Is it feminist? Who does it benefit? Whose purpose is served?
One could argue that applying a label like “feminist” to any piece of pop culture or a consumer good is foolish, since generally those are parts of a capitalist system that upholds patriarchy and colonialism. That’s not untrue. Dove, for example, is famous for its ad campaigns that target women and empower them. Yet the company that owns Dove also owns Axe; Axe’s commercials not only objectify women but encourage men to use their products solely to get laid. Ultimately, then, Dove’s products benefit capitalism, and the patriarchy — look good so men will want you; men, you deserve women.
Mainstream movies are beholden to their financial backers. Can a movie be feminist if the majority of its earnings benefit male producers or studio execs? If the male star earns more than the female star?
The problem with such thinking is that it can ultimately lead to cynicism and “so what” and “nothing will change.” Or a call to completely forgo pop culture or capitalism without a framework for people who must live within those societies. Even if one is working for change, change won’t happen overnight. And sometimes it’s nice at the end of a long day fighting the system to come home and just watch a movie.
Add to the “so what” a “who cares” or “you’re overthinking it.”
I like movies and television. I want to be represented in the media I consume. I want to see all sorts of different stories, hear different voices. Foolishly, I studied literature in college; all I can do is think too much. Our current pop culture landscape rewards attention to detail. Even if I pirate it so I can avoid giving money to a company I disagree with, I am still consuming it. (Note: I don’t pirate; I want people to receive money for their labor, oh no, here comes another capitalism rant I better stop–)
If pop culture rewards audiences for watching an extended set of sequels/prequels/related movies, for memorizing character histories, pop culture can produce feminist media.
A movie like Black Panther fits the general mold of being a Hollywood superhero movie, of rewarding people with long attention spans, of knowing who characters are and how they connect to other characters. But the main character is a black man, instead of the usual white man, and he is surrounded by amazing women characters. It has made over a billion dollars worldwide. We can have pop culture that represents us. Humans like stories, we like going to the movies, supporting Disney can’t be a revolutionary act, but we can demand more than the status quo.
But those producers, those people with money and power, they can be lazy. They throw a woman in and that means it’s feminist. No.
Consider two recent movies that focus on romantic hetersexual relationships.
In Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017). Sejal is certainly an interesting, complex character. She has understandable motivations. She’s spirited, independent, and fearless. But she is still threatened with sexual violence (and regular violence). She must be saved on several occasions, generally because she was doing something stupid (that is, didn’t listen to Harry). She still upholds certain ideas of femininity and purity, and of course, the inciting incident is a missing engagement ring. At movie’s end, status quo is upheld. While a fun movie with positive moments, ultimately it is not feminist.
Ki & Ka (2016), on the other hand, despite its flaws, celebrates women of all types and shows there’s not one correct way to be a woman. The status quo is not upheld, and in fact, the movie shows how oppressive the patriarchy can be for women and men. The movie shows us a reality that rings true for many people and that can be true for others.
Stories explain the past, help us endure our present, and show us what tomorrow can be. Not only do we want to see ourselves in these stories, to be inspired, to find strength, but we want to see alternate realities, whether that’s a gleaming city of the future or broken gender roles.
I am constantly amazed by how people can make meaning out of any story, find that small kernel that rings true or inspires. For so long, dominant culture has tried to normalize violence, exploitation, toxic masculinity, and left little room for anyone else to speak. So we have furtively carved out stories for ourselves. But now we can and should demand better.
And so we must keep discussing, analyzing, thinking too much about the media we consume. We will keep asking, is it feminist? Who does it serve?