By Emily Lindsay Jackson
In an interview with British newspaper The Observer on June 30, 2013, actor Susan Sarandon calls herself a humanist, not a feminist. “I think of myself as a humanist because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches.” Feminism is offensive and “old-fashioned,” and humanism fits Sarandon because it apparently wants what she wants: “equal pay, equal rights, education and healthcare.”
Sarandon’s claims warrant attention for three reasons. First, their context reflects an accelerating trend in the media of questioning female interviewees – usually actors and musicians – about their personal politics. Sarandon was asked if she was a feminist. The discourse behind this questioning is complex and contradictory. It reflects the increasing visibility and normalization of powerful women; recognizing they have political views just as powerful men have always been assumed to have. It is a positive development: a newly afforded platform for women to discuss feminism and gender politics, and move these agendas forward in public discourse.
But this platform is falling short. Responses range from the strategically inoffensive – Beyoncé’s rejection of feminism’s “extremism” – to the ill-considered – Lady Gaga’s comments to a Norwegian journalist, “I’m not a feminist, I hail men, I love men” – to the less common, “yes I am a feminist!” offered by Reese Witherspoon and Ellen Page. The questioning is contradictory because, while an opportunity to advance feminism in public discourse, it does not occur on a basis of parity. Male celebrities draw attention for their party politics – e.g., George Clooney’s support for the U.S. Democratic Party – but they do not declare their position on gender politics. They are not asked “do you support the rights of men?” It is either assumed they would (because why would they not?) or not considered a valid, interesting question. The media interview contains positive changes in women’s roles within enduring patriarchal structures: making them invisible in plain sight.
Second, Sarandon’s support for humanism as a better alternative to feminism rehearses an easy but flawed argument. It proposes that humanism creates the same results – equality – without the alleged drawbacks of feminism: its stridency (in other words, radicalism); its presumed anti-men stance; and its irrelevancy, in a world many claim has moved beyond the political struggles of gender and race.
Indeed, it seems unreasonable to criticize a doctrine that, according to the 2002 Amsterdam Declaration of the World Humanist Congress, “affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual” against religious and political dogmas. But humanism’s foundations were lain during the European Enlightenment, which attempted to remake the humans of the New World (and the Old) in the image of its own “enlightened” crusaders: privileged white European men. Contemporary humanism is touted as the “outcome of a long tradition of free thought,” but this grand tradition is not free from bias. As Judith Butler explains, humanism “supposes that there is just one single idea of what it is to be human.” Humanism turns away from difference and diversity. Equality in humanist terms means equal our way.
Therefore, humanist solutions to current social problems – based on science, secularism, and “artistic creativity” – at the same time reinforce western, privileged, patriarchal values in ways too numerous to detail here. Humanist ideals also fall down in practice: what can humanism do for those barred from “personal development” through “literature, music, and the visual and performing arts–such as children in the global south who cannot get basic schoolbooks? Certainly all human life is important (and animal life too for that matter). But humanist social justice begins from the point that “every human being” is equally capable of “ethical and creative living.” Thus the power differentials by which capable humans are systematically barred from opportunity throughout their lives are made invisible and the possibilities for effective, lasting change curtailed.
From its beginnings as an anti-oppressive social movement advocating for women’s rights across deeply distorted legal spheres, feminism has created a powerful political dynamic. For Judith Butler, “feminism implies thinking about the practices of freedom.” When feminists challenge the often-glaring distortions between men and women in pay, rights, education, and healthcare – through the practice of critique in a world in flux – they are “innovating and creating new positions.” Yes, feminist politics are concerned with women’s rights, because who or what else is going to be? But they are also concerned with rejecting that which power, powerful systems, and powerful people allow one to be, think and say: the concern that informs all social and political resistance.
Third, feminist politics are still necessary. There are claims that struggles for women’s rights have been won: that we live in a ‘post’-political world. Do not be duped. In the global north, gender discrimination persists in a trenchantly patriarchal society. Within the narrow but influential sphere of the media interview, patriarchy dictates that Susan Sarandon is quizzed on whether she is a feminist, while George Clooney gets on with the important business of party politics. Why Beyoncé believes in women’s rights but is afraid to call herself a feminist, and why Lady Gaga believes that to be a feminist is to hate men. In the global south, young women like Malala Yousafzai, who ask for girls’ right to education, pay for it with deadly violence. The examples are sadly too numerous to mention.
Sarandon’s remarks should therefore be criticized for wasting an opportunity to say something useful; for reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes about feminists and feminist politics; indeed, for trying to erase the politics of gender. The conflict between what is considered acceptable behavior for women in others’ eyes (and in their own) is a daily and too often deadly negotiation. That is why it is so important for women in the public eye and positions of power and influence to be positive about feminism and women, and thus lessen the burden of this conflict. Everyone, including Susan Sarandon, benefits from feminist politics, even if they withhold their recognition and support.
Emily Lindsay Jackson is a social scientist, researcher, and teacher based in Edmonton, Canada, although she started her journey in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has been writing about politics – mainly the politics of security and the Global War on Terror – for seven years, and before then she was just wishing she could write about politics.