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Stop Asking Female Celebrities If They're Feminists

It's almost always a trap.

Earlier this month in her article "The Kylie + Kendall Show," Ruby Warrington of Britain's Sunday Times asked nineteen-year-old Kendall Jenner, who splits her time between being a Kardashian and a supermodel, "Are you a feminist?" No matter Jenner's answer, Warrington shouldn't have asked.

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The answer to the question, as always, matters far less than the question asked.

Like every other reporter who has posited this very question to a young female celebrity on a press junket for an action movie, a reality show, or a line of hair extensions, Warrington probably wasn't looking to enter into discourse with her profile subject about intersectionality or representation at Fashion Week. Warrington wanted a quote from Jenner, ranging somewhere between ignorant and sensational. She wanted the page views, and then she wanted a new glut of page views after the inevitable hot take headlines about Jenner's answer circulated. The answer to the question, as always, matters far less than the question asked.

Warrington got everything she wanted. Jenner, who began her public life as one of Kim Kardashian's human accessories and has since grown into a famous woman in her own right, answered, "I don't know much about it, so I can't really speak on it...I'm not gonna say much more because I'd like to be more educated."

Jenner's response is thoughtful and careful for a nineteen-year-old, especially a nineteen-year-old who finished her high school education under the tutelage of her momager Kris. And while Jenner has received some praise ("Kendall Jenner Just Articulated the Right Way To Say You're Not a Feminist", baited the Huffington Post), she's also been eviscerated in headlines from websites of all kinds. "Kendall Jenner's Latest Quote Is Almost Too Embarrassing to Witness", wrote; "Kendall Jenner Throws Shade at Feminism: Women Don't Know What They Want!", wrote Hollywood Gossip; "Kendall Jenner Shoots Down Feminist Question: 'I Don't Know Much About It'", wrote The Hollywood Reporter.

Warrington asked a nineteen-year-old this question in an interview solely to intellectually bully her.

It's frustrating that Jenner refuses to give a straightforward answer, especially one in which she asserts she is indeed a feminist. But the larger issue is that Warrington asked a nineteen-year-old this question in an interview solely to intellectually bully her and her seventeen-year-old sister Kylie.

Of course, for the sake of her 29 million impressionable Instagram followers, I wish Jenner had come out as feminist. But from Warrington's point of view, Jenner's quote is a genius way to drum up bad press (and clicks) for America's formerly most-hated family, especially at a time when they've been generating a fair amount of goodwill. In 2007, the year Keeping Up With the Kardashians premiered, who would have thought that that this would be the family to launch a national discussion about trans visibility with the multi-part "About Bruce" special? By framing one of her siblings as Kind of Dumb and Certainly Bad For Women, Warrington loosened Kim Kardashian's 15-carat grip on the world.

Culturally, it's significant that young performers are regularly being asked the "Are you a feminist?" question. It means the people in charge of media are increasingly cognizant that feminism is a topic about which their readers will engage. I support candid discussion of feminism with pop culture figureheads, but stealth-attacking teenage starlets with questions about feminism that they might not have the vocabulary to answer is not spearheading any progressive sociopolitical movement. Besides, as Jessica Contrera pointed out in her Washington Post article "Are you a feminist?", male actors are rarely asked this question. Joseph Gordon-Levitt may be a feminist, but nobody's grilling him for his lackluster definition ("It just means that your gender doesn't have to define who you are.")

I hope that my being a feminist is self-evident all the time, but I'm not a famous woman trying to project a celebrity image.

My working definition of feminism is the ability to acknowledge my own privileges and lack of privileges—mostly having to do with gender, race and class—and recognize others' privileges and lack of privileges under those same criteria. It's not a definition that works for everyone, but it's one that's served me well in traveling, writing, and speaking. I hope that my being a feminist is self-evident all the time, in my work and with my friends, but I'm not a famous woman trying to project a celebrity image. Even Jenner, who went through puberty on the E! channel and shares semi-nude pictures of herself semi-regularly, is still a total enigma.

I'd like to think that by now, the "Are you a feminist?" question would be universally insulting, but in Hollywood, where roles for women are generally shitty (and when they're less shitty, they go to Emma Stone), it's impossible to understand anyone's social or gender politics through their performances or the roles written for them. Of the 2,000 highest grossing films between 1994 and 2014, women accounted for only 13% of editors, 10% of writers, and 5% of directors. It's also worth noting that most of the stars who are asked, "Are you feminist?" are white women. This is significant for two reasons: Importantly, Hollywood sorely lacks diversity and most mainstream stars are white. Second, mainstream white feminism, the kind that most journalists are after, has historically excluded the specific struggles of women of color.

Now that this question has become routine, the young female star can come only answer in a handful of ways, and none of them are flattering. Like Jenner, she can come off as a vapid, uneducated question-dodger. But if the celebrity asserts she is not a feminist, she's framed by certain outlets as a little girl who doesn't know what's good for her, like Meghan Trainor, performer of 2014's admittedly missing-the-point-empowerment anthem, "All About That Bass."

The headline aftermath was brutal for Trainor after she told Billboard, "I don't consider myself a feminist, but I'm down for my first opportunity to say something to the world to be so meaningful." On Jezebel: "‘All About That Bass' Singer Meghan Trainor Is Not All About Feminism." On Mic: "There's a Big Problem With Meghan Trainor's Music That Nobody's Talking About." On Fusion: "Meghan Trainor Doesn't Identify as a Feminist, Yet She Benefits (and Borrows) From Feminism."

The "Are you a feminist?" news cycle is a snake eating its own tail; it's a feminist journalist destroying her own kind.

Shailene Woodley, who's increasingly taunted by media for being a daffy, almond milk-loving earthbound alien, has denied being a feminist and incurred the wrath of a slew of publications who framed her as too foolish to understand what she'd said. "Shailene Woodley Still Thinks Feminism ‘Discriminates," wrote Salon in one damning article, subheaded "The Fault in Our Stars star 'fully stands by' her quote."

If a young star asserts she is a feminist, it still doesn't go well for her either. Perhaps the most visible young girl power enthusiast is Miley Cyrus, whose third-wave reckoning occurred when she told a BBC radio host, "I feel like I'm one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women not to be scared of anything." Cyrus is not without fault, particularly when it comes to drastic oversights in intersectionality and the representation of her black dancers' bodies, but the media tends to criticize her for her oversexedness, her outspokenness, and her bisexuality, rather than her tone-deafness. A Bustle article titled "Miley Cyrus Says Feminism Is ‘The Greatest Thing Ever' But Don't Start Celebrating Just Yet" criticizes Cyrus for "belittling men." The New Statesman warns Cyrus, if she's listening, "Memo to Miley: Twerking Is Not a Feminist Statement." And of course, conservative trolling site Newsbusters twists Cyrus's words with the headline, "Miley Cyrus: Feminism Means I Can Grab My Crotch Backed by my ‘Hos.'" Self-declared feminists lose the headline wars, too.

There is no right way for a young female celebrity to answer this question. The "Are you a feminist?" news cycle is a snake eating its own tail; it's a feminist journalist destroying her own kind. We're nowhere near the moment when the answer to this question will be self-evident, and we won't get there until major changes take place in pop music, movies, and the way in which we examine the lives and bodies of female celebrities. Until then, journalists, stop asking young female celebrities if they're feminists and instead start questioning the apparatus that surrounds them.


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