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Lisa McInerney: It’s nice that the f-word is no longer such a dirty one

A few months ago the word “feminist” was strictly taboo for pop stars, but now they’re falling over themselves to identify as feminists, writes Lisa McInerney

Lisa McInerney

AT THE START of this year, journalist Emma Barnett interviewed X Factor finalist Ella Henderson. One of her questions was “Are you a feminist?” which was immediately shot down by Henderson’s PR, who cut in to brusquely tell Barnett that the f-word was strictly taboo.

Fast forward eleven months, and female pop stars are positively falling over themselves to self-identify as feminists. From fear of the f-word to wearing it like a flashing sash in the space of a single year; how did that happen?

Buzzword

The journey from f-word to buzzword may well have been helped along by the debate around Robin Thicke’s regressive slapstick in his Blurred Lines video, with trendsetters incensed by the blatant sexism, and then other trendsetters incensed by how incensed the first lot were.

Miley Cyrus, readying to drop both a new album and a tween image, waded in in rubber knickers with her tongue a-flapping, adding more fuel to the fire. The debate raged on and we laughed, cried and wrote about it.

The logical progression from a column-inch-gobblin’ event like Blurred Cyrus is a similarly lively backlash: Lily Allen’s comeback vid pastiching Thicke’s effort with snippy lyrics and ironic twerking, influential female artists arguing over the definition of feminism, and even Ms Cyrus proclaiming her credentials with a totally straight face. It’s rather the circus.

Sexism

In “Hard Out Here” and its accompanying video, Lily Allen’s attempt to critique institutionalised sexism hasn’t hit all the right notes. Though transparently well-meaning, its message is problematic, with some critics observing that Lily’s satirical stance is sometimes too close to what it’s slating to be helpful.

Then there was the issue of her perceived exploitation of her chiefly black backing dancers, who twerked with aplomb while Lily sneered about being too smart to twerk. Whether or not one believes that this cultural appropriation was intentional, indicative of internalised racism or simply irrelevant, one lesson we can take from the furore is that it’s not enough to put forth feminist ideals in a pop culture medium: it will be classified as a certain kind of feminism, and somewhere, somebody will be pissed off.

Check out the spat between precocious wunderkind Lorde and Disney alumna Selena Gomez for more of the same. Lorde stated that as a feminist, she was tired of hearing lyrics from her contemporaries promoting passive attitudes to sex: “The theme of [Gomez’] song is, ‘When you’re ready, come and get it from me.’ I’m sick of women being portrayed in that way.”

Gomez responded with a kind of dejected grace: “That’s not feminism. She’s not supporting other women.” Two young women with differing opinions on what does and doesn’t constitute feminism, more excitable nonsense from gossip mags about catfights… but at least we’re talking about the concept, and not shirking back from the belief that men and women are entitled to equal treatment like it’s some sort of celebrity kryptonite.

Feminism disected

It’s a novelty to be able to dissect feminism in the context of pop glitz, so it’s great we’re making the most of it (even if it’s threatening to become messy). Only recently, stars like Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson and Lady Gaga (though she’s changed her tune since) were proudly stating that they weren’t feminists, even though in managing successful careers they’re clearly eschewing traditional gender-based restrictions.

Even Beyoncé, the fierce n’ spangly behemoth behind Independent Women, suggested changing that bulky f-word into something more palatable to modern worrywarts, and put forth the ghastly alternative “bootylicious”. Feminism was such a dirty word that an alternative that defined a woman’s worth by the palatability of her arse was considered. Yikes.

In that not-so-historical context, übercelebrities unashamedly discussing feminism is just peachy. Conflicting opinions about what is or isn’t a valid feminist outlook is less appealing, so one may feel a twinge of impatience listening to confused manifestos or watching Lily Allen offend the wrong people. One might even feel the need to write an open letter to everyone proclaiming that we need to stop arguing semantics and unite against our common enemy.

Upholding norms

Joking aside, if there is a difficult issue with this high-profile discourse it’s the appropriation of feminism as a subversive way to uphold the norms the movement seeks to dissolve. Fair warning: here I need to invoke Miley Cyrus again.

Miley recently stated that she’s “one of the biggest feminists in the world” because she teaches women that they don’t need to be “scared of anything”. By “anything” there’s a good chance that Miley means “clothes” and “Terry Richardson”, and much as one might want to give her the benefit of the doubt, feminism has never been about doing the same old reductive crap and pretending it’s mightily liberating.

Feminists love equality

Misguided as it is, Miley’s a la carte feminist waffle is not entirely inexplicable. A lot of women – especially young woman – make conscious efforts to distinguish themselves from the “prudish harpy” feminist stereotype, and that stereotype works. That’s why women who adhere to clearly feminist beliefs are loathe to use the f-word, and why their PR teams shut down related questions: they don’t want to be hated, mocked or dismissed as extremist man-hating wagons.

Feminists are people too. Feminists love equality and sex and dudes and looking FABULOUS; this stuff’s isn’t mutually exclusive.

But there’s something of pandering to Cyrus’ claims, a desperate distinction made between “good feminists” (sexually available ladies who pay their own mortgages) and “bad feminists” (anyone political). Don’t get me wrong: reclamation of denigrated terms like the f-word is awesome, and more power to young Miley for giving it a go, but behind her claims that she’s celebrating the cause is just more of the exploitative same.

But hey, we’re talking about it. The f-word is a lot of things: a movement, a label, a process and a conversation. Whichever version of it you or your favourite pop star subscribes to is a solid enough platform; we can iron it out from here.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

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Lisa McInerney

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