Feminism in Pop Culture: the Good, the Bad, and the Topless

It’s undeniable that women have come a long way in society. From gaining the right to vote in 1920 to holding honorable positions in politics and media, women have been empowering symbols for the new generation. But with every accomplishment comes criticism; the idea of feminism and the feminist movement have been a hot topic in popular culture for quite some time. With the gradual deterioration of typical gender roles in the homes of America, it appears as though women are taking a giant leap for humanity. However, the debate still continues if women should really go against the grain of what was once normal. Whether it be in music, television, or through campaigning, feminism still remains a touchy subject. 

Beyonce, a known feminist in the music industry, has shed some positive light on women and feminism through her track Run the World (Girls) from her album 4. The song itself is a feminist anthem which goes against what women used to represent in society. Some of the lyrics are as follows:

I’m repping for the girls who taking over the world help me raise a glass for the college grads […] I work my 9 to 5, better cut my check
This goes out to all the women getting it in you’re on your grind
To other men that respect what I do please accept my shine
Boy you know you love it how we’re smart enough to make these millions
Strong enough to bear the children then get back to business.

The rest of the song consists of a chorus of “who run the world? (Girls)” repeated multiple times, but the main idea of the song is to reflect on how far women have come in society. From being typical housewives with limited education and rights, to holding positions of power and college degrees, Ms. Knowles is giving women the support they deserve to embrace themselves and their accomplishments all in hopes to inspire other women to take a stand against the still present inequality. With the line “strong enough to bear the children then get back to business,” Beyonce is telling women and men alike that yes, women are strong enough to endure the pains of pregnancy and childbirth, but they are even stronger to get back to their careers afterwards and still make a living, rather than being tied down to the household.

Beyonce performing "***Flawless" in concert
Beyonce performing “***Flawless” in concert

In recent years with the release of her self-titled album Beyonce, Beyonce gave the world yet another feminist anthem with ***Flawless, which features audio of a speech from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The monologue is on the lengthy side, but to paraphrase, Adichie expresses her concern on the fact that society still portrays negative body images to girls, while also pressuring them to marry. According to Adichie, the media also tells girls to focus their attention on receiving affection from a man, rather than aspiring to be successful in the workforce. The monologue ends with, “feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” The most important part of that quotation is “equality of the sexes.” A common misconception of feminism is that it is a men hating movement. Women have been discriminated for decades, and the feminist movement isn’t about putting men down: it’s about putting women on the same social, political, and economic level. The remainder of the song, much like Who Run the World (Girls), contains a repeated line of “I woke up like this, flawless.” And while most women would kill to wake up looking like Beyonce, most of us wake up with drool on the pillow and smudged mascara from the night before. In this song, Beyonce, again, wants to empower women to not focus on their flaws, but focus on what makes them flawless.

While many women in pop culture are empowering women to take a stand and break the mold, some are going against that notion. In a recent interview with Redbook, “The Big Bang Theory” actress Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting found herself in hot water after claiming she is “not a feminist.” She was hit with harsh backlash after she was quoted as saying:

I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality…I know it sounds old-fashioned, but I like the idea of women taking care of their men. I’m so in control of my work that I like coming home and serving him. My mom was like that, so I think it kind of rubbed off.

Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting Redbook
Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting Redbook cover

Many on social network sites called her words “disappointing” and shamed her for her comments. Others, however, debated that what she said does not “make her any less of a woman,” but rather just makes her “a good wife to her husband” and chooses to live that lifestyle. While many said that every woman has their own way of caring for their husband, others were still bothered by her words. The comment Kaley made of how she “never really faced inequality” could bring race into the picture, as well, adding a whole separate debate.

Cuoco-Sweeting then attempted to clean up the mess she made by taking to her Instagram page to apologize “if anyone was offended.” She said that her comments were “taken out of context” and went on to praise the women that have “paved the way” for her own success and many other women, even if their ideas are different from her own. This situation shows that the idea of feminism and women empowerment is still an on-going issue. Even though women in society have made tremendous progress, this interview opened many eyes and showed that women still have a long way to go before full equality is reached.

