Evangeline Lilly and Cultural Anxiety with “Feminism”

by Holly Trantham

A few days ago, HuffPo Entertainment posted an interview with Evangeline Lilly from the premiere of the third and last Hobbit installment. She has a lot of nice words about working with Peter Jackson and being fortunately typecast in kick-ass female roles. She spoke of wanting to continue filling roles in which her characters are “strong because of their compassion, they’re strong because of their vulnerability, they’re strong because of their emotion and they’re strong in spite of their fear.” She mentions getting heavily involved in the creative process when she’s working on films, because even male filmmakers who have the good sense to write a strong female character need help; most “don’t know what female strength looks like.”

So why, then, does she seem to have such a problem with the word “feminism”? She seems to have some perplexing thoughts about it:

I’m very proud of being a woman, and as a woman, I don’t even like the word feminism because when I hear that word, I associate it with women trying to pretend to be men, and I’m not interested in trying to pretend to be a man. I don’t want to embrace manhood, I want to embrace my womanhood.

I have a hard time understanding why someone’s definition of feminism would include mainly the idea of women pretending to be men, as if her only understanding of the movement comes from images of second-wave era bra-burning that might not have even happened. I reject her perception of feminism for a number of reasons, but I’ll only go into a few here.


First of all, “feminine” is literally part of the word. How can a movement whose namesake stems from the same roots as a word meaning “characteristic of women” reject femininity/womanhood?

Second, no matter what we hold to be our own personal definitions of feminism, the whole point of it is creating a culture of equality. That means that you can act as womanly or un-womanly as you please and you would still be equal to those presented as traditionally masculine. Those “strong” female characteristics that Lilly speaks of? I applaud those, and I certainly think that feminism encompasses those qualities—vulnerability, compassion, etc.—that may have historically been viewed as weak. But while the feminist movement seeks to bring more power to these traditionally feminine characteristics and simultaneously highlight the harm in constantly praising aspects of traditional masculinity, it also recognizes that all women do not inherently conform to these characteristics of “womanhood,” nor should they have to. Feminism recognizes that gender is imposed by society, and as a result it rejects the idea that there are specific qualities that adhere to every person who identifies as a specific gender.

The whole point of feminism is that (in regards to our appearance and our values and our characteristics) we are allowed to have preferences and despite whatever those preferences are we are met with equality. 

I would like to point out that, in this article, Lilly never says she’s not a feminist. She appears to lead a fulfilling life and I’m sure would happily thank the many awesome feminist activists who came before her and made her career trajectory a possibility. I’m so glad she wants to continue performing and creating these characters that are strong because of their feminine qualities, because those are the kinds of characters I personally relate to and always want to see more of. I just wish she would recognize the full capacity of feminism and what it really means.

Lilly is just one in a long line of female entertainers who seem to have the wrong idea about feminism; Shailene Woodley, Katy Perry, even Lady Gaga have all at one point or another identified themselves as explicitly not feminists, yet all have benefited specifically because of feminism. This points to a problem with the larger cultural understanding of the word, and we as a whole need to make ourselves more educated on the subject. I don’t think it’s fair or productive to berate those in the public eye when they are misguided though well meaning, but I think these moments are important to discuss and, if possible, to correct. If only every female celebrity could make like Queen Bey and sample the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Dare to dream, I guess.

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