Why Has "Feminism" Become Such A Dirty Word In Hollywood?

Photo: Matt Baron/BeImages.
Female celebrities are still being asked what they're wearing on the red carpet. But increasingly, they're also being asked about how they feel about feminism and equal pay. In this day and age of Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, and serious paychecks for Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson, some responses might surprise you.

From Emily Watson — not to be confused with Emma Watson, who is very much in favor of gender equality — came this quote at last week's San Sebastian International Film Festival. "In terms of equal pay, there’s obviously a question to be answered about how it’s divided up, but I don’t think it’s my personal quest," the Oscar-nominated actress said during a press conference. "I just feel so grateful that I do a job that I love and someone pays me."

Speaking to Net-a-Porter's Porter magazine, French actress Marion Cotillard also recoiled from the feminist label. "Film-making is not about gender," she insisted. "You cannot ask a president in a film festival like Cannes to have, like, five movies directed by women and five by men. For me, it doesn’t create equality, it creates separation.

"I mean, I don’t qualify myself as a feminist," she continued. "We need to fight for women’s rights, but I don’t want to separate women from men. We’re separated already but we’re not made the same and it’s the difference that creates this energy in creation and love. Sometimes in the word feminism there is too much separation."

With all due respect to these two immensely talented actresses, this is disappointing. Of course, it's absolutely their right not to identify as feminists if they are indeed not, but it seems they are reacting more to the stigma attached to the word "feminism" itself than what it actually means: equality between the sexes. Surely Watson isn't saying that women should be happy to get work at all. And, how does Cotillard distinguish "fighting for women's rights" from being a feminist?

It's not the first time a female star has more or less argued for feminism while disavowing the label (see: Sarah Jessica Parker, humanist). It's like someone saying they don't eat meat or fish, but aren't ready to declare themselves vegetarian. It feels contradictory. It's also frustrating that in 2015 the word still carries a negative connotation for some. We're living in an era when it's been documented that Hollywood studios pay actresses less than actors and when women make up such a small percentage of directors (four percent in the past four years) that the ACLU has launched an inquiry into hiring practices. Surely, that's proof enough that there is a systemic problem more serious than whatever off-putting image some people associate with the f-word.

Freida Pinto raised the point in a recent interview with Refinery29:

"Feminism itself is a very misconstrued term. It alludes to a one-up situation, when it’s not. Really, what it talks about is equal rights for men and women, that women should be enjoying the same rights and economic benefits as men. The misunderstanding of the term has a major part to play in that. Also, there are women who endorse the wrong meaning of feminism. It does become very tricky.

"Sometimes, I think it’s the way 'female' is attached to the word 'feminist,'" she added. "It does allude to something that can be isolating at times. Maybe if great minds come together we can come up with a term that feels acceptable and is understood by men and women equally, where there is no baggage or misconstruing of what’s been associated with this term. I know that it’s sad that a new word would have to be invented, but you know what? There has to be some kind of an effort on both ends to help people to understand the meaning of the word ‘feminism’ better. If it’s a problem with the word itself, then we should talk about it.”

One actress who proudly identifies as feminist is Geena Davis. The Thelma & Louise star has commissioned studies exploring the gender disparity in media, finding that just 17 percent of the people in film and TV crowd scenes are female. Davis also spoke to The Guardian about the need to do more for gender equality in Hollywood, and not simply chalk up the success of recent female-fronted movies as major victories.

“There always comes a point where they’re trying to spot a trend, which would be great," she said. "The year that Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City were both gigantic hits internationally [the media were saying] ‘Now, beyond a doubt, we’ve proven giant summer blockbusters with women will change [the industry]…’ Nothing changed.

“And it happened to me twice. That’s how I became aware of the phenomenon. After Thelma & Louise, which was pretty noticed and potent and significant, [people were saying] ‘This changes everything! There’s going to be so many female buddy movies!’ and nothing changed. And then the next movie I did was A League of Their Own, which was a huge hit and all the talk was, ‘Well now, beyond a doubt, women’s sports movies, we’re going to see a wave of them because this was so successful.’ That’s balls. It took 10 years until Bend It Like Beckham came out. So, there was no trend whatsoever. It keeps happening, and we keep falling for this notion that now there’s Bridesmaids, now there’s Hunger Games… It hasn’t started a trend.”

In other words, complacency isn't an option. At least, it's not an option for those women who passionately believe in equality. If others choose to settle for lower pay and unequal representation, then that is their decision. But, wouldn't it be so much more inspiring and powerful if everyone just got it?