Last year I was reunited with one of my favourite feminists. I went to see the documentary The Punk Singer about musician Kathleen Hanna, the most famous face of the 1990s punk feminist scene known as Riot Grrrl. The film was incredibly moving, reminding me of Ms. Hanna's singular energy and power, as well as her unique ability to combine political commentary with joy, and silliness, and fun.
It also made me feel bad.
See, a few years ago, Ms. Hanna disappeared. She broke up the popular band Le Tigre, got married to a millionaire (the Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) and vanished. I read one teeny interview where she said something like "all I want to do right now is hang out with my amazing husband," and I was filled with disappointment. It seemed impossible that this loudmouthed, independent woman who had inspired me for decades was just another Bridezilla, but there it was. Or not, actually.
It turns out Ms. Hanna has Lyme disease. All the time I thought she was baking cupcakes, she was actually curled up in pain. In The Punk Singer, she looks physically ravaged, and it's obvious that her husband's love and care is what got her through. I was ashamed of ever doubting her.
Everybody is talking about famous feminists these days. Last week, it was the British actress Emma Watson (whose work I don't think I've seen), who made an impassioned speech for women's equality at the United Nations. There was disagreement as to whether she was as desirable a torchbearer as the American musician Beyoncé (whose work is inescapable), who recently stood in front of a backdrop bearing the all-caps declaration FEMINIST at the MTV Video Music Awards. There was also some fanfare about a new book by British comedian Caitlin Moran (whose work I've ignored since she made some moronic comments about race and representation in media), who's going to save all the world's girls, or something.
It's cool that these women want to make feminism part of their personal brand. Yes, women are people, and all people deserve a life without violence, with the opportunity to earn a fair wage, and maybe even a shot at personal fulfilment. The more of us that say that out loud, the better. But when any political movement becomes identified with an individual, there's a good chance that their personality, personal life or personal failings will obscure the important stuff.
It's not just celebrity feminists who don't sit well with me: I don't quite get how Angelina Jolie squares repping war-displaced refugees with making love to machine guns in a bunch of movies. It's also not just women who let me down (looking at you, Bob Marley, Gandhi and every man who pays lip service to equal rights while treating the women in his life like crap). Human beings are creative, courageous and full of exciting ideas. They're also contradictory and fallible. Making an important issue about a celebrity allows dissection of that celebrity to cast shade on the issue, whether that's fair or not. There are good reasons why many women of colour consider feminism a "white thing," and fangirling behind Ms. Moran doesn't help.
Sure, I'd rather that entertainers use their platforms to discuss climate change than monogrammed underwear. Overall, though, I'd like to move on from discussing those figures at all. I've been assured that Ms. Moran has seen the light and now believes that non-white women also deserve equality and respect. Great job, sweetie. But she's still selling something. Discussing her, or discussing Ms. Watson's post-Potter career, or even discussing Ms. Hanna's return to the stage is not a feminist exercise. Scoring tickets to Beyoncé concerts will never be as important as ensuring reproductive choice for women on Canada's east coast.
Which brings me to the type of feminist who will never be famous, because her work is just not glamorous. A few years ago, I interviewed the nurse in charge of the sexual assault program at Women's College Hospital in Toronto. She was perfect for her job, combining the gentleness needed to hold a victim's hand through a rape kit with the assertiveness it sometimes takes to get lawyers and police officers to do their jobs properly. I left wishing that one day I would be that wise and confident, that my work would be a fraction as important as hers.
I completely forget her name.