17/05/2012 03:30 BST | Updated 16/07/2012 06:12 BST

'I'm Not a Feminist': Feminism as a Dirty Word

Not long ago, I was startled to read a very negative view of feminists in an interview with hot English girl-group of the minute, Stooshe. I'd never heard of them before, but I'd picked up the latest issue of DIVA magazine and was skimming it when I saw that the women in Stooshe adamantly say they are not feminists.

They were quoted as saying, "We're not going out to say women rock and men are nothing compared to us." Apparently, that was their understanding of feminism. When interviewer Charlotte Andrews Richardson pushed them by asking, "Do you not think feminism can be about having fun? It doesn't necessarily mean being in opposition to men, it can just mean being empowered and confident women", the band responded by saying, "Then it won't be called feminism."

That left me momentarily befuddled. If feminism isn't about "being empowered and confident women", then what is it?

Frankly, the ladies in Stooshe are the befuddled ones. And a quick trawl through the internet informs me that they aren't the only ones.

Other recent celebrities to come out as being against feminism include Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker, Juliette Binoche, Bjork, and Demi Moore. Rather shocking, considering that most of these women wouldn't have had careers without, you know, that dirty concept they are quick to distance themselves from: feminism.

Is this just down to a lack of knowledge about history and about what we still need to fight for? I think it partly is that. Presumably some women such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Juliette Binoche feel that they can have their glamorous careers and exciting lives because things have moved on so much in society, and therefore women have all the rights they could possibly need.

Another issue is that people are unsure about what the term "feminist" actually means or they dislike some of the connotations that the word sometimes comes with. Stooshe believing that feminism was about saying "women rock and men are nothing" exemplifies that. Some of my students have told me that they won't say they're feminists because "it means you don't like men" or "that you don't shave your legs". This shows a lack of understanding about the definition of the word.

Then there's the issue of how some people choose not to identify as feminists because they feel that the feminist movement is too white, too middle-class, or in some other way lacking and/or characterised by traits they don't agree with. But what they don't seem to understand is that if you call yourself a feminist, you are not thereby co-opted into a larger group or movement.

Saying you believe in equal rights for all people is not the same thing as saying that you endorse all the views of all the feminists who have come before you. It's the same situation as if you vote for a political party because you believe it is the strongest choice, but don't necessarily believe in everything the party leader spouts. No group is homogenous; thus, feminism is not a homogenous movement, but this seems hard to understand.

But perhaps the largest issue here, I believe, is that successful, strong women don't want to be seen as just that. In their minds, calling themselves feminists would make them seem too successful and too strong; maybe they also worry about being considered man-haters or man-eaters. Some women seem to be concerned that if men feel challenged by women's successes, those men would be less likely to pick feminists as mates, or even to want to promote them or help them succeed. Stooshe, for example, sing explicitly about their desire to sleep with men (even the one lesbian in the group, Courtney Rumbold, jokes about "swallowing", though she then says she doesn't "do dick"), so they're making it clear that no matter how "empowered and confident" they might be, they still want to appeal to men.

Unfortunately, then, it seems that the women who are best placed to speak for the feminist movement's ideals - equal rights, the fair integration of women into all areas of society, etc - instead do the movement harm by stubbornly claiming no interest in it (not to mention no gratitude to it, despite owing their successes directly to it). By distancing themselves from the feminist movement, the message they are sending to young girls is, "I've succeeded, but I'm not going to do anything to help you succeed." That seems pretty anti-feminist to me.

Maybe some brave celebrity - male or female - will proudly take on the feminist label and will explain that being a feminist is, at its most basic, about being interested in equality. If "I'm a feminist" weren't such a dirty thing to say any more, that could help create a new generation of "empowered and confident" people.