Katy Perry believes in the power of women, but she doesn’t consider herself a feminist, so she said recently upon accepting the honorific of “Woman of the Year” from Billboard’s Women in Music Awards.
Once, and not even all that long ago, there was a time when most feminist scholars and writers might have responded to this information by first asking who exactly this Perry person is (the one with the fireworks bra, I’d answer) and then by ignoring her statement, dismissing it as no more relevant than the weather forecast in a foreign country.
But that was then. When Perry spoke these words on November 30 at an award show that nobody watched (was it even televised?) the uproar was immediate. At Salon, Cognoscenti, and at The Atlantic, feminists responded. The reasons offered for Perry’s aversion refer either to the negative connotation of the term — whether earned as some argue, or misrepresented as others counter — or because of the radical and often vitriolic nature of the movement, which makes Millennials uncomfortable.
Both of these certainly play a part in the reluctance many young people feel toward self identifying as feminists, but in Katy Perry’s case, the first reason, the negative connotation, probably runs deeper than most suspect.
Perry has said in dozens of interviews that she respects the conservative Christian faith in which she was raised — her parents are pastors, and she grew up, like many of us post-evangelical types, in a rather sheltered world — though she no longer shares it. But, believe me, parting with views and ideas that became ingrained in youth, no matter how absurd they seem today, is easier said then done.
If the term feminism has become sullied with negative connotations in the general population, you can only imagine how much more this is true in the fundamentalist Christian world. Before I even really knew a single person who identified as a feminist, I knew that they were among those who sought to undermine the core Christianity of America.
Of course, this changed for me — albeit embarrassingly later than it should have — in college. And, it’s worth mentioning, I attended an evangelical Christian college similar to the one I now teach at. There, when I expressed aversion to the term in much the same way Perry did, by starting a sentence with “I’m not a feminist, but,” a wise old female professor interrupted me and asked calmly, “Jonathan, do you believe that women should be treated as equals to men?”
I responded that I did, and she bestowed upon me the rank of feminist first class. I still bristled at the term, unwilling at that point to cede the ground I knew would surely lead to shedding other long-held and loosely understood beliefs. But eventually I accepted it as one more stretch in the process of outgrowing the fundamentalism of my youth.
Now, I don’t know about Katy Perry; perhaps she has never had a conversation like the one I had with my octogenarian professor, or maybe she has, but she decided she still doesn’t like the term. More likely, she’s still in process. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the flurry of responses that her off the cuff pronouncement caused doesn’t lead directly to her changing her mind. I hope it does.
But the second reason many writers posited for Perry’s reluctance to call herself a feminist, the often vitriolic nature of the discourse that comes out of the movement, may forestall this process. You don’t have to look much further than some of the responses to Perry to see that this is true. As Amanda Hess pointed out at Slate, one reason that young women may choose not to adopt feminism is because, “Whenever they begin to engage with the material, feminists condescendingly dismiss them as morons, complete with all-caps maniacal laughter.” She goes on to cite several examples.
This vitriolic tone carried particularly by older feminists feeds the stereotypes that many young people, and especially those with Christian backgrounds like Perry and the students I teach, have come to accept. A couple weeks ago, a column by Ross Douthat in the Times in which he lamented the declining birth rate in America and chalked it up to what he called “a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe,” sparked the ire of feminists across the web (and on many of the same sites that took it to Perry).
At Jezebel, where Perry was skewered the very same day she accepted the “Woman of the Year” award, writer Katie J.M. Baker lays the sarcasm on pretty thick in response to Douthat’s piece. She writes, “Douthat calls the baby decline ‘decadent,’ because, for most Americans, choosing not to have a baby (or too many babies) is akin to ordering that second piece of double-chocolate cake even though you’re soooo full already.”
Amanda Marcotte, writing at Slate, joins the chorus of those who willingly misinterpret Douthat’s intentions to make a point, “Conservative men have always had an obsession with starting ’em young and keeping ’em knocked up, which protects a way of life these men have grown accustomed to.”
For many of my fellow feminists, when they feel their feminism is threatened, vitriolic diatribes are the go-to response. There’s no benefit of the doubt afforded to their perceived enemies — it’s kill or be killed. But this tone doesn’t square with younger feminists and would-be feminists. In fact, it turns them off and ultimately causes them to publicly disassociate with the movement.
It needn’t be this way. We all know that there are still great inequalities between men and women that need to be addressed, and I’m painfully aware that the way men talk about women often reflects these inequalities, but our response can’t be vitriolic. As feminists we need to recognize that our cause, in the twenty-first century, is better served by making friends with potential allies rather than handing them over — by way of our own frustrations — to those who would be our adversaries.
After all, nothing fueled the misguided anti-feminist stereotypes of my fundamentalist Christian upbringing like the specter of feminist fundamentalists.
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