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Shailene Woodley, Feminism, and the Leila Vaughn Problem

posted by Lucy V Morgan

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"I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance," Shailene Woodley, a twenty-two year old actress (and star of Divergent), told TIME magazine this week. "I don’t know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don’t even seem to respect each other. There’s so much jealousy, so much comparison and envy."

I write a lot about the culture of platonic female relationships.The underbelly of them, if you will. Leila Vaughn (of Breaking Leila), who saw success lead to her undoing at the hands of female colleagues, is one example of this. Every now and then, something crops up to remind me that beyond all our discussion of feminism, it's never going to gain the traction it needs if we're not able to confront the issues within female relationships that tend to hinder a call to arms.

Shailene Woodley is, in her own words, not a feminist--apparently because the idea of women aiming to be above men in the social hierarchy is distasteful and illogical to her. This is, of course, not what feminism is; feminism is the belief that women are equal to men, and are entitled to equal choice, opportunity and privilege. Woodley's assumed misinterpretation of feminist principle has caused uproar on Twitter and other social media outlets in the past twenty-four hours, and no doubt will continue to do so.

Do I wish that a person held up as a role model had a more uplifting or technically correct message to offer her audience? Yes. Absolutely. But let us take this opportunity to examine exactly what is going on here. Let's learn (if I can say that without sounding like a patronising toad).

We all do questionable stuff when we're young (some of my younger characters will certainly attest to this). We don't teach feminist principles or theory in schools (or at least, we don't here in Britain. Which is a damn shame), so I'm not entirely sure why we expect all young women to understand a fundamentally complex set of ideas. The media feeds young girls a steady diet of "girl power," a dumbed-down concept that sounds more like a call for supremacy than equality, and the fact that feminist literature is not readily available to all is a basic feminist problem in itself. But what is far more shocking to me than Woodley's unfortunate misinterpretation of feminist values is the amount of vitriol she has received....from women.

The response I've seen on Twitter is very sad. The cheap jokes, the looking-down-the-nose comments, the patronising tone of people's response to Woodley's quotes; it smacks of hierarchal coterie within feminism, which is intimidating and unpleasant. We're all entitled to our opinions, but there is a problem with feminism if some of those who seek to spread its message on social media are preaching one moment, and then bashing a young woman the next.

In Breaking Joseph, my female protagonist, Leila, states: "Women rule each other. They say that behind every great man, there's a great woman, and they may well be right, but behind that woman is a not-so-great one, bawling her eyes out. She's not crying because she didn't meet the man's standards; she's crying because the other woman made them too high." And she's not really talking about competing for men. She's talking about competing for success and opportunity. For privilege. Men are quite often gateways or lubricants to such things, right or wrong as that is; Woodley, a product of a similarly competitive environment, touches on similar subjects. None of this is to say that patriarchal society is absolved of any influence--of course it is there. But as a gender, we are sometimes blindly participating. And we must stop.

"I don’t know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don’t even seem to respect each other. There’s so much jealousy, so much comparison and envy," Woodley is quoted as saying. Men aside-- I want people to respect me, not genders--this whole debacle lies in the shadow of a great irony because Woodley is now the butt of many a woman's joke. We do indeed lack equality between our sexes, and countless injustices affect women every day that would not affect men, but this doesn't take away from the fact that sometimes, women are fucking horrible to each other. And this is a case in point. No, not everyone's response has been awful. Some have been understanding. But I have been troubled by the chorus of those who are not.

We're now talking to a whole new generation of young girls about feminism, but we're also just starting to emerge from an era where perfection is everything (see: every reality TV show made in the past ten years, the earlier and earlier sexualisation of young girls, and the increased acceptance of sex sold as commodity on television/the Internet. Then see increased career opportunities for women but without the safety net of Old Boys networks). This is an era where another woman is seen as competition--not for a man, but for success, in whatever form it may take. And success is, at its core, survival. This is primal stuff. To ignore it would be to do ourselves a grave injustice.

If feminism is off-putting to this generation of young women, and if it is misinterpreted by them as a result, we'd do well to ask ourselves why...and to stop proving their suspicions by taking the piss out of them. That would be a start.

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