Gender equality: just a click away?

14 Oct

Compare and contrast Roxane Gay and Simon Kuper writing in the last few days in the Guardian and FT respectively: both talk about the role of celebrity in supporting gender equality, but reach different conclusions. Gay writes that while interventions by Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence are welcome, they can work to disguise feminist activism practised by less glamorous women on the ground; Kuper (behind the paywall, ‘How Brad Pitt brings out the best in Dads’) is saying that photos of Brad Pitt with a baby strapped to his chest are an important part of encouraging active fatherhood, which mustn’t (perish the thought) be viewed as ‘girly’.

Celebrities may be one ingredient in spreading messages about gender roles – they can contribute huge reach – but they do not usually create the conditions for greater equality in most people’s lives. This remains the province of grassroots activism, civil society and governments.

Perhaps, though, celebrities’ significance in public debate is to do with what stage of the debate we are at. In terms of gender equality, the conversation is far more developed regarding public roles for women in society, than is the case concerning domestic roles for men. The concept of the ‘working father’, after all, still struggles to take hold.   Maybe Brad Pitt is helpful in the vanguard of images of masculinity that incorporate caring activity.

Meanwhile, both Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence have been caught up in discussions about feminism in the digital age. As we all try to come to terms with issues of privacy and intrusion presented by mobile phone and internet technology, the views and experiences of celebrities may give discussions around digital reputation an added urgency. Lawrence suffered a gross violation of privacy when naked images were hacked from her computer accounts; Watson was threatened with similar exposure following her UN speech to encourage men to embrace the feminist cause. This threat turned out to be a hoax, but speaks volumes about attitudes towards women who speak up in public.

If we do want men and women to be equal, then we have to keep acting in the real world. Whilst Brad Pitt is viewed as giving a bit of machismo to the ‘girly’ domain of caring, actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson are seen to provide cautionary tales about how powerful women can be reduced to their physical attributes. Pressing ‘like’ on a picture of Brad Pitt with a baby is not going to give us well-paid paternity leave; looking at successful women without listening to them is not like feminism at all. Celebrities may help to change the conversation, but it’s all of us who have to do the talking.




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