence, Dunham, and other female celebrities that ‘pull the feminism card’ for their own, famous-specific issues, aren’t really fighting for women, they’re fighting for women like them.

Dunham’s recent decision to publicize the presumed misogynistic thoughts of football star Odell Beckham Jr. towards her at this year’s Met Ball is another example.

Dunham’s comments about Odell Beckham Jr. staying quiet throughout the event cited her not being sexually appealing to him as the reason he didn’t talk to her, all without ever actually speaking to the man.

Her framing of the interaction was one that attempted to draw attention to Dunham’s unequal treatment due to her body and gender. Dunham commented that “he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards” with confidence enough to publically post it on her website.  

The issue for Dunham was that a man didn’t talk to her at a fancy party. Dunham’s insecurities came out in that piece, which she later apologized for, under the excuse of speaking out against the objectification of women. What did this rant do for body positivity? Not much.

When celebrities ‘speak out’, they can make waves the average person can’t. What they speak out on is up to them, but if they really want to be the feminist icons they are praised as, they need to connect with the issues that affect all women, not just rich white ones. 

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