Last week, Katy Perry told the world she doesn’t identify as a “feminist” after being awarded Billboard’s “Woman Of The Year”, and the Internet predictably erupted with all sort of criticisms and opinions and woman-on-woman cattiness. I should hope the irony of a debate about feminism inspiring animosity between women is not lost in this situation.
My question to the naysayers is this: didn’t we learn anything from Katie Holmes in Batman Begins?
“It’s what you do that defines you.”
If you scan quickly over Katy Perry’s career trajectory, you’ll see that she’s a self-made woman, and one who is eager to learn and be open minded after coming from a background that did not necessarily facilitate either of these things. You don’t have to delve deep to discover she’s a hard working songwriter, and that when she was starting out, the big bad record execs wanted to shape her to fit a certain mold, which she rebelled against in order to chase her own vision. Katy Perry became the exact artist that Katy Perry wanted to be.
“Feminism” should mean that women have the opportunity to say, do and believe whatever they want to say, do or believe, but unfortunately, in practice, feminism is failing itself. What’s happened to Katy is two-fold; she’s having shit flung at her for an autonomous, informed decision to not identify as a “feminist”, all the while having her “feminist” achievements completely overlooked by critics (may I even go as far to suggest that she’s being “slut shamed” for her construction of a sexualised feminine persona?).
Katy is under no obligation to identify herself as a feminist. In fact, no woman is. No woman is under any obligation to define herself as anything than that which she wishes to be, and it makes me sad that there’s a lack of support between women for this. A woman can be a mother, a housewife, a fighter pilot, a teacher or even a man if she wants to be. And unless that woman has been forcefully made to be that thing against her wishes, there’s nothing anyone can or should be saying about it. It’s not for one woman to tell another woman what is right for her; we already have enough of that from the men in our world.
And to drive it back to Katie Holmes’ point; who cares what Katy Perry says she is or isn’t? Her actions show that she believes in, and is constantly fighting for, gender and sex equality. Katy doesn’t need to say “I’m a feminist” in order to be a strong woman; she’s a woman with feminist values, and who is socially active in promoting awareness of these values (see her acceptance speech for a Trevor Hero Award recently). It doesn’t matter whether or not she inspires you personally; Katy Perry is inspirational to many people who have been cast aside in society by the arbitrary distinctions of labelling.
The other thing that should be understood is that Katy Perry is a mass consumable. And for the most part, the mass consumer doesn’t understand or probably even want to understand, the basic tenets of feminism. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the undereducated masses (i.e. those that didn’t receive a liberal arts education in which everything was coloured with notions of gender psychoanalysis) see feminism as a terrifyingly militant principle that warrants a wide berth given it’s sometimes confusing hyperbole and often inaccessible language and concepts.
Isn’t it then incredibly wily of a mass appeal woman to shed the feminist label and instead simply feed gender equality to the masses by practicing it? Nowhere has Katy said she doesn’t believe in the principles of feminism; she’s just disassociated herself from one word that, in the scheme of a wider America and indeed her audience, is probably very alienating.
It’s a glorious trick, if you ask me; much the way Jane Austen sold a generation “romance novels” while simultaneously and covertly taking the piss out of the exact generation she was marketing to. Maybe Katy Perry is a genius then too; she’s feeding the masses something they don’t even know they’re consuming, because the masses expect everything to be overtly handed to them. It’s classic “show don’t tell”, and Katy is doing a superb job of preaching empowerment not on a soap box, but by simply partaking in positive activities to that end, and she’s leading by a glowing example.
Regardless of what you think of Katy Perry’s stance, one thing is for certain; the “divide and conquer” mentality of the media is succeeding in keeping women at one another’s throats. In this achingly poignant catch 22, the reason many women are afraid to side with “feminism” as a statement of credence is exactly because of what’s happened here. Feminism, in it’s most vocal form, is often mean, unforgiving and dogmatic.
As Katy has learned, there’s a very “you’re either with us, or against us” attitude to feminist semantics, and a whole lot of gratuitous mud slinging that leads to the cutting off of one’s nose to spite one’s face. Going forward, for all of us that are seeking empowerment and gender equality, we may find better results in supporting one another rather than lashing out when one doesn’t adhere to our preconceived idea of what a woman should be.