As Other Actresses Dodge the "Feminist" Label, Taraji P. Henson Embraces It
Stars have an often tense relationship with the term "feminist." Even the actresses who advocate most for equity — the Meryl Streeps of the world — shy away from the label.
Both Streep and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard have gotten in ugly scrapes in the press in recent weeks trying to dodge being called a feminist. They're hardly the only ones: Shailene Woodley once proudly declared she wasn't a feminist. Kelly Clarkson did the same. These days, it's almost more common to see male stars hopping on the feminist bandwagon.
Luckily, there's one star who doesn't shy away from her feminism: Taraji P. Henson.
In an interview with the New York Post earlier this year, just as Empire was set to debut, Henson talked honestly about the idea of feminism. While she indicated some discomfort with the term, describing it as "militant," that didn't stop her from wearing the badge with pride.
"If a feminist means speaking up for the rights of females — then dammit, I'm a feminist," she said in the interview.
More than just talking the talk, Henson walks the walk in both her work and her life. Take her experience as a working single mom, which she discussed with Glamour last month.
"When I got pregnant in college, people said, 'This is it for her,'" she told Glamour. "But I did not stop. I never missed a class. I was in the school musical when I was six months pregnant — we just made the character pregnant." She took her child to Los Angeles with her and became an actress. She didn't let having a kid get in the way of achieving her dream.
In her work, Henson layers in feminist themes — and not easy ones, either. When she hosted Saturday Night Live in April, she participated in a parody of A League of Their Own, the 1992 film about a women's baseball team during World War II. In the sketch, she plays a woman who wants to join the team but is rejected because of her race.
"We already have the woman thing," one of the other players (Kate McKinnon) says. It's a pretty scathing take on white feminism. Yet that's where Henson excels: She's a defiant feminist in intersectional and complex ways.
Best exemplifying this is her work as Cookie Lyon on Empire. The Huffington Post called the feminism of Cookie "imperfect but important," emphasizing that those flaws are what make her vital.
"What makes Cookie a feminist hero are the complexities, contradictions and weaknesses that we don't give much attention when praising her," writer Zeba Blay said. "We need more human portrayals of women on TV, always. What good is a badass if she can't be flawed?"
It's not just Cookie who's complex — Henson is too. She's also the woman who petitioned for friend and domestic abuser Terrence Howard to be cast on Empire. That fact can be hard to reconcile with the tough, feminist image she otherwise projects. That's a good thing, however: A feminist is not broad declarations of female empowerment; she is a complete human.
That's what makes Henson's embrace of the "feminist" label so comforting. In a time when so many actors are scared of subscribing to feminism, she owns and loves who she is. Judge her at your own risk.