Shailene Woodley photo via Shutterstock
BY BETH LALONDE
Shailene Woodley broke my heart. She really, truly did. As disappointing as I found Lana Del Rey’s recent declaration that feminism “is just not an interesting concept,” and Little Mix’s unanimous “no” when asked if they considered themselves feminists, Woodley’s rejection hurts the very most.
See, I’ve been a fan of Woodley since I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed seventh grader with a penchant for American Girl dolls. Woodley’s breakout role was the lead in Felicity: An American Girl Adventure, the made-for-TV adaptation of the company’s American Revolution stories. Even then, I found something special and relatable in the way Woodley brought spunky Felicity to life. Here was a character who shunned all the stuffy trappings of colonial femininity, rejecting tea parties and fabulous balls in favour of late-night, covert efforts to rescue horses from the cruel tanners of Williamsburg. Felicity was a tomboyish antidote to the deluge of sparkly, glittery Disney Princess media that sought out my demographic like a heat-seeking missile.
Woodley’s more recent work continued in this tradition, really. The less said about The Secret Life of the American Teenager the better, perhaps, but her turns in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now were breaths of fresh air in a media landscape dominated by ditzy, one-dimensional portrayals of teenage girls. I’ve written at length about how I wept in the theatre during a screening of Divergent; Woodley’s character in the film wards off a sexual assault without even a moment’s hesitation and is congratulated and supported for having fought back. Elsewhere, she tells a boy who threatened her life that if he ever lays hands on her again, she will kill him. The film’s rejection of rape culture, and its placement of power and autonomy firmly in the hands of women characters, was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a big-budget blockbuster.
But Woodley, for all her woman-affirming career choices, somehow can’t find it in her heart to align herself with feminism. Her disastrous answer to a Time interviewer’s inquiry about whether or not she considered herself a feminist – “No, because I love men” – was only the first nail in the coffin. Despite countless pieces in the month that followed, informing her that, in fact, loving men and working for women’s freedoms are perfectly coterminous, she has remained stubborn in her rejection of the movement.
On Tuesday, in an interview with the Daily Beast, she said that “‘feminist’ is a word that discriminates.” And she wasn’t talking about the movement’s exclusion of women of colour, queer women, trans women, poor women, or women with disabilities. That sort of commentary would have been valid and, indeed, hugely consequential coming from such a well-known up-and-coming actress. No, she was talking about… well, men. In her mind, feminism is “the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power.’”
And so it is with a heavy heart that I have been forced to resign as the president of Woodley’s fan club. Her success has opened so many doors for women’s media representation, particularly in male-dominated genres, but her misidentification and rejection of feminism is causing incalculable damage. She is actively distancing young women from access to a movement they desperately need.
As I said at the outset of this piece, she’s hardly the only esteemed role model to publicly flout feminism. Little Mix have built a career on producing feminist anthems that call for women’s unity and reject toxic beauty standards, and yet insist that they’re not feminists because they love men. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, girls.
Still, to an extent, I can accept the feminist value of Woodley’s films and Little Mix’s music, even if they themselves reject the label. Far more young women are going to see Divergent and listen to Salute, and absorb their objectively positive messaging, than will plumb the depths of the Internet to read these interviews.
Much tougher to swallow, I think, are declarations of anti-feminism from women whose work isn’t particularly concerned with advancing the status of women. Lana Del Rey, for instance, recently spurned feminism – ostensibly, according to her statement, because she finds aerospace innovation and “intergalactic possibilities” more interesting. But even this bizarre statement isn’t nearly as damaging as the themes of her music.
In her first album, Del Rey used Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as a leitmotif, releasing song after song positioning herself as a vulnerable, naive little girl eager for the romantic and sexual attention of older men. Her music comes across less as a critical commentary on the romanticization of Lolita in the popular imaginary and more as an enthusiastic embrace of everything wrong with the way our world remembers Nabokov’s magnum opus. And when little girls are tapping their toes to catchy Del Rey choruses – hey, Lolita, hey, I know what the boys want, I’m not gonna play – well, that’s a problem. Those lyrics have a lot more staying power than anything Del Rey has ever said in a magazine interview.
In order to provide feminist education to the young women who need it most, we have to denounce the damaging, anti-feminist rhetoric being peddled by their favourite singers and actresses. But we also have to carefully evaluate their cultural products. I believe that there is feminist value in Little Mix’s empowerment anthems and in Divergent’s positioning of women in the vanguard of revolution. While I wish very much that the women who created these works openly identified as feminists – or, at the very least, didn’t put their feet in their mouths while attempting to define the concept – I would much rather watch Divergent than yet another testosterone-laden summer action flick where the only women onscreen are non-speaking eye candy.
Less commentary, perhaps, on what these artists say, and more on what they create.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Beth Lalonde is a political science and queer theory major based in Toronto. She writes about the cultural, the political, and the sexual. Visit her online at lalond.es.