In Defense of Shailene Woodley
by Benjamin Studebaker
Actress Shailene Woodley (of The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, and Divergent fame) has recently taken a bit of flak from many practitioners of identity politics for comments she made to Time magazine about feminism. They accuse her of essentializing the feminist literature, of treating it as monolithic and failing to see the diversity of perspectives it encompasses. Their critique is too demanding and ignores something very pressing in what Woodley is saying that the feminist movement as a whole needs to take note of.
This is Shailene Woodley:
Perhaps you remember her? Time asked Woodley:
You’ve talked about before—with Divergent specifically, too—about being conscious of the kind of messages that you’re sending to young female fans when you’re taking on roles. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
And Woodley responded:
No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.
The response from many feminists has been to point out that many feminists do not argue for replacing rule by men with rule by women, that Woodley’s interpretation of feminism is reductive and unfair. It is certainly true that most feminists believe in gender equality as Woodley does. The supremacist feminists who advocate for rule of men by women are relatively few in number. Many feminists blame Woodley for getting this wrong and for not realizing that many feminists have the very view she has.
Shailene Woodley is 22, the same age as me. However, while I have an undergraduate degree in Politics and will soon have a master’s, she has never been to college. From what I can tell, she considered doing a degree at NYU in interior design. She doesn’t appear to have gone through with it–possibly because, as a successful actress, she can make a lot more money by acting in movies. Even if she had gone to NYU, there’s no guarantee that she would have spent any significant amount of time studying politics, let alone feminist theory, as neither have much directly to do with interior design.
In this respect, Shailene Woodley is much more like most Americans than I am. Most Americans have never graduated college:
Most of those that have graduated have not majored in politics, gender studies, or some other major in which they were likely to encounter the feminist literature in detail. This is not a great tragedy–the economy needs a diverse variety of workers with different skills and proclivities. Like most Americans, Shailene Woodley is not particularly interested in sitting around all day reading, writing, and thinking about political theory. Like most Americans, Shailene Woodley has a job, and she does her job well. Like most Americans, when Shailene Woodley gets off of work, she likes to relax and recharge for the next day. Like most Americans, Shailene Woodley doesn’t relax by reading political theory, and that is perfectly okay. If everyone read and wrote about politics all the time, people like me would be completely useless to society.
Because Shailene Woodley has a real job that places real demands on her time, and because she doesn’t find political theory a particularly fun way to relax when she’s not working, she doesn’t have a comprehensive academic understanding of feminism. All she has to work with is her general perception of the feminists she’s encountered. It would be entirely unreasonable of us to expect her to have anything else to work with. This is not her job and it’s not her hobby. Woodley has not done anything wrong here, and criticism that is directed at her is entirely unfair.
The feminist movement and those who practice identity politics more generally need to think about the way that their political viewpoints are being perceived in public by people who are not specialists in politics and do not see it as a serious hobby or pastime. When Woodley says that she’s not a feminist because she wants equality, this indicates that the feminist movement is critically failing to communicate to the person on the street what their argument is. Most feminists are very much for gender equality, and many see the system of gender norms as harmful not only to women but to men as well. These feminists are failing to communicate that argument. There are a variety of reasons for this. The supremacist feminists tend to be louder, but that’s not the only problem. Much of feminist terminology can easily be misinterpreted by the lay person. “Feminism” is a word that makes it sound as though the idea is about advancing women’s interests exclusively. “Patriarchy” is a word that makes it sound as though gender norms exclusively harm women and benefit men. It is true that if people dive into the feminist literature they will learn that these words do not mean what it sounds like they mean, but as we just illustrated above, the average person does not have the time or the inclination to do that.
This is not merely a problem with feminism, but with political specialists in general. We have a tendency to think that the layperson has some kind of obligation to give us a fair hearing, to do background reading, to go to all the trouble of reaching a full and comprehensive understanding of what we’re saying. The layperson owes us no such thing. It is our job as specialists to present political and philosophical views in a comprehensible, intriguing, and interesting way. If people are not getting our messages or not interested in our messages, we are failing to tailor our messages to suit them. It is our job to think of ways to better express these ideas, not the job of the layperson to invest spare time in becoming an expert in our field. If that’s too difficult for us, if the layperson is just too poorly educated to reasonably be expected to grasp the ideas we’re trying to communicate, then we need to seriously rethink our commitment to democracy. Democracy relies on experts to bring laypeople along skillfully. If our experts aren’t good enough at communicating with the public and the public isn’t good enough at interpreting and judging what experts say, the system isn’t going to work. Political experts exist to serve Shailene Woodley and the public, not the other way around.
