If 2013 can bear one more label, let's call it the year that everyone and her mom was hailed as a feminist until the word got as tired as any Internet trope. The New Year followed suit with a piece Monday on The Atlantic's website about the enduring cult of Bettie Page, the 1950s pin-up icon who paved the way for modern porn. Marveling at the fact that female fans rather than drooling men have kept Page’s legend alive, the author quotes a culture critic beaming, “She was a sex-positive feminist before the classification even existed.” Page was, it’s true, enthusiastically appropriated by the sex-positive feminists of the ‘90s. But there's no evidence that she was a feminist, sex-positive or otherwise, herself. She was risqué, and independent for a woman of her day, but “feminist” is not a synonym for “hard-nosed or interesting woman.”
But the fourth estate seems to have the opposite impression: We’ve taken to measuring everything and everyone against the feminist yardstick. At the time of this writing, one of Google’s top hits for the search “feminism” is the Slate post, “Is the Weasley Family From Harry Potter Feminist?” In November, Rawiya Kameir argued at The Daily Beast, “Beyoncé is as much of a feminist as Rihanna who is as much of a feminist as Lorde who is as much of a feminist as Gaga and Nicki Minaj.” Maybe, in a private sense, this is true: Feminism, says Merriam-Webster, is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” and I fully hope this is something the aforementioned women believe. But in a public sense, Nicki Minaj is a rapper, an artist, a commercial icon who wants to break through hip-hop’s billionaire ceiling—but not a feminist, a person devoted to leveling the playing field between women and men. Calling Beyoncé’s latest album a “feminist manifesto,” on the other hand, made sense. The song “Flawless” is about how, to quote a line, “we teach girls to shrink themselves”; critics didn’t have to stretch the word like a piece of old gum to make it apply.
Maybe the “Is She a Feminist?” test is something to celebrate. After all, it feels like a punch in the gut every time a woman in power goes out of her way to say she is not a feminist (cough cough, Marissa Mayer). Feminist witch-hunting happens all the time—a Politico Magazine piece about "feminist nightmare" Michelle Obama comes to mind—so what’s wrong with a few feminist baptisms? The takeaway from a scuffle between teen queens Lorde and Selena Gomez, for example, is that both of them are feminists! The bad blood began when Lorde complained about one of Gomez’s hits, “I’m a feminist and the theme of her song is, ‘When you’re ready come and get it from me’... I’m sick of women being portrayed this way.” Gomez fired back, “That’s not feminism. [Lorde is] not supporting other women.” Maybe it’s a good sign that every glitterista recycling metaphors about 16-year-old boys feels pressure to let her young fans know she believes in girl power. But it seems more like a tic that is reducing one of our most important ideas to something malleable and devoid of meaning.
Take Bettie Page. A piece Margaret Talbot wrote about her legacy for The New Republic in 1997 (available to subscribers here) dismisses feminist attempts to commandeer the pin-up princess, scoffing, “Some of Bettie Page's fans will tell you that the reason her photographs appeal to so many people today is that she was a woman more of our time than of hers, a sexual liberationist trapped in Ozzie-and-Harriet land.” But she doesn’t dismiss our captivation with Page. “In truth her pictures attract us precisely because they are so much of their time … Bettie Page always seemed so good when she was being so bad. It is a paradox made of distinctions that we have almost completely destroyed.”
Sure, it would be great if every woman were a feminist. But it would not be great if the only question we asked ourselves about any given woman was, “Is she a feminist?” The binary is too narrow for the word's complex history. And that single measure can only capture so much of any woman, or artist, or public figure. In the meantime, wrangling over the feminist credentials of a singer or model who has barely expressed interest in women's empowerment is just noise.