Women everywhere, not just in the public eye, are taking a stand against inequality and exposing more than just support for female empowerment. The “Free The Nipple” campaign is a current film and feminist movement to put an end to female censorship.

Free The Nipple poster

According to the Free The Nipple website, “in the USA, it is effectively illegal for a women to be topless, breastfeeding included, in 35 states…an exposed nipple can take a women to jail for up to three years and cost $2,500 in fines.” Some may call this social acceptability while others may call it sexist inequality. Regardless, Free The Nipple is gaining popularity through celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, who often shows support for the film and campaign on her Instagram page. The film itself is inspired by true events and follows a group of women who roam the streets of NYC topless, all while committing attention-getting stunts, such as graffitiing walls. The film puts everything into perspective, asking “what is more obscene: violence or a nipple?” The right for a woman to breastfeed in public and more “balanced” censorship is what the campaign is asking for, and appears to be empowering women across the globe.

Another campaign that has gained an overwhelming amount of media attention is the video “F Bombs for Feminism” from the organization FCKH8. FCKH8 is an over-the-top-in-your-face organization that deals with topics of gay rights, domestic violence, and in their recent ad, feminism. The video consists of young girls who could use a mouth full of all the soap in the world. Dressed in princess fairy outfits, these young girls seem like your every day children, until the open their mouths.

Still from FCKH8 video
Still from FCKH8 video

The video was aiming for shock value, and they definitely achieved it by having 6 to 8 year olds curse repeatedly, all in the name of feminism and equal rights for all. T-shirts supporting the non-profit organization display the words “Girls Just Wanna Have FUN-damental Rights,” but many have criticized the ad for subjecting such young girls to adult language. However, much like the Free The Nipple campaign, FCKH8 just wants to put everything into perspective. Those at FCKH8 fire back at the words they have received by saying, “What’s more offensive? A little girl saying f***, or the sexist way society treats girls and women?” Although the video has gotten countless amounts of hate, the organization has basically said, “FCK it.” 

The world of literature and cinema have also taken a stab at what feminism really means with the “Cool Girl” speech from the book to movie franchise “Gone Girl.” This speech tackles the question, “what do men really want in a woman?” Being a “cool girl,” as defined by this speech, is a girl that is a walking contradiction. Gillian Flynn, author, writes:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.

Promotional picture for "Gone Girl"

With ideas such as this planted into the minds of girls everywhere, it makes the think that they can actually achieve this male desired persona, that is ultimately unreachable. Flynn also writes that men always want a “strong woman” when, in the grand scheme of things, is altered drastically when a woman calls herself just that. Flynn writes that when a woman describes herself as “a strong woman” is gets misconstrued into “I hate strong women.”

So, with feminism still being an unresolved topic in the media and society, do women still have the option of living an “old fashioned” lifestyle with outdated gender roles, or are the current movements and songs we hear today granting women the opportunity to make a change? Many famous women such as Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood have strayed away from using the term “feminist” because they believe it comes off “too strong” or may have a “negative connotation.” Since when did fighting for gender equality turn into a bad thing? Many have been brainwashed in a sense to believe that feminism is something to stay away from. Unfortunately, in many cases, feminists are viewed as those who hate men and even hate women who look a certain way. The opposite can be seen in many cases; one of which being HeForShe, a feminist organization which encourages men to fight for gender equality, as well.

In the end, we are all humans; when did it become the norm for one group of humans to discriminate another group of humans based solely on their genitalia? When did the image of feminism turn from an equality-driven, strongly supported movement, to somewhat of a taboo? Has feminism taken a turn for the worse, or are these words just adding fuel to the feminist fire?

