What we can learn from “pop feminism”

I have a collection of sweatshirts adorned with feminist logos ranging from “Mermaids Against Misogyny” to “The Future Is Female.” I have Lady Gaga’s “‘Til It Happens to You” at the top of my “Most Played Songs” list on Spotify. I even tried to follow in Alicia Keys’s footsteps by going makeup free this fall.

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m an avid consumer of pop feminism, and I’m not ashamed — because despite all of its flaws, pop feminism isn’t all that bad.

Whether we like it or not, pop culture shapes the way we think about and interpret the world around us.

Just listen to Janet Mock’s analysis of pop culture. It influences our beliefs, our expectations, and even our actions in profound ways we don’t always recognize. Music, television, movies, magazines, blogs, comics, art, video games — they have always had a huge impact on those who interact with them, and now that pop culture has become an inescapable part of everyday American life, it has more power over us than ever.

All too often, the pop culture we’re exposed to has a narrow view of what womanhood is or should be. Music videos use the female body as a prop to boost sex appeal, sitcoms rely on the sexless mother trope for comedic relief, and even the most progressive movies rarely pass the now-famous Bechdel test.

Not only do women have to deal with sexism at work, in relationships, and as a part of their regular interactions with strangers and loved ones, but they're also forced to endure it on screen, on the radio, and on the billboards that permeate their everyday lives.

Being a woman has always been hard, and for so long, pop culture hasn’t made it any easier. Over the last five years, though, the explosion of positive feminist messaging in pop culture has hinted that there’s a change in the winds. From Beyoncé’s iconic 2014 VMA performance where she proudly stood in front of a screen that boldly declared her a “FEMINIST,” to the reboot of Ghostbusters featuring an all-female cast, to the numerous celebrities speaking up about the Women’s March and the Women’s Strike, feminism has gone from a dirty word whispered on all-girls college campuses to a label everyone from Zendaya to Emma Watson is publicly claiming.

It seems like, after almost 170 years, feminism is finally cool.

While feminism has been a part of pop culture for almost as long as the movement has been around, its representation in media, movies, music, and more has so often been negatively skewed. In decades past, feminists were branded as hairy-legged, bra-burning, man-hating killjoys whose goals included ridding the world of men and turning the entire female population into lesbians.

These negative and wildly inaccurate stereotypes portrayed in pop culture worked to turn people, even women, away from the movement and towards the status quo. But through the years, as the movement has morphed and changed into its current form, the image of feminism itself as portrayed in pop culture has transformed alongside it.

Today, being a feminist doesn’t seem progressive or subversive, but rather on trend.

From the popularization of “relatable” Hollywood stars like the hilariously candid Mindy Kaling, to Matt McGorry’s social media campaign promoting male feminism, to Emma Watson’s #HeForShe initiative, feminism is everywhere you look — especially when you look at pop culture. And I for one am not complaining.

The way I see it, pop feminism is helping the crucial fight for women’s rights to become a part of everyday conversation


Instead of being an academic field of study or an obscure idea discussed only by politicians and activists, feminism has become an accessible form of women’s rights advocacy that everyday people are regularly exposed to. Whether it’s in the form of an article that pops up on your social media newsfeed about Emmy Rossum’s equal pay demands,  or a powerful acceptance speech from Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, or powerful lyrics about Black womanhood from Beyoncé’s Lemonade,feminism has sunk its long claws into numerous aspects of pop culture, and refuses to let go.

Because of it’s ever-present reach, pop feminism has helped expand the community of women and men who want to support equal rights.


It isn’t always easy to find like-minded people when you aren’t sure where to look, but pop feminism makes it easy to spot someone who thinks and believes in the same things as you do. The extension of feminism from the academic world into the pop culture one has opened up the floodgates . It has allowed individuals to not only find a community of people with similar ideals, but invited them to join in.

And while pop feminism doesn’t require direct action from its participants and consumers, it does provide an easy avenue to activism for those interested in getting involved.

Pop feminism may not solve the world’s gender equality issues, but it does invite those who engage with it to try. From celebrities who try and recruit their fans to join the cause through action, volunteerism, or donations, to the films and TV shows that point viewers in the direction of real life activist groups — pop feminism may not be the best tool for dismantling the patriarchy, but it does expose people to the right ones for getting the job done.

Most importantly, though, pop feminism makes women’s equality impossible to ignore.

When your social media is filled with body positive hashtags, when your weekday television line-up features outstanding female stars, when your radio plays song after song of female empowerment, feminism becomes too loud, too bold, too in-your-face to ignore. Pop culture is a common language that we all share, and because of the infusion of feminism into it, the fight for women’s right is becoming a part of that everyday language.

 There’s no denying that pop feminism has its flaws.

With the ultra-hipness of the movement constantly growing, critics worry that the effectiveness of it is actually shrinking. Modern “feminists” who cling to the ideals they see portrayed in pop culture may buy Beyoncé’s Lemonade  album, but what are the chances they will volunteer for an activist group near them? Pop feminists wear pins proclaiming their desire to dismantle the patriarchy, but how many of them are actually organizing to do so? And while pop feminism has made the movement a part of everyday conversation, the kind of feminism it promotes has a limited scope that has the disgraceful tendency to disclude diverse voices, including people of color, the LGBTQ community, and individuals with disabilities.

Pop feminism isn’t perfect, but it is powerful.

And, one song, one TV show, one movie at a time, it’s a step towards progress, and a future where women’s rights are truly held equal to human rights.