Earlier this week, Kim Kardashian made headlines and inspired several thousand open letters and think pieces by off-handedly saying that she was not a feminist. To quote her exactly, Kardashian said, “Everyone always says, ‘Are you a feminist? Are you this or this?’ And I don’t think that I am. I don’t like labels.” Kardashian, who is an adamant supporter of women’s freedom of sexual expression, went on to say, “I love supporting other women.”
The initial general reply was one of annoyance and irritation, as Kim Kardashian has some of the qualities of what one might say the average feminist has. This dissonance between action vs. identification was followed by a need to explain to Kardashian what feminism exactly is and as usual, the array of controversial, clickbait-savvy questions from quote-hungry journalists and media people to other female celebrities: “Kim Kardashian says she’s not a feminist… Do you identify as a feminist?”
There are several things to unpack as to why I find this question derivative and generally annoying. Let me begin by saying that I am a male, albeit a self-identified intersectional, queer feminist, so my critique is not without inherent, possible gender-based privilege which I am always willing to check.
Most of the time, the point of this ‘are you a feminist?’ question is not actually for the cause or explanation of actual feminism, but actually for the purpose of clickbait and the responding controversy and debate. It’s very transparent. Journalists know that they will receive a response from readers in reaction to mentioning a controversial issue. I encourage debate and discussion certainly, but to me, the tone of the following conversation is not one of actual learning or education, but instead at the expense of a woman, which defeats the whole purpose. Also, journalists usually ask this question without explanation or any sort of reply, which as a fellow journalist I find a bit irresponsible.
In the process of the following ‘not a feminist’ discussion and controversy, inevitably someone decides to point out a definition of feminism that is not entirely correct or productive. “Feminism is just believing men and women are equal.” This is partially true, yes. I think feminism can be a bit self-defined. But to diminish the meaning of feminism to such an exclusionary summary is to ignore that generally certain factions of feminism can marginalize poor women, Black women and trans women. It also doesn’t really account for the existence of those who might not identify as either man or woman, and doesn’t discuss the economic or social implications of feminism, especially on an international scale. When we boil down feminism to one sentence there is an inevitable misinterpretation and this doesn’t inform the person who doesn’t identify, it just misinforms larger scores of people to incorrectly identify without checking their own inherent racism, transphobia, xenophobia and a myriad of other issues. Yes, identify feminism however you choose, but understand that if your simple definition excludes trans women or women of color then maybe you aren’t as much a feminist as you are a white, cisgender woman who likes when your own kind continues to succeed.
Not only does this conversation result in a problematic, simplified definition of feminism, but it also just leads to possible criticism of a woman that boils down to a really un-feminist rhetoric. Do I think Kim Kardashian fits the mold of a possible feminist? Whether she does or not, it’s not really my place (especially as a male) to force her to identify as such. One of the major points of feminism’s existence is the freedom of personal choice. Kardashian may not necessarily be educated or informed on the canons of feminism, but she also very well might be. I’m not going to speculate on someone’s level of education based on an irresponsible, manipulative question. The ensuing discussion and criticism only serve to follow a media agenda that pits women against each other. In the process, Kim Kardashian is painted as uneducated, criticized/shamed for her own sexual expression and used as an example of what not to be in many different regards. There’s definitely worthy and warranted criticism, but there’s also such a thing as internalized or unconscious misogyny and general hatred. Critique is important, but don’t feed into an overarching patriarchal agenda by shaming someone, resorting to an unhealthy discussion or ignoring their right to self-identify.
Also, to me, this question is transparent in that it is almost always asked of women. The media is willing to distort feminism in order to create controversy and garner page views at the expense of only women. This is sexism. Why aren’t men constantly asked to speak for the whole of their sex or their beliefs? Why aren’t they forced to weather possible outcry for the simple point of monetary and social gain by a media outlet? Men get asked about their work and their accomplishments and are given the freedom to take up space as they please and to speak as they please, without being baited into making a choice. That isn’t to say men don’t receive backlash for their own viewpoints, but most of the time it is on their terms and to a much lighter degree.
In a related sentiment, women simply do not exist to be asked about feminism and they don’t exist for anyone’s approval. Nobody has to be an activist on anyone else’s terms. Let women promote their projects and express their beliefs accordingly. Ask relevant questions and treat women just as one would men. To me, “are you a feminist?” almost seems to be the new “who are you wearing?” or “how did you lose weight for the role?” but with higher stakes and even more fragile, debatable social implications. It’s not a necessary question because if someone wants to be known as a feminist they will speak accordingly and don’t need a shady prompt to do so.
Representation is very important. Feminism is extremely important. It is amazing when a notable, confident woman identifies herself as a feminist and acts accordingly. It’s responsible and it’s admirable and it’s on her own terms, and to me, one of the greatest things about feminism is that it is on one’s own terms, without apology, need for validation or force. Instead of unhealthy conversation and loaded, maligned questions, just let feminists identify themselves. That’s the whole point.