Although I bow at the feet of your superior intellect Ben (funny thing is, I’m not even kidding…), I feel I should point out a slight lexical error in this. Under the photo at the top you say:
‘The radical feminists who advocate for rule of men by women are relatively few in number’
I might recommend you use ‘supremacist’ in place of ‘radical’. Radical feminism refers to the second wave of feminism that stressed the cultural and social subjugation of women rather than simply the legal subjugation of liberal feminism. ‘Radical’ refers to ‘roots’ rather than the vernacular ‘extreme’.
Supremacists, however, are those who believe women are or should be morally, culturally or socially superior to men. Although to give them credit, they have come up with some great quotes, such as “pregnancy is barbaric…it’s like shitting a pumpkin” (att. Shulamith Firestone).
Anyway, I hope that’s helpful. Keep trucking with these articles, they’re fantastic! 🙂
Fair terminological point–I know there are many radical feminists who don’t hold supremacist views, but I couldn’t come up with a term for the subset of those that do. “Supremacist” does the job nicely. Thanks!
I think you are making the mistake of assuming that people can speak from nowhere, a God’s eye view, if you will, but if feminism, feminist philosophy, more specifically, has taught us anything over the years it is that this is just a false universalism. Theories, arguments, modes of thought, etc are all socially located, historically speaking, they have tended to answer to the interests, concerns, and experiences of men rather than women. And even if women are allowed to speak in their voice and assume the position of subjects, this still leaves women’s issues or gender issues as a special interest of sorts, still outside the mainstream.
Which leads me to believe that, much like Le Douff, whereas it is commonly assumed that our philosophical or political or social discourse is itself universal and feminist inquiry is merely a partial aspect, a form of special interest, so to speak, of this universal framework, it would be more appropriate to say that the framework itself has been partial in the sense that it has excluded women, in general, from both the possibility of producing theories and ideas within that framework and from being able to represent legitimate ideals to which the framework has been orientated.
What many within the mainstream miss, or intentionally distort, is that feminism has never, not its essence at least, been about marginal or invisible questions being constantly posed as some sort of perpetual special interest group bent on destroying the system. It is about changing and informing the mainstream thought within society to such an extent that the questions which are now marginal and invisible become a normal, visible part of the repertoire of mainstream thought.
It is not an orthodoxy committed to a narrow or blinkered set of preconceptions about what should be seen as “women’s issues”. The tension that feminism tries to address is one where the framework should allow women to speak and think as women, but also is one of changing and informing the mainstream modes of thought so that women’s perspectives are no longer marked as both marginal and doctrinaire, which is precisely where many within the mainstream prefer to keep it. And the resolution of this tension is probably the greatest task facing feminist thought at the moment.
So, in a sense, I agree with you, but I think you fail to recognize the influence of mainstream thought in America. That is, when CNN misrepresents feminism I scarcely think feminists can be blamed for that and its ramifications, one of which is surely Woodley’s understanding of feminism.
I do not dispute these claims. This argument is less about the substantive content of feminism than it is the extent to which feminists have been unable to get the public to identify with the idea. I agree that feminism is often misrepresented, but I hold that it is generally from ignorance rather than from a deliberate effort to unfairly malign the movement. The task for feminists is to find ways of getting their message across that alleviate that ignorance rather than scold people for misunderstanding.
I see. Well, that may very well be a fair point then.
With looks, talent and a mind of her own, she won’t need feminism anytime soon and she’s under no obligation to be a role model for something she doesn’t really identify with. All of us don’t want to be men with boobs. Some intelligence is natural if you have been exposed to a nurturing, common sense environment.
>All of us don’t want to be men with boobs.
That’s not feminism <_<
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