No pop culture trend of the past few years has been more tiresome than celebrity feminism. Every time a beautiful, thin, rich woman posts an Instagram where she “hits back” at body shamers or “unapologetically” celebrates her flaws, we all — myself and Cosmopolitan included — fall in line and praise her for her “progressive” views. It became common for reporters to ask famous women if they were feminists, and as long as they said yes, they were basically treated like revolutionaries. But on Nov. 8, it became clear that this wave of celebration did exactly zero to stave off the election of an openly misogynistic hell beast who is a threat to everyone who isn’t a wealthy white man. Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the bar has been raised for the feminist movement; the expectations are higher. If we’re lucky, this might be the year that celebrity feminism withers and dies.
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Taylor Swift was the first person to miss the new mark, lending her support to last weekend’s historic Women’s March via a single apolitical tweet. “So much love, pride, and respect for those who marched,” she wrote. “I’m proud to be a woman today, and every day. #WomensMarch.” The backlash began immediately. “Then why didn’t you say anything during the presidential campaign when we could’ve made it so that this didn’t have to happen,” replied one Twitter user. “Thank you for finally voicing an opinion this election! Perfect timing!” said another (and this is just a small sampling of the response).
People who came to her defense offered various reasons for her non-attendance. Perhaps she felt that her fame would distract from the purpose of the march or cause security issues. (In which case, just speak, don’t march, or ask Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Madonna, Katy Perry, America Ferrera, Scarlett Johansson, and your own squad member Blake Lively how they managed.) Maybe she was busy. (This march was planned months in advance, and if you have a thing, you’re Taylor Swift; you can cancel.) Maybe her publicist told her not to get involved. (So disobey the order, like Constance Wu did with her Casey Affleck Oscar commentary). Or maybe she just didn’t feel like getting political.
The problem with this last one, however, is that Taylor has been getting political, in her own measured, calculated way, by aligning herself with feminism — a political movement whether she likes it or not. Back in 2012, Taylor would not call herself a feminist and said she doesn’t like to “think about things as guys versus girls,” but by 2014, she’d come around. “As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities,” she told the Guardian. “What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.”
That’s not really what happened though. More celebrities got on the feminist train, but the train was mostly focused on freeing the nipple and loving your “flaws.” If you dared compare two female celebrities, you were pitting women against each other. If you took issue with something an actress did or said, you were tearing women down. When Kim Kardashian defended her nude selfie as empowerment, you had to fall in line or risk getting called a slut shamer.
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Nude selfies have their uses (I guess?), but in this increasingly dark political landscape, this kind of celebrity feminism feels hollow, tone-deaf, and irrelevant. Who gives a shit about loving your “flaws” (moles, if you’re Gigi Hadid) when people’s lives are literally on the line, when every day brings a new list of executive-order horrors, when more than a dozen women have accused the new president of sexual assault? If a celebrity doesn’t want to get political, fine, but the days of claiming an inherently politicized term without actually doing anything for that cause are over. Just as white women need to start showing up for Black Lives Matter, immigration rights, and other causes that don’t directly center around them, so do celebrity feminists need to start showing up for something besides apolitical sisterhood.
Take Beyoncé, for example. Since her Destiny’s Child days, Beyoncé’s music has expressed plenty of girl-power sentiment — “Independent Women Pt. 1,” “Survivor,” etc. — but in 2013, she finally called it feminism with the song “***Flawless,” featuring an excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” After Beyoncé stood on stage at the 2014 VMAs with a sign reading “FEMINIST” behind her, observers and critics started calling on her to put her money where her giant stage prop is, and to a certain extent, she did. She donated $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter. She performed her explicitly political single “Formation” at the Super Bowl, then followed that up with Lemonade, her most political album to date. She starred in a PSA about racial injustice after the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. She projected the names of black Americans killed by police on a screen during the “Formation” tour. And in November, she performed at a rally for Hillary Clinton, even as fans speculated that Beyoncé just wasn’t that into her.
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Unless she somehow procured an invisibility cloak and walked around in a crowd of half a million people without anyone noticing her, Beyoncé did not march on Saturday. But Beyoncé, unlike many celebrity feminists, has more than proven that her allegiance to progressive, feminist, anti-racist causes goes beyond just marketing. This is what made Taylor’s march tweet, as well as her “go out and vote” photo on Election Day, so irksome. You can’t call yourself a feminist if you’re not willing to do the work.
A common, sympathetic refrain is that perhaps celebrities like Taylor Swift avoid getting “too political” because they don’t want to alienate half their fan base. On the one hand, this is a real fear. When the Dixie Chicks spoke out against George W. Bush back in 2003, country radio stopped playing their music, their record sales suffered, and fellow country stars spoke out against them. When Beyoncé released the “Formation” video, police officers and #BlueLivesMatter types planned to protest her. Just this week, a radio station in Texas stopped playing Madonna after she made anti-Trump comments during her speech at the Women’s March.
But do any of these things even matter when you’re a superstar on the level of Taylor Swift? Anti-Beyoncé protesters failed to show up to their “protests” and ended up outnumbered by people who supported Beyoncé’s decision to get political. Lemonade went on to become her sixth straight number-one album, and the “Formation” tour made over $250 million. If that sinking cop car did cause a dent in her career, it was an infinitesimally small one.
At this point, remaining silent seems just as likely to cause your fans to abandon you as saying something political does anyway. Selena Gomez learned this lesson when she chastised her followers for not caring about more important things than Taylor’s feud with Kimye, then got called out for staying silent about Black Lives Matter, one of the “more important things” to which she was presumably referring. No matter what happens, you’re going to lose followers, so why not lose them for a worthy cause? When so many people and institutions — and the planet itself — are under attack, you have to show up if you want to call yourself a feminist. It’s true for non-famous white women who went to the Women’s March but have ignored BLM protests, and it’s true for any celebrity who thinks an Instagram about body positivity is going to cut it anymore. When women start dying because their insurance and access to safe abortion got taken away, your squad goals won’t save us.
Follow Eliza on Twitter.