It's become impossible to talk about feminism without at least mentioning the three most visible women in American culture today: Kim Kardashian, who embodies sex and power, a new form of independence that courts controversy for seeming, to some, degrading. Taylor Swift, who embodies friendship and equanimity, the push to help other women and to be relentlessly positive above all else. And Hillary Clinton, who embodies ambition and career success and is judged for the exact lack of the others' traits: not being womanly enough, not being warm enough, not being "enough" enough.
Through all the praise and criticism of social and mainstream media, these women have come to represent the three distinct pillars of the feminist agenda—no overlap, no wiggle room, no gray area. You're either a Taylor or a Kim or a Hillary—you can't be all three, and they certainly can't either. (Or perhaps you're a Beyoncé, who arguably produces feminist art but whose personal politics we know next to nothing about).
Maybe feminism is still too new and too threatening to be portrayed as anything but cartoonishly simple, painted with broad strokes in black and white.
And how lame is that? That these archetypes—which Swift, Kardashian, and Clinton have been unwittingly cast in by our culture—leave no room for complexity or humanness? That we still have to fit a mold, even while breaking another one?
Taylor Swift has built an empire on being unapologetically girl-geared, which explains why she, more than her pop-star peers, has been elevated to the rank of feminist figurehead. Thanks to her squad and the anti-bullying messages in her music, she's been pigeonholed into a "virginal" role, one that has nothing to do with actual sex and everything to do with how she comes across: coy smiles, sweet makeup, sleepovers with her friends. She can get away with a lot, but, as she has noted, not with being seen with two men in the same week.
She's expected to be Female Empowerment: Squeaky-Clean Edition.
If Swift represents girl gangs and that lean-in group mentality of pushing other women forward with your own success, then Kardashian is about empowerment of the self over all else. Her brand of feminism is defined by a refusal to acknowledge or bend to the opinions of others: Kardashian posts nude selfies. Kardashian appropriates black culture. Kardashian oozes sex, demanding that you see her for her body just as much as her motherhood, if not more. She doesn't smile—she pouts, smolders, and poses. She walks with her impeccably dressed children in tow, looking you in the eye and daring you to challenge the validity of her unabashed love of her own body. Even her kids have a stare-down that would turn you to dust.
Then there's Hillary Clinton, who may not be the Original Feminist, but who, for a new generation, could be. She has stood proudly in those pantsuits for decades with a firm, calm demeanor that seems to say, "This is feminism, and it is work."
Clinton's feminism is tireless, in both appearance and effort. It isn't about fun or sex or self-empowerment so much as it is about the unyielding work of being a woman. Clinton's feminism isn't pretty. It doesn't cater to sexuality or safety in numbers. It is in many ways the most accurate indicator of what feminism feels like for many of us: a job.
Of course, none of these figures is as one-dimensional as their designated "characters" imply. But we've begun to compartmentalize feminism into separate categories rather than allow it—and the people inside it—breathing room.
Want proof? See what happens every time one of these women reveals themselves to be multi-dimensional: We attack.
When Kardashian had a baby, the world lost its mind over the provocative nude magazine cover that followed. Mothers can't be sex objects!
When Swift was shown (by none other than Kardashian) to be a smart, shrewd businesswoman concerned about—gasp!—her image, the world threw a #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty.
Watch literally any news network right now and see how Clinton's gender is relentlessly analyzed simply for existing. Her voice is too stern! She doesn't smile enough! Her demeanor is too masculine, but her body is too feminine and fragile—look, she just coughed!
Feminism in 2016 isn't inclusive, or empowering. It's divisive. It's like boxing with one hand tied behind your back, or playing poker with half a deck of cards. You can be yourself...as long as your self isn't contradictory to the acceptable types of women allowed in the world.
You can be a working mom as long as you don't talk about your sex life too loud. You can be a powerful leader but only if you don't threaten the men while you're at it.
The sad thing about our treatment of Clinton, Kardashian, and Swift is that they may collectively be some of the most multi-dimensional, talented, and successful women in recent history. They've created empires for themselves, broken records, and shattered ceilings. They're quite literally pioneers for our gender, and yet we still push them off into separate corners, swatting them back when they try to flex their muscles.
a record-selling machine who has revolutionized the music industry all while being the one of the most charitable celebrities in history a good girl who sings songs.
an iconic businesswoman who has mastered modern technology to create a billion-dollar brand out of nothing a reality star with a sex tape.
one of the single most experienced political candidates ever to run for presidential office a harsh-looking know-it-all.
There are, of course, countless other women who are redefining and challenging female roles in society today, women who are quite literally in the business of feminism: Laverne Cox, Roxane Gay, Ellen Page, Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche, and Malala Yousafzai all defy compartmentalization. But we don't give them a fraction of the attention that we give to Taylor Swift being seen in public with a man, or to Kim Kardashian taking a selfie with her clothes off.
It might be how we've gotten to the point where a man is running for president whose view of women is so unilateral and skin-deep that he uses sexual assault and menstruation and body-fat percentage as talking points.
Are we going to keep calling it an accident that he's made it this far, or are we going to start considering the fact that a large percentage of the country agrees with what he says? Are we going to consider that millions of people would prefer to have a possible sexual predator as president than a woman who comes off as "bitchy" for just being there in the first place?
The future is, as we know deep down in our feminist hearts, female—but only if we allow it to be.