What’s a feminist?

The hoopla surrounding the recent launch of the movie “Barbie” has me thinking about what it means to be a feminist. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margo Robbie, I know it has to have some kind of subversive element to it – but then there is just all that pink! I’ll be heading to see it as soon as it gets to my independent movie theatre, hoping the excitement will have died down by then and I won’t be surrounded by people sporting Barbie and Ken attire.

In the meantime, I was reminded of Kendal Kay, who I first read about a couple of months ago.

Kay is a 25-year-old white woman whose physical appearance is Hollywood beautiful. She has made the phrase “stay-at-home girlfriend” popular; having promoted herself to this status from that of “influencer,” by moving in with a wealthy boyfriend who doesn’t expect her to contribute financially to their relationship or living expenses.

In Kay’s words, the phrase stay-at-home girlfriend:

“comes from the term ‘stay at home mom,’ and it means you take on the role that a stay-at-home mom would but without the kids. You don’t work, you have a lot less responsibility than a mom has, but you have the luxuries she would – freedom, and all that.”

Obviously, Kay has never raised children. Few of us who have would think of the times we were at home with young children as offering us the luxury of “freedom, and all that.” In fact, many of us felt we got our freedom back when we returned to the paid workforce: hours every day when we were not subject to the sticky fingers and constant questions of our kids and did not have to resolve disputes or dry their tears.

Apparently, it’s not enough for Kay to insult the realities of being a stay-at-home mom; she wants to claim status as a feminist, too:

“Feminism is about freedom of choice and I’ve chosen this life, just as I could choose to live any other life. Each woman has a different goal in how she wants to live her life. We should be able to pursue whatever that is.”

Is this what we’ve been fighting for?

Kay is right to a point. There has never been just one way to be a feminist. Choice is an important component of feminism. Many folks can legitimately claim to be feminists, despite wide differences in beliefs, opinions and life choices. However, this does not mean that everyone is a feminist, regardless of the values and principles they hold.

There are many things about Kay’s narrative of herself that offend me, but I think it’s mostly that her main focus in life seems to be herself. A typical day for her rolls out like this:

“Kendal Kay woke without an alarm and went outside to meditate in the sunshine on her balcony, She made herself breakfast . . . did her morning skin care routine of several serums, an LED mask and ice rolling, followed by a Pilates workout . . .”

She writes:

“I think the biggest benefit to my lifestyle is having the freedom to really take care of myself and to choose how I want my life to look. . . . For example, this week I have been recovering from a cold and was able to just completely take care of myself and take it so easy. I really prioritize my wellbeing and my peace, so I try not to over-schedule myself, but I always make sure to work out everyday.”

Kay may claim to be a feminist, but she seems oblivious to the fact that her lifestyle is one that is not even imaginable to most women: those who are un- or unsafely housed, who don’t have a sun-filled balcony for meditating or enough money to put food on the table, let alone to buy skin serums, who have precarious jobs with no sick time to take it easy when they have a cold or who are parenting children on their own and don’t have time for daily workouts.

Surely this is not a feminist understanding of choice, whatever Kay may say about herself.

Which women?

Critics of Kay, and there are plenty, note that her flip comments about staying at home do not do justice to the real work of running a household, especially because she isn’t caring for children.

Alison Phipps, a sociologist at Newcastle University notes for the Toronto Star:

“Which women are able to opt out of work and stay at home? And which women can present this as a feminist decision? It seems clear to me that the ‘stay at home girlfriend’ tends to be young, thin, white, heterosexual and upper-middle or upper class. It also seems clear to me that if a woman of colour and/or a working-class woman did this, she would be called a scrounger or a gold-digger.”

No matter how much I embrace the concept of choice as critical to feminism, I’m not ready to call Kay a feminist. I’ll get back to you about Barbie in a few weeks.

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