Why Do We Shame Outspoken Female Celebrities?

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Demi Lovato isn't afraid to speak her mind. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen)
Demi Lovato isn’t afraid to speak her mind. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen)

Demi Lovato is no stranger to having something she says make headlines, but her recent comments to Glamour magazine seemed to cause more derision than usual. True, she ventured into troubled waters by mentioning Taylor Swift (and Lovato’s feeling that Swift, in part, exemplifies fake feminism), pointing out squad biases, and calling out attacks on fellow songstress Katy Perry. But it’s not off-brand for Lovato, who routinely speaks out about women’s issues and inequality. So why is she getting so much heat for speaking her mind?

“Demi is young, and she’s pretty, and she’s expected to be a pop culture princess,” Candace W. Burton, an assistant professor of nursing science and a women’s gender and health scholar at the University of California, Irvine, tells Yahoo Celebrity. “And, for the record, I don’t disagree with her comments about Taylor Swift. But I think the backlash has to do with [Demi’s] being younger and she’s being seen as too outspoken, too cynical, and too opinionated. This is part of our cultural DNA around what youth is like. People tell you don’t get tied down, these are the best years of your life, don’t commit to anything because you might change your mind. … That’s feeding into why she’s being attacked — because she’s young and being clear about what she thinks.”

Of course, Lovato isn’t the only female celebrity to share her strong opinion on issues she’s passionate about — and she’s not the only one to be attacked for it, either. Girls showrunner and star Lena Dunham is very outspoken on women’s issues and routinely bares her body as a way of attempting to break the ideal of the perfect female body. And she faces a barrage of hate for doing so.

Body shaming: Lena Dunham and her "Girls" co-star Jemima Kirke starred in an untouched lingerie ad campaign to promote body positivity.
Lena Dunham and her Girls co-star Jemima Kirke starred in an untouched lingerie ad campaign to promote body positivity. (Photo: Lonely Lingerie)

Amy Schumer is also routinely lashed for discussing issues surrounding body image and trying to change the narrative around what a “normal” woman’s body looks like. In May, she addressed the most vitriolic of her body shaming trolls — who pepper her Instagram feed with comments like “Fatty,” “oink oink,” and “My eyes are bleeding” — with an Instagram post accompanying a picture of herself in a bathing suit, proudly proclaiming herself “strong and healthy.”

This response prompted E! Online to ask the question, “Did Amy Schumer go too far on Instagram?” because she decided to address her critics directly.

But it’s not just body positivity and feminism that bring out the trolls making terrible comments. It’s passion of any kind expressed by a female celebrity. In August, Schumer retweeted a comment from a gun control group called Everytown. It praised her for talking about her part in the movement, which she’s been deeply involved in after a shooting at a screening of Trainwreck in Lafayette, La., killed two women and injured several others. Schumer’s Twitter feed was then host to responses like these:

Meanwhile, Madonna — one of the queens of outspokenness and barrier breaking — has more often than not been on the sharp end of vitriolic criticism for the things she’s said about gender, religion, and more over the decades. While she may have mellowed in recent years, what she says and does is still met with hearty backlash — even if her comments are innocuous by today’s standards.

It seems like it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is: If you’re a woman in the public eye and willing to take a stand, it’s grounds for attack. It’s an issue Kelly Osbourne talked about with Yahoo Celebrity last year. “I have a foul mouth, and my mouth gets me in trouble all the time, even though I have the most beautiful intentions. Because it’s not what people want to hear, it gets misconstrued,” she explained. “Have you ever noticed how everyone just stands there and smiles in a really cute dress? And, I’m sorry, I’m not that person.”

Kelly Osbourne is more than just a pretty face.
Kelly Osbourne is more than just a pretty face. (Photo: Alison Buck/Getty Images)

But is it really as simple as chalking it up to men versus women and what we’re willing to hear from the latter? Are we really still so backward that female celebrities should be attacked for saying how they feel just because of their gender?