Work Cited

“***Flawless – Beyoncé Feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.” – Google Play Music. Web. 6 Jan. 2015. <https://play.google.com/music/preview/T26gadjywx5t2zmbvt7jmgiyo2a?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&u=0#>.

“Beyonce Knowles.” – Girls Who Run The World Lyrics. Web. 6 Jan. 2015. <http://www.metrolyrics.com/girls-who-run-the-world-lyrics-beyonce-knowles.html>.

Puente, Maria. “Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting Apologizes for Saying She’s Not a Feminist.” USA Today. Gannett, 2 Jan. 2015. Web. 6 Jan. 2015. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/tv/2015/01/02/kaley-cuoco-sweeting-apologizes-for-feminism-comment/21200379/>.

“FREE THE NIPPLE.” FREE THE NIPPLE. Web. 6 Jan. 2015. <http://www.freethenipple.com>.

“The Many, Many Problems with FCKH8′s ‘potty-mouthed Princess’ Video.” Washington Post. The Washington Post. Web. 6 Jan. 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/23/the-many-many-problems-with-fckh8s-potty-mouthed-princess-video/>.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. With regard to beyonce my feeling is a capitalist feminist is still a capitalist, first and foremost.

  2. This is what feminism has become – the complete sexualization and objectification of women. All feminism seems to have done is to bring women down to the worst tendencies of uncivilized men.

    I guess by modern terms, I’d be called an old fashioned sexist. I have too much respect for women to ever watch and listen to the trash that Beyonce and others like her put out.

    • Jodie Ison

      All Beyonce was doing was objectifying herself and all the other female dancers on stage. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with that (she can make her own choices and sexuality is not automatically anti-feminist), but not sure how it is new or some big feminist moment.

  3. Flawless

    I wish society didn’t make pop stars into heroes, and I wish kids didn’t mistakenly think those stars matter.

    • Samantha Brandbergh

      I don’t think they’re being made into “heroes” but more as positive reinforcement of what should be taught, especially to young girls nowadays.

  4. Morgan R. Muller

    Awesome article, really enjoyed reading it! Feminists unite!

  5. Jae Glass

    Feminism isn’t becoming cool, it’s becoming marketing and more marketable.

    • Yeah, it’s not the same to fight for men’s or women’s right since it’s true that women have been denied a lot of rights through history and they deserve more. And yes, I support them with that. But has this world become the world without wars or poverty because of feminism.

  6. Nice piece.

  7. I’m still exploring my feminist identity. A couple years ago, I actually got in a huge argument on Twitter with a few blogger associates about it. They found one of my posts to be sexist, and I told them I didn’t consider myself a feminist, and got my head chewed all the way off. I just didn’t think it was a label for me. I wanted equality for women, but I felt like that wasn’t enough. I had seen the feminist extremeists online. I saw those who really fought for our equality, and felt like I didn’t deserve the title. Then Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In really started getting my gears turning. And I read more books about female equality, most especially in the workplace.

  8. Women are in places today that their mothers, certainly their grandmothers, could only imagine. Perhaps fighting battles that have largely been won is not a great strategy.

  9. Go Girls!

  10. Some 50 years ago we might have been celebrating a woman earning her M.D. as a feminist. But that is hard to become a doctor. Now, a women need only shake it like usual and put the “feminist” sign behind her. That’s a whole lot easier. And just doing what comes naturally, I guess.

  11. I enjoyed reading this article. It would have been interesting to see more perspectives on the music industry in relation to feminism.

    • Samantha Brandbergh

      Thanks! And yeah, a lot of the music out there right now is pretty positive regarding this topic, but older songs can convey the message of girl-hating more so than today.

  12. I never took the label of Feminist because I was afraid. I already have the trans label, adding feminist to that, I felt, was asking for people to scrutinize me and consider me a fake feminist because I was “new” to womanhood.

    • Samantha Brandbergh

      Hey don’t worry about labels! If you support equality then go for it, don’t alter your beliefs based on what others might think 🙂 Anyone can be a feminist and support equality!

