The Top 10 Feminist Moments in Pop Culture from 2016

Feminism had a major platform in pop culture this year. Indeed, 2016 was so feminist in its memes, shows, music, and other cultural moments that some have argued this political momentum created the backlash that led to Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States. Despite this setback, popular culture has managed to highlight all the ways that the feminist-minded among us with amplified voices are championing gender equity, racial justice, and social liberation.

Here are some of the most memorable and powerful manifestations this year.

10. Shedding the Makeup

Some viewed it as a gimmick, but Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter and producer Alicia Keys made a provocative feminist statement when she debuted her new look this year with no makeup (well, almost no makeup) while performing at the Democratic National Convention and at awards shows or when judging the reality competition show The Voice. She inspired other celebrities like Gabrielle Union and more than a few ordinary women and girls to go public without the pressures of being judged by their looks. Given the hypervisibility of celebrity women, this #nomakeup look at the least started some important conversations on our obsession with beauty culture. And incidentally, Hillary Rodham Clinton began making public appearances post-election with no makeup after her stunning presidential loss, extending the conversation on women finally shedding masks, transcending judgments, and giving what many have interpreted as a “middle finger to the patriarchy.”

9. Aging as Feminist Resistance

Sheila E’s high-energy homage to Prince – whom we lost this year – at this year’s BET Awards was more than a commemoration. It was a defiant act against the Billboard Music Awards, which failed to invite the 58-year-old and former Prince protegee and fiancee to his own tribute since she was not “relevant” to today’s pop culture. Ironically, that same awards show instead invited Madonna, another of Prince’s peers, which led to social media backlash and the BET Awards show throwing shade at the 1980s icon. Whatever we may think of Madonna’s performance on the Billboards award show, her acceptance speech for Billboard’s Woman of the Year later in December was culturally and politically “relevant” to the year’s theme of anti-feminist backlash. Significantly, Madonna eloquently defied a culture that rejects the aging woman – be she pop star or presidential candidate. As she reminds us: “To age is a sin…People say I’m controversial. But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.”

8. “Toppling the Patriarchy”

Who would ever think the phrase “Topple the patriarchy” would be uttered in the mainstream media, much less uttered twice at the highly-watched Emmy Awards show? That is exactly what occurred during this feminist wonder year that is 2016 when queer director Jill Soloway made the most of her time onstage when accepting her Emmy Award for directing the critically acclaimed transgender-centered Amazon Prime comedy Transparent. Speaking out against the violence impacting transgender women, she also celebrated a “TV show [that] allows me to take my dreams about unlikeable Jewish people, queer folk, trans folk, and make them the heroes.” Further shifting our culture and shaping such representations is transgender feminist Janet Mock, who produced for HBO The Trans List, documenting the diverse lives of the transgender community. This creative programming continues in a series that already featured The Black List, The Latino List, and The Out List.

7. Harriet Tubman’s Cultural Relevance

Patriarchy may not have toppled this year, but the selection of Harriet Tubman by the Department of the Treasury to be the new face of our $20 paper currency is a start. The popularity of the Hamilton Broadway musical saved Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, but Tubman managed to make a comeback this year, not just with winning the popular vote in the Women on the $20 campaign but also in her dramatic silhouetted appearance in the season finale of WGN’s popular television series, Underground, which depicts the history of the Underground Railroad. Tubman will have a deeper role for next year’s second season, and Emmy-winning actor Viola Davis will be bringing her story to film on HBO.

6. Fighting Rape Culture

Rape culture reared its ugly head in the usual ways, but 2016 was the year that key celebrity women tackled the issue in the limelight. This included pop star Lady Gaga making a powerful appearance at the 2016 Oscars telecast with other rape survivors to sing her Oscar-nominated song “Til It Happens to You” from the soundtrack of the documentary film, The Hunting Ground, which explores the problem of campus sexual assault. Lady Gaga did not stop there as she broke the silence about her experience with rape and came out in defense of fellow pop star Kesha, who alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by music producer Dr. Luke, which impacted on her ability to produce new music independent of the SONY record label. Other celebrity women came out in support of Kesha, including feminist-identified pop star and fellow SONY artist Taylor Swift who financially contributed to Kesha’ legal defense fund. Indeed, the controversy surrounding Kesha and Dr. Luke managed to divide audiences and impacted on others when pop star Jennifer Lopez was accused of hypocrisy for collaborating with Dr. Luke on her feminist song “Ain’t Your Mama.” Despite this, other acts of feminist solidarity against rape culture were on full display this year, specifically when comedian Leslie Jones, one of the co-stars in the female-led reboot of Ghostbusters, received the bulk of racial slurs and rape threats from various Twitter trolls, who resented the all-female rendition of the 1980s comedy film, which came on the heels of other blockbuster hits that featured movie heroines, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, when Internet trolls singled out Jones, the only black woman lead from the film, many came to her defense with the hashtag #Love4LeslieJones, most notably from pop star Katy Perry using the term ‘misogynoir’ (coined by black feminist scholar Moya Bailey) to speak out against black woman hatred. This controversy eventually led to the banning from Twitter of Milo Yiannopoulos, alt-right technology editor of Breitbart who ignited the rhetorical assault. For her part, Jones returned the favor by creating the hashtag #Love4Gabby when Olympic champion Gabby Douglas was cyberbullied for her appearance during the Olympic games this year.