“It’s still considered the norm that women do not have opinions,” says Burton. “Even in this country, women were prohibited from being educated until very recently — and there are some countries where women are still prohibited from being educated. So the very idea that a woman might be seen and heard is contrary to this culture we still live with. We still exist in a culture where we focus on different things when it comes to women. Look at the presidential campaign. Articles about [Clinton] are about her clothes and voice and smile, but articles about Trump are about his positions on things and what he does in business. So there’s a stark contrast in expectation of what men do and what women do.”

Related: Kelly Osbourne Isn’t Going to Stop Saying What She Thinks

And that contrast is creating long-term damage to female fans who routinely see their heroines torn down for speaking their mind.

“Shaming [an] outspoken female [celebrity] helps keep the patriarchy in control,” explains Lauren Costine, a founding member of BLVD Treatment Centers and an adjunct faculty member at Antioch University. “It confuses her fans about their true feelings about the celebrity and plants doubt about her intelligence, credentials, and the validity of her messages. It also says that strong women will be demonized and degraded for being strong and intelligent. Unfortunately, it also teaches her young female fans that it is still dangerous to stand in one’s power, speak one’s truth and stand up to our dominant culture.”

Costine points out that when a female celebrity is shamed or attacked for speaking her mind, it adds to the trauma that we all share from growing up in a culture of disempowerment, which keeps women from living as their true, authentic selves.

It’s also an issue that affects men of all ages. As Costine puts it, “This behavior teaches men that women are inferior and that they’re objects. They’re to be used and objectified — they’re not human beings. … Women and men have been taught this about women for thousands of years. This behavior just continues that message.”

Of course, that’s not to say that female celebrities haven’t said or done questionable things that deserve some scrutiny — especially if that scrutiny results in an open dialogue that can change a cultural narrative. For example, Schumer’s feet were held to the fire when one of the writers on her show, Kurt Metzger, was branded a rape apologist. Dunham was taken to task for comments she made about sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr. at the Met Gala, resulting in her apology and a discussion about unconscious cultural and racial bias. Similarly, Madonna was berated for using a racial epithet to describe her son, and while she initially wasn’t quick to apologize, eventually she did.

It’s important to have checks and balances in discussing what our public figures do and say, but according to Paul Hokemeyer, a family and marriage therapist and certified clinical trauma professional, even though we shame male celebrities for saying terrible things, there’s still an imbalance in how we treat them versus how we treat women.

“It’s because of the difference between male and female,” he says. “Women are still seen as accessories to men, whereas men are strong and courageous. These are the archetypes. On the one hand, we’re pleased that they show that they have an opinion and a voice, yet if they say something that doesn’t sit with us, we push back, but we don’t push back as far as we would if that person is female.”

Hokemeyer considers himself a huge fan of Lovato’s, particularly for how she’s expressed herself. (“I think she’s come clean and stood up for her humanness, her eating disorder, behavior health issues, and has spoken about things that are uncomfortable to talk about — she’s incredibly brave.”) And while he feels part of the issue is Lovato’s stepping outside her perceived Disney-star cage, angering people who expect her to be something she isn’t, he also feels there’s a bigger issue at play.

“It’s the pervasiveness of male dominance in our society and the subordination of anything female,” he says. “The primary subordination is of women who speak their mind, are intelligent, have an opinion, and threaten the male power structure. And that threat makes people angry. And the anger gets projected out in overtly hostile ways, and sometimes subtle ways. There’s a lot of internalized misogyny toward women.”

So how do we change the narrative and become more supportive of female celebrities who say things that challenge our reality? Hokemeyer thinks having a woman president will help, along with women banding together to help one another. Costine suggests more conversations around this behavior are necessary, as is a larger discussion of what she describes as “the dominant culture and the misogyny that is endemic throughout the world.”

And maybe the most important part? Female celebs continuing to be brave and speaking out about what they believe in. As Osborne once said, “You wanna know what? It makes me fight even harder so that people can see what’s really going on in the world and open their eyes. And if I can make a difference in one person’s life, that means more to me and I will take the f***ing barrage of hate and death threats and f***ing social media abuse because that doesn’t mean anything in the real world. It doesn’t. Sensationalizing and characterizing and labelizing will only ever kill you. All you can be is who you are.”

Or maybe, more succinctly, as Schumer put it: “From now on everyone only make nice comments! #coolideaaim.”

Preach, ladies. Preach.