At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Kristen Stewart sat down for an interview and was asked to nominate her feminist icons. The reporter then went on to list a few female actresses as examples. I initially found myself surprised when her response was to laugh and say “you’ve got angles”, before going on to criticise the media’s approach when talking about sexism and feminism. So I watched the interview again in order to understand what it was exactly that she took issue with. As someone who talks about feminism on a daily basis, I thought talking about it in this interview would be a positive thing.
But after the second viewing, it clicked. The problem isn’t discussing feminism itself, it’s the context in which it is discussed. Stewart was there to interview about an upcoming project she was in, and any chance to discuss that was replaced by talking about being a woman in the industry. And there it is: the direction of the question didn’t lead towards Stewart’s experience as an individual, but as a woman.
It was at this point that I realised how familiar this line of questioning was to me. In April, Grimes tweeted, “most annoying thing about my job: being asked about ‘music industry sexism’…media propagates sexism by portraying me as a victim rather than the successful producer that I am.” This was following an article from Rolling Stone, that focused on her experience as a woman in the industry, rather than the successful musician and producer that she is.
And most recently, comic Cameron Esposito discussed this line of questioning too in her new series, Take My Wife. In one particular scene, a white male radio host asked her what it’s like to be a woman in comedy, to which she sarcastically responded, “oh my favourite question.” In an interview about this scene, Esposito elaborated on her response, stating that questions of this nature aren’t actually about her role in the industry, but rather what it’s like to be a woman, full stop.
By asking about what it’s like to ‘be a woman’, the discussion gets stuck on the gender of the person, rather than their achievements as individuals. Identifying that they are women is sexist markedness, which comes from the simple fact that, as Cameron Esposito so aptly pointed out, “the majority viewpoint, which is straight white male, is invisible.”
Now this isn’t to say that talking about sexism and feminism isn’t still important, because it is. One’s gender does of course play a role in shaping their experiences in every aspect of their lives. The fact that women are so often asked about their experiences “as women”, and the unequivocal fact that we live in a male dominated society, speaks to that. But the context in which it is discussed is everything. For example, if you follow Grimes on social media, you can see that she has often spoken up about her feminism the sexism she has experienced. The difference is that she is in charge of this platform and the content that is shared. Cameron Esposito also often covers gender inequalities in her written material, which again, she is choosing to discuss.
When women are in charge of the way they share their feminism and their experiences of sexism, it comes from a place of empowerment and agency. When the focus of an interview is solely on a woman’s gender, it continues the cycle of sexism and we miss out on seeing the amazing things women are achieving as individuals – despite the inequalities we face.