Actress Shailene Woodley pissed off the Internet this week when, in an interview with Time, she declared she was not a feminist “because I like men.” The implication, of course, was that to be a feminist one must also be a dour, man-hating radical, with a wild armpit bush and leg hair.
It’s a problem that has long plagued feminism: What constitutes a feminist? Is it a particular political ideology? The T-shirts, bumper stickers, pins and mugs define feminism as gender equality, but the term still carries pernicious stereotypes, and card-carrying feminists remain hell-bent on erasing the stigma. And there’s nothing that infuriates them more than celebrities like Woodley who profess to believe in the tenets of gender equality but distance themselves from the F-word.
“I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance,” the 22-year-old Divergent star told Time, stressing that she’s “50 percent feminine and 50 percent masculine, same as I think a lot of us are. And I think that is important to note.”
Woodley added that she’s a proponent of “sisterhood” rather than feminism, and is troubled by how women readily throw each other under the bus: “There’s so much jealousy, so much comparison and envy. And ‘This girl did this to me and that girl did that to me.’ And it’s just so silly and heartbreaking in a way.” She went on to praise the new comedy The Other Woman for showing “women coming together and supporting each other and creating a sisterhood of support for one another versus hating each other for something that somebody else created.”
When asked to explain what exactly is empowering about a movie that celebrates two women bonding over being cheated on by the same man (critics have derided its failure to pass the Bechdel test), Woodley fumbled for words. “They create a sisterhood. And he did something wrong, and they’re, you know. They’re going to go after him for it. I think it’s great.”
The backlash was swift and nasty: Jezebel slammed Woodley for “advocating for women to embrace the status quo.” Others condescended that she didn’t understand the concept of feminism. “Nope, Shailene, I am pretty sure you are still a feminist,” wrote The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri. Bustle weighed in with more finger-wagging: “Oh Shailene. Shailene, Shailene, Shailene… You are—essentially—a feminist! So, uh, why are you saying you aren’t one?”
Yes, her latest musings on feminism and sisterhood were poorly articulated, but does Woodley deserve to be roundly mocked for not having the correct view of what constitutes feminism? After all, even self-described feminists differ wildly on what the movement actually means and what sort of policies and politics it does or doesn’t support (not to mention who can be a part of it).
Rather than seeing Woodley’s slightly confused mutterings on feminism as the problem, her critics might consider why someone outside of the feminist firmament might find the label too constraining. The young, female celebrity who doesn’t identify with the feminist label has become a cliché, which is precisely why Woodley’s comments went viral. Time columnist James Poniewozik was representative, tweeting, “Breaking: Celebrity says she’s not a feminist, then espouses essentially feminist belief.” Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and other young celebrities who eschewed the label have been met with similarly sharp criticism in the feminist blogosphere. Even 66-year-old actress and political activist Susan Sarandon, who has long advocated for women’s rights, was criticized for abandoning “feminist” in favor of “humanist” because she thought it was “less alienating to people who think of feminism as a load of strident bitches.”
But rather than defaulting to sanctimony, it’s worth asking why so many women are now taking this stance. One can understand the profound disappointment from the professional feminist class when a powerful female voice champions their ideology but turns her nose up at the label. But railing against these voices only perpetuates the “strident bitches” feminist stereotype. It’s a sign that self-identifying feminists have become too preoccupied with identity politics: the label becomes the argument, the ideas end up taking a back seat. Take The Frisky’s snarky rant about being “sick to death of bullshit, stupid answers” like Woodley’s: “It baffles me that you could have such a piss-poor understanding of what it means to be a feminist.” One can’t help but wonder what young female fan of Woodley’s would want to associate with the movement after seeing self-declared feminists attack the actress for speaking her mind about the issue.
Isn’t it more interesting to consider why, time and again, so many interviewers feel the need to ask the boring “Do you consider yourself a feminist” question in the first place (and in Time's case, only after pointing out that Woodley has previously offered insightful remarks about women’s empowerment about being a woman in Hollywood and the strong female roles she’s chosen)?
There is only one takeaway from the torrent of criticism directed at Shailene Woodley: You, average American woman, probably don’t understand what a feminist is. You should mold your definition of feminism to the one held by your critics. And when you’ve done that, acknowledge that you’re probably a feminist anyway. Problem solved.