Why it doesn’t matter if the cast of “The Handmaid’s Tale” calls it political or feminist and the Codification of the F-Test

Re: MTV, Vulture, VOX, Mashable, and others.

Ah, the press tour. Latently synonymous with female celebrities getting dragged in multiple think pieces for failing to use the word feminist.

It happened with Shaleine Woodley a few years ago: she said she wasn’t a feminist, gave the (yes, uncomfortable, misguided and vague) stock-reasons as to why not (“it creates division,” “I believe in sisterhood”). Woodley has since gotten arrested at a #nodapl protest, one of the most stunning examples of celebrity activism I can recall in recent memory. The word “feminism” was merely a stick to beat Shaleine with. It was no substantive anticipator of her altruism, allyship, or activism.

It didn’t happen with Taylor Swift. Or Amy Schumer. They correctly used the word we liked to hear, and were lauded… until they didn’t actually practice any real, substantive feminism. Swift has been accused of using her white female privilege to sully the name of Kanye West. Swift was silent during the election. Amy Schumer has been accused of enabling rapists and making racist jokes. Feminism was a stick to beat them with, too, except in this case, their mistake was agreeing to identify as a feminist. And, again, the F-word was no substantive indicator of how feminist or not these women are.

(Interestingly, Margaret Atwood has said when people ask her if she’s a feminist, she wants to know what they mean by it. And with those remarks, she explains why people might say they’re not a feminist “because they believe in equality,” or because they believe in sisterhood, or because it’s divisive).

As a female celebrity, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s a frenzy if one refuses to identify herself as a feminist (Kim Kardashian, Sarah Jessica Parker, and even Margaret Atwood herself, at points, have fallen into this), and a frenzy if she *does* (re: Schumer, Swift, but, also, Lena Dunham) but then never does anything feminist, or isn’t sufficiently intersectional enough. Meanwhile, precisely zero male celebrities have ever encluntered the the new celebrity PR trap: alienate half your audience if you say you’re a feminist, alienate the other half if you say you’re not. (Men, by contrast, get fun softballs, like “How do you write female characters so well?” “How do you keep your male allyship award for starting in a female driven media so shiny?”) The question–“Are you a feminist?”–and the well-meaning media frenzy that follows, regardless of the answer is a way to objectify women, by making a sport of condemning someone you will never meet. But it’s somehow been neatly domesticated into a notion of feminism we’re comfortable with. 

Now it’s happening to the cast of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” who have eschewed calling the show feminist or political on their press tour. But let me burst your bubble for one sec:

It doesn’t matter if the stars of a “A Handmaid’s Tale” think the show is feminist, or political. “A Handmaid’s Tale” is feminist and political. And not by virtue of heavy mining for meaning, or sifting through symbols. It’s glaring, it’s spoon-fed: it’s didactic message is undeniable and in your face and not even up for debate.

Actors perform. I’m not saying I don’t want to hear actors speak. I’m not saying they’re not intelligent (although, I do think performers can get too close to their characters to see the bigger picture, and I’m also sure any director will tell you you don’t direct political messages or theme: you direct cause/result, motivations, etc.). I’m saying what they owe us and what their job is is to perform. Their job is not to be perfect feminist scholars: they couldn’t be if they wanted to. Let’s remember the impossibility of true feminism when, well, they’re selling a Hollywood object for fame and money, not running a not-for-profit activist organization.

We do live in a divided country. “A Handmaid’s Tale” does have a political message and one worth sharing. By shying away from overtly political messaging at the press-tour stage, the cast endeavored to reach a wider audience: the kind of audience that needs to see this show.

But also: it’s gross to take the conversation away from an actress’s work (the performance, the object) and onto the words they said as a candid civilian on a compulsory press tour. Just because Instagram, Twitter, a bigger focus on gossip reporting propelled by so many digital content creators, and the proliferation of fan-conferences give us greater access to our favorite celebrities, doesn’t mean our conversations should stray away from the actual objects from which we know our favorite celebrities.

Do materials, details, interviews, etc. outside of the screen image matter? Yes, definitely. I just don’t think “used the word ‘feminism’ on a press tour” is among them.

This is not a battle cry for complacency. Of course we demand more of our media, and we demand more of our celebrities. If Shaleine Woodley says feminism is antithetical to sisterhood, her young fans will believe her. And of course “The Handmaid’s Tale” cast’s comments on political messaging are cringe-worthy and misguided. But it doesn’t affect the meaning of their show, or how it will be received. And also: we need to let women live.

The trend of putting women on display and chastising them for being a non-identified feminist is not feminist anymore. The F-test is to a modern-day actress what a morality clause was to classical Hollywood actresses. It’s weird. It’s objectifying. It’s a trap. It’s impossible. It merely demands they act exactly as we would like them to. It sure as shit doesn’t get any feminist agenda, anywhere, moving. And it’s patronizing to vilify women on something outside their profession instead of discussing their actual profession. It would be weird and obnoxious if, in a job interview, or a profile on your career excellence, something you did outside of your job was made to de-center a conversation on your career merits, taking away from the assessment of your work, your career, and your accomplishments.

And, most importantly: feminism is not a stick to beat other women with.