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.