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Reel Women: Shailene Woodley Isn’t a Feminist, But Hating on Her For It Won’t Help

Shailene Woodley
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Divergent‘ star Shailene Woodley has been doing the rounds to promote her latest role in ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ another adaptation of a hit Young Adult novel, and as has become custom when interviewing young actresses, Woodley’s been asked about her views on feminism. Woodley, who’s basically the flower child version of Jennifer Lawrence, has elicited some harsh reactions with her refusal to embrace the F-word and her admittedly naive responses, which can read as an attempt to retain mass appeal. But whether you agree with her or not, railing against Woodley’s responses and presuming to know what’s best for her is counterintuitive to feminism. 

We place (or rather project) an intense amount of hope and desire onto young actresses to becoming shining beacons of inspiration for our young women, and that’s fair in a sense — we try to reclaim the meaning of celebrity from the media, to find optimism and relatability, rather than perpetuate tabloid cynicism. It’s why we love Jennifer Lawrence, who clumsily stumbles and wipes the dust from Cheetos on expensive dresses, and tells stories about sex toys to David Letterman. It’s also why we love Shailene Woodley, who embraces and speaks freely about her whole Earth goddess way of living naturally, eating clay and making her own cheeses, wearing those silly toe shoes and making sure her vagina gets enough sunlight. These young women are a breath of fresh air because they are refreshingly honest and have spoken openly about resisting contemporary beauty standards in a business that revolves around a fictional objective beauty standard. We just assume that they’re feminists because if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, well…

So when interviews with Woodley began circulating this week in which she refused to embrace feminism, the reactions were decidedly harsh. How could this young woman who aligns herself with the Earth and rejects conventional Hollywood standards say that she’s not a feminist? How could she betray all of us?

Perhaps it’s best to backtrack and look at Woodley’s quotes in context. The first interview with Bust Magazine from the February/March issue portrays Woodley’s opinions as wholly reasonable and thoughtful. When asked if feminism is something that influences the way she thinks on a regular basis, Woodley responds, “One-hundred percent.” Writer Lisa Butterworth continues:

But it’s something she admits she’s still figuring out how to talk about in the press. “I think anytime a label comes up, it immediately creates some sort of image in someone’s mind,” she says. “I love men, and I think that this notion of putting men aside so women can rise to power could not be more wrong. I’ve read so many feminist books, and I’m very well acquainted with a lot of different theories, but I think there has to be balance, we have to have the yin and the yang… “I’m really connected to women just because I’m a huge fan of sisterhood,” she says. “There’s so much focus on males appreciating females, but until females appreciate females, how is anything gonna change? There’s so much jealousy, there’s so much envy, there’s so much ‘She’s prettier,’ or ‘She’s taller,’ or ‘She’s this,’ or ‘She’s that.’ Where is the ‘Oh my God, you are such a stunning individual and you’re my sister! What can we do for each other?’”

Feminism is, of course, the notion of equality between the sexes socially, economically, and politically, and it doesn’t sound like Woodley is confused about what feminism means. In fact, it sounds as though she’s keenly aware that feminism is still considered by many to be a four-letter word. For many, the word “feminist” still conjures the stereotypical image of a militant woman who desires male subjugation, a notion as equally naive and willfully oblivious as Woodley’s more recent comments, printed in TIME. It’s these comments that have overshadowed her earlier, more reasonable thoughts and elicited outrage from sites like Jezebel, which published a response that came off less like thoughtful advice and more like an attempt to slap Woodley across the knuckles with a ruler and whip her into shape.

When asked by TIME if she considers herself to be a feminist, 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. With myself, I’m very in touch with my masculine side. And I’m 50 percent feminine and 50 percent masculine, same as I think a lot of us are. And I think that is important to note. And also I think that if men went down and women rose to power, that wouldn’t work either. We have to have a fine balance.

My biggest thing is really sisterhood more than feminism. I don’t know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don’t even seem to respect each other. There’s so much jealousy, so much comparison and envy. And “This girl did this to me and that girl did that to me.” And it’s just so silly and heartbreaking in a way.

It’s a reiteration of her comments to Bust, though here she follows it with misguided praise of ‘The Other Woman,’ a film that’s come under criticism for its failure to pass the Bechdel Test, the bare minimum requirement that a film or TV show featuring more than one woman features both women engaged in conversation about something other than a man. Woodley’s own recent hit film, ‘Divergent,’ passes the Bechdel Test — yet another reason why she’s become something of an icon for young women, and yet another reason why her comments are a little disheartening.

It’s clear that Woodley isn’t against feminism (though her suggestion that this ideology is merely a theory is troubling), and her own ideas about sisterhood and “balance,” which read as just another way of saying “equality,” are in keeping with the spirit of feminism. What’s unfortunate is her need to distance herself from the F-word, as many stars have in the past. Coming out as a feminist has become kind of a big deal — Beyonce once said that she wasn’t a feminist, but these days she’s proud to call herself one along with Ellen Page and Lena Dunham, and even that troublemaker Miley Cyrus, who have all “come out” as feminists, as if we should be shocked that these women dare to believe in having equality with their male peers.

The truth is that no one should be ashamed to be a feminist or feel the need to dance around admitting it. Whether Woodley truly is a feminist or is simply eluding the press to maintain her mass appeal, hating on her for expressing her opinion — however articulated — isn’t going to help. These are her opinions and her thoughts, which she has clearly considered, like them or not. To put her on blast and presume to instruct her in the ways of being a better woman is counterintuitive to the cause of feminism. It’s exactly the kind of catty behavior she’s calling out in her interviews. Rather than scold and berate her for not being a proper feminist, we should accept her for who she is and what she’s chosen to share with us. We would also do well to remember that just because Shailene Woodley is an actress, that doesn’t make her our best friend. And just because she’s famous, that doesn’t mean she’s beholden to some collective and unseen higher standard than the rest of us. We shouldn’t presume to know what’s best for her, nor should we project our ideals onto her. And we certainly shouldn’t get irrationally angry when she speaks her mind and it doesn’t align with the image we’ve built up of her in our heads. How dare she be a human being with her own thoughts and opinions, right?

Shailene Woodley is a human being, and she’s a young one who is still growing, who will make mistakes, who might not articulate herself properly at times, and who is doing all of this with a giant magnifying glass hovering over her. She is still learning and evolving like the rest of us. Feminism isn’t a four-letter word, but angry and scathing reactions are only perpetuating the negative stereotypes Woodley is trying to evade. And trashing another woman for thoughtfully expressing her pretty inoffensive opinions about feminism and her own personal ideology is decidedly anti-feminist.

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