Who could forget Hilary Clinton's girl squad during the 2016 US elections? Along with other celebrity endorsements, Clinton was backed by unprecedented numbers of high profile women. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga performed at her rallies, Meryl Streep and Sarah Silverman gave emotional speeches in support at the Democratic National Convention, Amy Schumer’s adoringly crashed of Clinton’s interview on Ellen and Lena Dunham went full throttle on the campaign trail, to name just a few. And then there were the tweets: #ImWithHer could hardly have been more explicit.
The overwhelming support from these celebrities often had a #girlpower theme, praising her policies for women and minorities. Why might a feminist want to endorse a political party? Issues such as abortion, pay, pregnancy, poverty and domestic violence all affect women. Nothing similar has ever occurred in tightlipped Britain (although I think we're all holding out hope for an #ImWithCorbs rally ft. Victoria Beckham and Rita Ora). In the run-up to this UK general election, feminist endorsements of leaders or parties have never seemed so fantastical an idea.
In the same month that Ariana Grande shared a picture of her and Bernie Sanders, Labour supporters in the UK were pleasantly shocked by Dua Lipa coming out firmly in support of Labour. The safer option this election has been encouraging young people to register to vote, and many have not even done that. From the activist-slash-authors with empowerment books to the actors that joined equal pay campaigns for women, they are suddenly silent now it’s election season.
VICE emailed the press or management teams of 15 of the most vocal British feminist singers, actors, authors, YouTubers and activists to enquire into whether they would be endorsing a political party ahead of the election. Notably, many of the issues that are part of their public work – the same issues that have made them widely celebrated – are covered in the manifestos of various parties.
Answers ranged from “I doubt it!” to “I don’t know at all if she is voting to be honest and [she’s] traveling all next week”, while the majority said their client declined to speak. A few PRs pointed VICE to social media posts where the client had reminded their followers to register to vote. One PR sent over an old post where the client had encouraged followers to vote Labour in the 2017 election – a gesture that is especially telling.
In the last few years, feminism has become increasingly intertwined with capitalism. Brands have such a tight grip on feminism now – and working culture at large – that people have shut down around politics. Brand partnerships are ever more vital to a high-profile woman's career. It is now normal for individual people to operate as a sentient brand – and that means not aligning themselves with a particular party.
One PR to major label pop stars told me that music is so dominated by brands and that those brands carry serious weight. “Brands don’t want to split their potential consumership any more than an artist wants to. If an artist is connected with politics, it’s not a good look for the brand. People might look at the brand as a Tory brand or a Labour brand.”
Brands aside, a fanbase is a microcosm of a country, with its many views and perspectives. Artists and their teams understand that endorsing a political view means losing out. “Any strong opinion will divide your purse – you may gain new followers because of it, but you’ll never keep the same ones,” they said. “It’s just easier and more profitable to keep quiet.”
This extends outside of pop stars to feminist public figures of all kinds. On the condition of anonymity, the head of branded at a large youth branded content agency told VICE, “Brands want to be cool and culturally relevant, but will always do that in the least risky ways.”
They go on to explain that during the process of picking hosts, talent or models for projects, they put forward options and the brand will go through their social media accounts and pick. “Often they will pick the 'safest' options, but without having to necessarily justify why they picked those people. It’s all in the interest of brand safety.” This is often with regards to drugs or illegal activity but is likely to include any kind of political leaning.
Hannah Witton is a famous British YouTuber who vlogs about sex and sexual health. She told VICE that she voted Labour in the 2017 election. She also said that she wasn't going to share who she would vote for ahead of election day, but stressed that she isn’t voting Conservative or Brexit Party.
“I don't like the idea of being associated with a particular political party though because truth be told in the three general elections I've voted in, I've voted for a different party every time,” she says. "Some influencers online don't ever touch politics as a subject which I think is a real shame. Some brand partnerships could potentially be holding some people back from speaking about who they’re voting for, but maybe more specifically their own personal brand is what is preventing them.”
If feminists have to keep their personal brand safe and being unsafe involves talking politics, then where does that leave a political movement like feminism? These same people's brands involve being "outspoken" about identity politics without ever translating it into solid politics. When it comes to investing in solid change for identity-based issues – race, LGBTQ rights and especially, in this case, gender – backing a party that has policies that are greatly beneficial for other women and those less fortunate could be one of their most powerful pieces of activism. The cognitive dissonance of these women in the public eye may be a turning point in liberal feminism.
But maybe not. As one head of sales at a youth media agency told VICE: “It’s that old saying… There are still two things you don’t talk about at a dinner party or branded campaign: religion and politics."