  13. K.W. Colyard

    Regarding your last questions, I’ll quote Ellen Page: “how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?”

  14. Pop culture has a lot of influence both socially and politically so anyone who decides to down play its importance, well they are out of touch with this generation.

  15. pop culture is particularly low.

  16. mgrantham27

    As much as I love Beyonce, I definitely don’t think that she is any type of hero. She may talk about feminism and equality in her music, but at the end of the day that’s just what it is- music, and it’s meant to entertain, make her tons of money, and appeal to a certain crowd of people, which she has done very well. If I were an artist like her and I wanted to gain more followers and more respect of course I would make music about a big issue like that and tell everyone I think women should be strong and independent. Who knows if she even really feels that way? She might not even write her own songs. Of course I don’t know this, but I’m just saying we don’t know these celebrities, we never will, and the entertainment industry is there to do just that- entertain.

    • Samantha Brandbergh

      Yeah I agree with you, because I’ve heard stories of her song “Pretty Hurts” being passed from artist to artist before Beyonce picked it up. It’s a great song, but you still have to wonder what her real viewpoints are.

  17. As long as females explore their potentials and do everything accordingly to their own decisions, then I believe it is feministic

  18. Females should decide what they want to do, what kind of potential they have. I think pointing and saying that the old fashioned lifestyle isn’t feminism is probably contradictory of feminism ideals. Women who say they don’t agree with feminism or aren’t feminist because they want to live an old-fashioned lifestyle also don’t thoroughly understand what feminism is.

  19. Very interesting article on a difficult subject. Feminism seems to be at the heart of debates within the showbiz world but no one agrees on what feminism is and what it should stand for. The question of woman-man relation, the female representation within society (and the male representation in parallel) are still at the core of contemporary identity debates.

  20. Katie Walder

    I thought feminism was about women having choices? Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting should be able to live by old-fashioned ideals if she wants to. She wasn’t advocating that every woman follow her example, just explaining her own life choices. She shouldn’t have to apologize for that.

  21. As a feminist myself, I find that some of these deliveries blur the overall message of the feminist movement. I am referring to the self-objectifying tendencies of Beyonce, and also the obscenity of the FCKH8 video. Personally, my way of fighting for the feminist movement is simply being a successful woman and promoting the other women around me to achieve their goals. While I see the need for Feminism to be present in popular culture, I think there are more convincing ways to get that message across without compromising the value of the message with these tactics.

  22. Dorothy Progosh

    Brings to mind the “essay” recently penned by Arianna Grande as well as Libby Anne Bruce’s blog post regarding feminism (the one reblogged by Mark Ruffalo on Tumblr). The fact that it is still necessary to have some of these discussions- treatment of women in rap, anyone?- over and over again is disheartening. That being said, inequality is still rampant and society’s increasingly open dialogue when it comes to feminism and feminist issues is definitely encouraging.

  23. I worry that people are digesting this material with too rudimentary of a framework. They are reading a (well written and interesting) surface level overview of some feminist topics and then making claims that seem uneducated and absurd.
    People denouncing Beyoncé on the basis that she’s just “trying to entertain” and “make money” probably shouldn’t be writers. Our writing voice, like Beyoncé voice as a performer, is one that we can use to create art that inspires and empowers and changes people. If you don’t see the power in a strong feminist message in popular music, or you think that the label of feminism is off putting, you might not have researched the topic more than just this article. May I suggest delving into feminist literature. Feminist history. Feminist activism beyond the stupid Fck H8 videos? There’s a huge multi wave movement behind it, and from where I stand Beyoncé is doing a great job of amplifying that progress in a modern realm using relatable music.

  24. Sigh, women did not get the vote in 1920. The poor got the vote. Men without land or money were also not allowed to vote in elections. Feminists have kidnapped the narrative and make it out so as to seem that only they were denied the right to vote when it couldn’t be further from the truth. Truth is that men IN POWER denied the vote to those who had none.

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