5. Feminists are Funny on Late Night Comedy

Trevor Noah may be having a breakout moment in 2016 as the host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, but it is another Daily Show veteran, Samantha Bee, who is redefining the late-night comedy show as the only woman late-night comedy host of TBS’s Full Frontal. Bringing a feminist sensibility to late night by taking on heavy issues – from rape kits to reproductive rights to the sexist politics of the presidential election – Bee humorously and astutely disrupts the all-men’s club with her biting and witty satire. With sophisticated clarity, political intelligence, and on-the-nose hilarity, Bee easily dismantles the myth that feminists have no sense of humor. This was also confirmed with Saturday Night Live’s queer comedian Kate McKinnon, whose impersonations of Hillary Rodham Clinton made us laugh out loud (in post-debate reenactments), or cry (her post-election rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was particularly touching, not only because of Clinton’s stunning loss but also because of Cohen’s passing) or suppress our horror (the “Hillary Actually” gag silently reminded us, “He’ll kill us all”). Having made her mark in the celebrated and maligned Ghostbusters and winning her first Emmy for her work this year, we are fortunate to have McKinnon join Bee late at night when we need to unwind at day’s end, especially over the course of the next four years.

4. Bringing Feminism to the Director’s Chair

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay had a stellar year, becoming the first woman of color to receive a $100 million film budget for the adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and also bringing to Netflix the provocative documentary, The 13th, which connects the legacy of slavery to today’s mass incarceration of African Americans. However, it is her distinctive feminist action to assemble an all-women directors team for the critically acclaimed black television series Queen Sugar on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN that set an unprecedented move for TV. Using her newfound fame and power, DuVernay practiced the politics of sisterhood and solidarity to expand career options for other women filmmakers while deepening and complicating representations of black women on the small and big screens.

3. #BlackGirlMagic is Everywhere

DuVernay made her mark at a time when we are witnessing a renaissance in black women’s programming on TV, including Issa Rae’s comedy series Insecure on HBO and Beverly Bond, who trademarked the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic and connected feminism and racial justice on her televised show “Black Girls Rock” on BET this year, which honored the creators of #BlackLivesMatter and acknowledged the activism of actor Jesse Williams who heralded the beauty and courage of black women everywhere. Indeed, black women from various corners of the media world enhanced the glow of #BlackGirlMagic: from Beyoncé (see below) to her sister Solange Knowles to Rihanna, who all released soulful and eclectic black-pride albums: respectively Lemonade, A Seat at the Table, and ANTI. There is also the noteworthy publication of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, bringing to life an unknown history of African American women mathematicians at NASA, the film version to be widely released next year. And let us not forget the rigorous journalism of black women like Joy-Ann Reid on MSNBC who replaced Melissa Harris-Perry while continuing a powerful legacy set by Gwen Ifill, whom we lost this year. As for Harris-Perry herself, she made the move to Elle Magazine as editor at large, while Elaine Welteroth took the reins as editor of Teen Vogue. These editorial changes have already enhanced the focus of such mainstream magazines from beauty and fashion to intellectual engagements with politics, anti-racism, and feminism.

2. Grace Under Pressure

We could argue that the most magical of #BlackGirlMagic this year is First Lady Michelle Obama, who brought grace and beauty to her role and in politics in ways that gave us respite from a brutal election season. Who could forget her playfulness and cool swagger when appearing with James Corden and rapper Missy Elliott in his late-night show’s “carpool karaoke” segment? She may have been promoting her latest project on girls’ education, but watching the First Lady belt out Elliott’s lyrics – “Copywritten, so don’t copy me/ Y’all do it sloppily/ Can’t even come close to me”– in the wake of the plagiarism scandal of First-Lady-elect Melania Trump – we were all reminded of and schooled on her realness. She is “black girl magic” personified. But her most feminist moment was contained in a speech that resisted the blatant misogyny of President-elect Donald Trump. In her emotional deliverance at a rally in New Hampshire, she protested the rape culture reflected in Trump’s taped comments about grabbing at women’s bodies. Obama spoke for all women when she remarked: “The shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our intelligence. The belief you can do anything to a woman? It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts.”

1. Beyoncé’s Fiercest Feminism

Beyoncé may have implied she was done with labels like “feminist” in an earlier interview with Elle in 2016, but she obviously didn’t need these when she emblazoned every appearance, every performance with deep political purpose. From her visual signifying of post-Katrina New Orleans and #BlackLivesMatter in her “Formation” music video to her black-panther-style-clad backup dancers at the Super Bowl to her inclusion of the mothers of the black lives matter movement in her Lemonade visual album, Beyoncé intersected gender and racial justice issues. During her “Formation” world tour, she listed all the victims of police violence. At the BET Awards Show, she took time out of her world tour to open the show with a politicized performance of her civil-rights anthem “Freedom” with rapper Kendrick Lamar. She dramatized the murder of black lives (and specifically the raced and gendered killings of black women) in her performance at MTV’s VMA show before closing it with the powerful female symbol that her dancers created when they got “in formation” on stage. Perhaps her most controversial appearance this year involved her boldly bringing the Dixie Chicks back to the Country Music Awards show in an ensemble performance of her country-music hit “Daddy Lessons,” despite the backlash from those who resented her racial and feminist politics. But her bravest feminist expression included her embrace of “Pantsuit Nation,” in which she and her dancers donned pantsuits at a Clinton rally and powerfully reclaimed Clinton’s “baked cookies” remark for which she had been vilified for decades in wanting to expand her role beyond the domestic sphere to a professional and political one. Such bold moves are a reminder that many of our popular figures are practicing feminism and solidarity, actions that we will need to amplify in the coming year.



Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.