Bey & Miley: Making Activism Palatable to the Masses?

beyonce feminism

LAST YEAR Miley Cyrus claimed to be “one of the biggest feminists in the world” and this year, at the MTV VMAs, Beyoncé arguably became the most famous feminist in the world. As you all know by now, she broadcast the capitalized word “FEMINIST” on screen during her performance, securing her connection to this term as part of her personal brand. It’s a testament to the contemporary feminist movement that Beyoncé choose to do this. So-called fourth-wave feminists have embraced her as one of their own.

Personally, I like Beyoncé, I really like her music. I don’t need her to be a feminist, though. From the response received, you’d think this is what we feminists have been waiting for all along — a celebrity endorsement. I don’t really care when celebrities say they aren’t feminists, and I don’t care when they say they are. I get why some people do. Feminists don’t have good PR and Beyoncé becoming a member of the team, well that’s some great PR.

Feminist Current writer Meghan Murphy has argued in the past that asking celebrities about feminism usually only serves to confuse the issue –- “Who cares what celebrities think about feminism? They didn’t become pop stars because of their deep commitment to social justice.” On Lana Del Rey’s answer to the feminist question (to which she answered: “My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants.”), Murphy wrote, “Gosh that’s weird. Because to me ‘a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants’ [sounds] very wealthy… [not] feminist.”

When we look to our pop stars for our politics, are we only “outsourcing our political engagement,” as philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said? How progressive can a pop star truly be when they are so closely linked to corporations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo?

I asked Murphy for her thoughts on Beyoncé’s pronouncement of feminism and she admitted to having mixed feelings, but remarked:

I think she has every right to claim the label and identity. That said, we need to be clear that simply saying you are feminist is not enough. As feminists we need to take risks in supporting and standing up for other women. Beyoncé did take a risk, probably, in making this statement — artists tend to shy away from what is perceived to be ‘politics.’ Beyoncé is in a position of power and privilege where she can make a difference and I hope she does. I also don’t think we should expect pop stars to be feminist leaders. They aren’t. They are pop stars. I think that her statement is good and significant, but at the same time we need to remember that feminist work is harder and takes more than simply putting the word up there in lights.

I have my doubts about how much control Beyoncé has over her own brand and feel that there have to be some rich, old, white men back there pulling at least a few of the strings. That said, what I know about the music industry is based mostly on my love of TV show ‘Nashville.’ Calling yourself a feminist is, as Murphy says, probably a risk, but it was a risk that appears to have paid off. Rich, old, white men don’t tend to like taking risks. Whether or not her record label, Sony, supported her album with the song ‘Flawless’ referencing feminism via author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the subject is still up for debate and that debate is, of course, great PR. When pop stars act as though they are in control of their brand, we like them more, because who wants to feel like they’re being duped by a bunch of profit-hungry record company marketing execs?

Beyoncé was in the best position to take a possible risk. A successful album, a sold-out tour, a super-cute baby, seemingly almost-universal approval does provide the luxury of making bold statements as one wants. Well, not always – see Rihanna, and other celebrities’, public support for Palestine, for a good example of when opening your mouth backfires on you.

miley and helt

Miley Cyrus, on the other hand, although still powerful and privileged, has slid down to the bottom of the snake- and-ladders-game of fame in the past year. She decided to have a young, formerly homeless man, Jesse Helt, accept her award in her place, directing listeners to her Facebook page where they can donate to LA-based non-profit My Friend’s Place and be entered into a competition to meet Miley in Rio on a tour stop. Helt’s impressively eloquent and provocative speech was met with a very snarky response by the New York Times, for one.

Brooks Barnes wrote, “Was Ms. Cyrus’s move a serious turn toward philanthropy? A crass effort to improve her image? Ice bucket challenge envy? All of the above? Detractors will undoubtedly cringe at some particulars: fixing homelessness by competing to go party in Rio?” She goes on to remark that Helt looked “uncomfortable” during the awards ceremony.

To my mind, the way Beyoncé packaged feminism within her performance was designed to make sure no one felt too uncomfortable in that moment. When feminism is sandwiched between pole dancing and a super-cute baby, it’s a feminism a lot of people can probably get on board with for a while. In contrast, the discomfort of the audience during Helt’s speech was palpable. Helt did not go as far as to suggest that, as part of the economic elite, the audience members are complicit in his situation, but he did suggest that in order for them to “have” so much, there are a lot of “have-nots” in the world. “I’ve been an extra in your life,” he said.

Helt is an aspiring model who came to Hollywood to “make it” — in one way that seems off-puttingly contrived, but in another, it does brings him closer to the experience of those he was speaking to in the venue that night. In a comparison to Beyoncé’s political act, we can see that both celebrities have taken an unpalatable issue and made it more palatable through some canny understanding of how media works. I look forward to seeing what both women do next.

When the media grabbed hold of Helt’s criminal record (not uncommon for someone with experience of homelessness), much of the bitterness that arises from a culture that blames the poor for their own poverty rose up. Miley responded via Twitter with, “Does looking down on the homeless help people excuse their inaction?”

To which, I would add — will we let our admiration of the philanthropic acts, monetary or otherwise, of our celebrities excuse wider social inaction when it comes to real change for all?

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