POP CULTURE: How to read the feminist cultural explosion

beyonce feminist vma mtv gif queen bey feminism pop culture music queen

Over the past twelve months, feminism has undoubtedly joined the ranks of 3D movies and the Big Bang of social media as one of the motifs of the 21st century so far. Less than two years ago, the most famous women in the world were discouraged from uttering the dreaded F-word in interviews for fear of alienating a portion of their fanbase, particularly the male portion. After all, had the ultra-sexed up Katy Perry of 2010 declared herself a women’s rights activist, the image associated with that label would’ve been markedly uglier and less marketable.

In mid-2015, the women topping Maxim’s Hot 100 are the same women leading the charge for a potential fourth wave of feminism (or perhaps feminism 3.5) in this decade. Calling this a feminist victory is an overstatement if I ever saw one, but there is one undeniable conclusion to this phenomenon: feminism is suddenly sexy.

However, as we have all learnt from decades of cultural exploitation in the entertainment industry, sex does indeed sell and women’s rights has become a profitable market. While our moment in the spotlight is nothing to condemn, the art of marketing a famous face can often come at the price of authenticity. We need to make sure we are still in control of how feminism is being portrayed on the main stage. So how can you tell the difference between the degradation and belittlement of the feminist movement for financial gain and a real Rosie (the Riveter, of course)?

  • Who run the world?

While the stars are the ones who get awarded the public credit for the finished product, creating a public image is a process involving dozens of people with varying levels of control. Often, the person portrayed as being in charge is the one who has had the least say. Therefore, if the portrayal of the feminist celebrity is created by a team of predominantly men, does she lose her impact?

While I realise it is social media suicide to call in to question the authority of feminism’s current queen bee, Beyonce’s relationship with feminism is one worth looking at. Having been largely responsible for rendering the debate on gender equality relevant again in pop culture, she has cemented her status as the most powerful woman in the music industry. Behind the scenes, however, it can be argued that she fails to practice what she preaches. Working in an industry where only a reported 4% of Music Producers Guild members are female and the pay gap between men and women is wider than average (a 2010 Guardian article reported that 47% of women in the music industry earn less than £10,000 compared with 35% of men), her album credits often feature only one female credit in either song writing or producing – herself. Even her female empowerment hit “Run the World (Girls)” was written, recorded and mixed by a team of men.

Does Beyonce have a responsibility as a self-proclaimed feminist activist towards the women in her industry? And does the overwhelming male involvement in creating her image of female strength raise a question of control? Of course, Beyonce is not the only woman guilty of inconsistencies in her feminist image and alongside the likes of Emma Watson and Taylor Swift, she has used their fame and influence to propel the gender equality struggle in to the spotlight.

  • Who is it aimed at?

This is where the near-infamous concept of the ‘male gaze’ gets introduced. Though incessantly discussed when studying our popular media, it never gets old in a culture that is constantly breaking the boundaries of hyper-sexualisation when we thought that there was no more that could be done.

An article in VICE Media’s ‘Noisey’ magazine at the conclusion of 2014 suggested that the two big buzzwords of the year were ‘feminism’ and ‘booty’. In the same year that Jennifer Lopez released her music video for ‘I Luh Ya Papi’, a decidedly feminist parody on the sexual objectification of women in music videos, she released ‘Booty’, her aptly-named collaboration with Iggy Azalea.

The latter video features images of the two girls totally lathered in oil writhing their bottoms together as Lopez sings “You wanna touch her”. Some would call the video a proud statement of J.Lo and Iggy’s right to be sexual and proud of their bodies. However, the expression of sexuality in this video does not appear to be an affirmation of ownership by the pair, but rather a performance for the benefit of the heterosexual, male perspective.

The idea of ‘owning your sexuality’ and being openly proud of your body is a perfectly valid pursuit often used as a scapegoat by the PR teams of female celebrities seeking to benefit from both the popularity of feminism and the continually relevant objectification required to sell their product. On occasion, a female entertainer is capable of declaring authority over her sexuality and it can be quite a powerful moment in dismantling the disturbing underlying tones of sexual exploitation that taint our popular media. But it is important to recognise the distinction between ownership and objectification.

Assuming that feminism doesn’t fade in to distant memory as another old pop culture fad of the mid 2010s, the increasing cultural relevance of the movement inevitably exposes it to exploitation by marketing and PR teams which threaten the integrity of a movement designed to protect the fundamental rights of women. As consumers, it is vital we stay in control.


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