Ellen Page and Toni Collette Are Feminists, But Susan Sarandon Is Not?

This month has been a mixed one for the F word in Hollywood. Just as Ellen Page and Toni Collette showed us what feminists look like, Susan Sarandon baffled many of her women fans by refusing to claim the term.

In an interview with The Guardian, Page put it succinctly:

How could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?

Page even went so far as to admit a problem with Juno, the movie in which she plays a pregnant teenager who decides not to have an abortion after a protestor tells her that the fetus has fingernails. The actor didn’t stop there: She laments the lack of films about women, says she’s writing her own feminist movie, and openly disses Hollywood for its sexism:

It’s constant! It’s how you’re treated, it’s how you’re looked at, how you’re expected to look in a photoshoot, it’s how you’re expected to shut up and not have an opinion … If you’re a girl and you don’t fit the very specific vision of what a girl should be, which is always from a man’s perspective, then you’re a little bit at a loss.

Toni Collette, whose new show Hostages premiers on CBS this fall, went off in an interview with Refinery 29 about the ways Hollywood enforces a narrow code of appropriate appearance and behavior:

Some of the characters I’ve played have not felt comfortable in themselves, and so there’s a physical counterpart to that. That’s what happens in life, you know? We do things to protect ourselves, to deny ourselves, or to present something we’re not, or to hide something we are. … Now, the media has other agendas: It’s not about reflecting humanity, it’s about dictatorship and being dogmatic in telling people how to dress, how to look, what to say, what to do with your life, how to spend your time, everything.

Collette’s embrace of the term feminist is new, but she no longer hesitates to call her philosophy what it is:

For years people would say to me, ‘You are [a feminist]! You are! You really are!’ And I’d say, ‘No, I’m not. I’m a humanist. I think it’s sexist to say I’m a feminist.’ Now, I see a great imbalance not only in my industry, but also in the world at large. I want to change it. … It needs to be varied and real.

Unfortunately, Susan Sarandon is still playing the humanist card. Despite being a frequent speaker on reproductive rights, Sarandon told The Guardian that she thinks “feminist” is “a bit of an old-fashioned word. It’s used more in a way to minimize you.” But unlike when Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Marissa Mayer declared their lack of allegiance to the sisterhood, Sarandon has suffered little backlash for her statement, a fact that Lizzie Crocker at The Daily Beast attributes to her longstanding and outspoken support for feminist causes.

No doubt for some, Sarandon’s activist cred warrants giving her a pass. But the response may also have been muted because, unlike Perry, Swift and Taylor, who stated categorically that they do not believe in feminism, Sarandon did not reject feminist beliefs, she simply said that she does not call herself a feminist. In fact in the same interview she intimated that she does “want everyone to have equal pay, equal rights, education and healthcare,” all of which are feminist ideals.

Whereas Swift rejected feminism because she thinks it’s a “guys versus girls thing,” Sarandon seems to understand both the philosophy of and need for feminism. She frames her rejection of the label as strategic: Feminist is a word that is used to dismiss women. She’s right, of course. The more progress feminists make in achieving parity, the harder opponents have to work to discredit them, and redefining feminist to mean man-hater has proven to be a very successful strategy.

What feminists disagree with Sarandon on is whether this foreswearing of the name constitutes a good strategy or not. Sarandon may very well be tired of having to justify her beliefs to haters—no doubt she’s had to do so many times. The constant demand that we defend ourselves is a big part of what has made some feminists so quick to take offense at anyone who rejects the term. But are we really at the point where we need to cede authority over the meaning of the word entirely?

Yes, feminism has taken on some negative connotations. But those connotations are not accurate; they’re the product of years of backlash. I don’t know a single feminist who sees what they do as “guys versus girls.” None of them have, as Melissa Mayer claimed, a chip on their shoulder. Most of them don’t even share the exact definition of feminism. What they do share is a conviction that action is needed in order to make our world a more peaceful and equitable place. Sarandon’s activism indicates that she shares this conviction, though she will only call herself a humanist.

Collette, on the other hand, recognizes an important distinction: Humanism is not really an alternative to feminism. Humanism is a cultural and educational philosophy that defines mankind as capable of betterment through study and reason. In this case, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet: Though there are various definitions of feminism, there really is no synonym, no other word that accurately describes our beliefs.

Perhaps Sarandon sees activism as something more appropriate to rallies and fundraisers than to Hollywood. That Page and Collette — women who have far more to risk from being openly political than the long-established Sarandon — are not afraid to call themselves feminist is heartening. That they are actively engaged in using their positions to change the equation in Hollywood is more than heartening. It’s inspiring.

Photo of Susan Sarandon at 2012 Toronto Film Festival by Flickr user Josh Jensen under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.