Why the Feminist Question Matters

Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting and Emma Watson and feminism 4

by Melissa Brooks

Like so many celebrities before her, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting has been making headlines for disavowing feminism. To recap, this is what she said when asked if she considered herself a feminist during a recent interview with Redbook Magazine:

“Is it bad if I say no? It’s not really something I think about. Things are different now, and I know a lot of the work that paved the way for women happened before I was around … I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality.

“I cook for Ryan five nights a week. It makes me feel like a housewife; I love that. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but I like the idea of women taking care of their men. I’m so in control of my work that I like coming home and serving him. My mom was like that, so I think it kind of rubbed off.”

A few things I’d like to point out about Kaley’s comments:

  1. Even if “a lot of the work that paved the way for women happened before [we were] around,” that doesn’t mean we no longer need to support the cause for women’s rights. By declaring ourselves feminists, we show support for the women and men who fought for our right to vote, to own property, to work, to pursue any career we wish, to keep the money we earn, to not marry or marry who we choose, to choose whether or not we become pregnant, become mothers, to educate ourselves and pursue a degree, to be friends with men, to wear what we want, to dictate what we do with our bodies. By declaring ourselves feminists, we honor the men and women who championed our rights, show our appreciation for what they did for us, and support the preservation of what they accomplished.
  1. When Kaley says “things are different now,” she implies that gender inequality no longer exists. While things may be different and admittedly better now than centuries and even decades prior, gender inequality still pervades not just our country, but our planet. Given that Kaley makes $1 million per episode of The Big Bang Theory and is currently one of the highest paid actors on television, she may not realize that unlike her, the average woman makes less than men do for the same work. In the United States, women make just 78 cents for every dollar men make. Beyond income disparity, women are once again fighting for their reproductive rights as states across the country fight to bar their access to birth control, preventative care, cancer screenings and abortions—regardless of whether or not they were raped or their health is at stake. Women are still fighting for the right to makes decisions about their bodies. Further, women continue to face aggression and violence on a daily basis. During a show at Denver’s Bellco Theater in January 2015, Aziz Ansari[1] talked about the prevalence of “creepy” men following women, stalking women, even publically masturbating. Many female audience members affirmed this to be true of their experience. All too often, women worry about being hurt, raped, or forced into some other sexual situation that makes them uncomfortable. And yet, as Aziz pointed out, most men don’t harbor an ever-present worry that women may violate them.
  1. Kaley’s choice of words suggests that she views “feminist” as something negative. When she says, “I was never that feminist girl demanding equality,” her use of the word “demanding” portrays “that feminist girl” to be an obnoxious, perhaps unreasonable, high maintenance, impossible-to-satisfy individual. But why should “feminist” carry such negative connotations? Why must women be either “demanding” on one end of the spectrum, or complacent on the other? We need to move beyond such narrow conceptions of what it means to be a feminist. The notion that a feminist embodies only one particular set of characteristics contradicts what feminism is really about—freedom of choice, the ability to live and behave as one chooses.
  1. Related to point two, you can be a feminist and enjoy cooking for your significant other (I do). You can enjoy taking care of them (hopefully, they take care of you, too) and even enjoy the role of homemaker. What matters is that a woman chooses to do it; no one dictates that she does. The roles that a woman assumes inside and outside the house should be up to her and her alone—a right that Kaley exercises fully, balancing traditional female roles with a successful career.

I hate to harp on Kaley, because she’s not the only one to disavow feminism based on a misguided notion of what it means. She’s just the latest in a longstanding, ever-growing list of female celebrities to distance themselves from the term, including Lana Del Ray, Shailene Woodley, Lady Gaga, Megan Trainor and countless others. Even older, wiser celebrities we might consider feminists are loath to define themselves as such, including Demi Moore, Susan Sarandon and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Too often, women fear that declaring themselves feminists will cast them in an unflattering light—they don’t want to be perceived as “demanding” or as “man haters.” Lady Gaga once assumed she couldn’t be a feminist because she loves men, while Shailene Woodley misinterpreted feminism to mean “raise women to power, take the men away from the power.”

As Emma Watson stated during a speech at the United Nations, there’s widespread reluctance among women to align themselves with a movement advocating their rights because they think it will make them seem “too aggressive. Isolating. And anti-men. Unattractive even.” A UN Women Global Goodwill ambassador, Emma Watson said she’s come to realize how pervasive the misunderstanding of feminism is:

“The more I have spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man hating. If there is one thing I know for certain it is that this has to stop.”

Emma says she’s a feminist because gender inequality is a problem she cares about and wants to improve. In her speech she goes on to delineate why she’s a feminist and why she hopes everyone else will be, too:

“I think it is right that I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decisions that will affect my life. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly, I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights … How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?”

Emma Watson outlines the issues of gender inequality and the case for feminism in a nonaggressive, inclusive way that I would hope her fellow female celebrities—and the rest of us—can get behind. Feminism need not be a dirty word, and it need not negate men. In fact, feminism can and should include men. Emma supports a movement called “HeForShe,” which advocates solidarity between the sexes. It self-defines as “a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.”

Gender equality ultimately liberates both women and men by freeing them from prescribed social roles and gender stereotypes. Just as women should have the right to dictate their lives and be true to their inclinations and desires, so should men. As Emma said, “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.”

I would argue that Kaley and so many of her peers are in fact feminists, whether they realize it or not. Taylor Swift once disavowed feminism but later admitted this was because she misunderstood the term; she credits Lena Dunham for helping her understand that feminism is not hatred of men, but rather the belief in equal political, economic, cultural and social rights for everyone. Taylor said, “Becoming friends with Lena … has made me realize that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.” And I’d argue that like Swift, Cuoco and many others have been feminists all along, simply by asserting their power, striving for success and living what it means to be an ambitious woman in control of her body, sexuality and destiny. Being in an influential position, celebrities who simply own their feminism could inspire other young women to think about what it really means to be a feminist and to champion equal rights for men and women—whether cis-gendered or trans. I implore them to openly join the cause because really, they already have.



[1] Aziz Ansari received some backlash when he declared himself a feminist on The Late Show with David Letterman. Critics admonished him for oversimplifying feminism and admonished us for applauding his stance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt received similar criticism for his video “Re: Feminism.” But I’d argue that this backlash is just as problematic and harmful to feminism as the pervasive misunderstanding of the term. Yes, feminism is complicated, but it is at its core support for gender equality. Fighting against people who are on our side does not help the cause. Nor does being pissed when male celebrities like Aziz or JGL are applauded for declaring themselves feminists.

Such applause can actually be helpful, as positive reinforcement may encourage others to align themselves with feminism as well. But when you condemn Aziz, JGL and others for not defining “feminism” in such a way that fits your own idiosyncratic definition—as we all have our own—you exacerbate the perception of the movement as something intimidating and exclusive. Aziz and Joseph are simply trying to support their fellow feminists by championing women’s rights and imploring others to do the same. Instead of fighting against people who want to be advocates for women, why don’t we fight for women and against those who would deny us our rights?


Melissa Brooks on feminsim

Melissa Brooks is Assistant Editor at The Thought Erotic. Her fiction and cultural criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in Gravel, Vannevar, The Molotov Cocktail and Saturday Night Reader.



IMAGES: Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting by Dominick D on Flickr; Emma Thompson by Joella Marano on Flickr License