Feminism abcs: adichie, beyoncé, and cyrus – can they really all be feminists?

Much digital ink has been spilled recently on the feminist stance of contemporary female pop stars. Since Beyoncé’s performance at the 2014 VMAs, when she sang in front of an enormous digital display that captioned Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words from We Should All Be Feminists, we have seen a range of performers labeling themselves feminists.

The debate has extended to arguments between the pop artists themselves – as anyone who follows them on Twitter knows. Minaj made headlines after the 2015 VMAs, when she tweeted that being thin and white would have ensured her Anaconda video got nominated, and when Miley chimed in she suggested that Cyrus’s feminism implicitly co-opted black culture, while excluding black women entirely. In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, Minaj commented on the offense Cyrus took at her anger:

“The fact that you feel upset about me speaking on something that affects black women makes me feel like you have some big balls. […] If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.“

Minaj’s criticism of Cyrus’s feminism, like the criticisms she herself has received, is testament to how contested an issue this remains. Far from creating a consensus, pop artists’ renewed attention to female empowerment has reignited longstanding questions about what feminism actually is. When Miley Cyrus takes a half-naked selfie, is she reclaiming her body (feminist), or agreeing to be objectified (sexist)? Is Minaj’s Anaconda music video an expression of black female sexuality (feminist), or an embodiment of how white people view black female sexuality (sexist and racist)? Who decides what feminism is, and what purposes it serves?

The work of the 20th-century philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, a proponent of gender equality and a controversial figure in her own right, offers some useful reference points. In her 1949 book,The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argued that “one is not born, but becomes a woman.” Femininity is something we impose on women rather than something innate. Dependence, passivity towards and reliance on men, the cultivation of physical appearance and aspiration to be princesses rather than CEOs are all learned. Femininity is a product of social engineering, not biology.

The Second Sex also questioned traditional views on female sexuality, including the (then common) belief that achieving a vaginal orgasm is a sign of true womanhood, and that clitoral orgasms are a sign of sexual immaturity. She championed lesbian sex, and argued that the institution of marriage merely served to oppress women, shackling them in a role of financial dependence only worsened by motherhood, which made them slaves to their children.

We can see the influence of these ideas in Swift, Minaj, Beyoncé, and Cyrus’s work and in their public life. Beyoncé opened her performance at the Made in America festival in August 2015 by reciting UFC fighter Ronda Rousey’s “Do-Nothing Bitch” speech, which rails against the very concept of housewifery – a view that de Beauvoir would have shared. Cyrus has openly identified herself as bisexual, and the press has speculated as often about the likelihood of her marrying girlfriend Stella Maxwell as that of her tying the knot with Liam Hemsworth. In the same way, de Beauvoir was unashamedly public about her open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre and her bisexuality, and saw them as allowing her greater freedom. Minaj’s hypersexualized performances, in which she appears to revel in the power her body holds over the public, like de Beauvoir’s explicit writings about sexuality, are based on the view that one need not neutralize or hide one’s sexuality in order to be a feminist. Likewise, her criticism of the expectation that women have children before they’re 30 – or have children at all – recall de Beauvoir’s view of motherhood as a form of imprisonment.

De Beauvoir again offers a useful frame of reference, for in the decades following her text’s publication, her ideas fell in and out of fashion, as feminism itself changed, and the debate around it evolved. Once reviled by the Christian Right, she later became seen as antiquated and conservative – only to be taken up again in the 1990s as queer theory and gender theory took off. The sheer variety of responses her work has evinced is instructive, suggesting that it is perhaps inherent to any politics of liberation – be it expressed in a printed book or in a tweet – to be initially divisive, and to catalyze incensed arguments. Perhaps it is, in fact, a very good thing that there are women like Minaj and Swift, like Beyoncé and Cyrus, making polarizing statements that cause both outrage and delight. Because to get people talking about feminism, as de Beauvoir learned, you first have to say something.