The Top 10 Feminist Pop Culture Shake-Ups of 2017

In a year that dramatically began with the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.–the largest protest in U.S. history in the wake of President Trump’s Inauguration–and ended with “Silence Breakers” as Time’s Person of the Year, in response to the #MeToo movement protesting sexual harassment and assault, 2017 certainly qualifies as the year of feminist resistance, so much so that Oxford Dictionary selected “Feminist” as the word of the year.

Popular culture punctuated this political year with feminist moments of its own. Here are 10 of the most memorable, quirkiest and provocative examples.

#10: Rihanna Broadened Beauty

Diversity sells. At least that was the lesson the cosmetics industry hopefully learned upon the massive success of pop star Rihanna’s debut line of Fenty Beauty cosmetics. While makeup in and of itself is not particularly “feminist,” what is groundbreaking is the way Rihanna grounded women of color–especially darker-skinned women–at the center of an advertising campaign that recognized a diversity of complexions in its forty shades of foundation. From albino to midnight skin, few other cosmetics companies have ever recognized this variety in skin color. Given the existence of skin bleachers and the marketing of lighter skin as the “most beautiful,” Fenty Beauty has changed the game by encompassing women across the color spectrum and altering the commercial expectations for the color of beauty.

#9: Female Music Artists Made Noise

2017 was a banner year for women music artists appearing in unexpected spaces and places: from newcomer Cardi B becoming the first rapper since Lauryn Hill in 1998 to top the Billboard Charts (without the aid of a featured artist) to Solange Knowles reconfiguring her album A Seat at the Table into a live, performance-art installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, to Ariana Grande headlining a benefit concert after her Dangerous Woman tour in Manchester, England was tragically targeted by ISIS, to Taylor Swift’s sexual harassment lawsuit in which she powerfully defended the right to her own body. And then there was Pink describing her attempts to raise her daughter on gender-neutral terms at MTV’s VMA Show. All these entertainers–some who identify as feminist–have reclaimed their bodies and their artistry and, in the process, are demonstrating what it means to resist a culture that attempts to restrict their freedoms.

#8: Beyoncé’ Cultivated Reverence for Black Motherhood

Speaking of women music artists pushing boundaries, pop star Beyoncé, who announced in a series of artistic photographs that she was expecting twins (birthed during the summer), upped the ante at the 59th Grammy Awards show and bore her pregnant belly in a digitally-enhanced live stage show that was part kitschy and part reverential. Playing ironically with the deified pedestal on which multiple fans have foisted her, Beyoncé invoked multiracial goddesses–from the Yoruba orisha Oshun to Hindi goddess Kali to the Catholic Black Madonna–and heralded the divine beauty and aura of black motherhood. Some thought the performance was over-the-top and too embodied in essentialist meanings of motherhood, but in a political climate that has clamped down on reproductive rights and within an environment that has experienced an uptick in maternal mortality rates–especially among African American women–this performative spectacle of divine black motherhood, in a culture that values Judeo-Christian patriarchal gods, featured Beyoncé at her most subversive and transgressive in her feminist views.

#7: Janet Jackson Got Personal and Political

The year began for the pop star with the birth of a son at 50, the announcement of a divorce, and the return to full form in her “State of the World” world tour. With her eyes and ears wide open to the pressing concerns of our tumultuous society–replete with denouncements of the rise in hate crimes–Jackson also managed to include a rather personal song-and-dance reenactment of a domestic violence scene in her rendition of “What About” during the world tour. “This is Me!” she confessed at the end of each tour performance of “What About,” reminding us that #MeToo–in its insistence on breaking the silence–takes on multiple forms and layers in creating public dialogue on violence against women.

#6: Kesha Spoke Up About Surviving

Before the #MeToo movement, pop artist Kesha unsuccessfully sued to be released from SONY’s record label, which forced her to work with producer Dr. Luke, whom she accused of sexually assaulting her. In an act of defiance, Kesha wrote “Praying,” a song that openly speaks about surviving an abuser – even though that very same person produced it. That takes courage and steels of nerve, and in a year when “silence breakers” were the breakout story, Kesha’s own silence-breaking must not be ignored.

#5: Miss Peru Contestants Made a Pageant Into a Protest

The collective silence-breaking that occurred at this year’s Miss Peru contest was an extraordinary event. Rather than give their usual physical “measurements,” the beauty pageant contestants flipped the script and gave a different kind of measurement: the appalling statistical numbers pertaining to violence against women in Peru. These women boldly resisted the sexual objectification of the beauty pageant and transformed it instead into an arena for feminist protest.

#4: Tiffany Haddish Took Us on a Girls Trip

The breakout star this year is Tiffany Haddish, the African American comedian who stole the show in the summer box office hit Girls Trip–a raunchy yet feminist tale of black girlfriends choosing friendship and bonding at the black-girl-magic event that is Essence Fest in New Orleans. Haddish’s outrageous characterization was an ode to sex-positivity and solidarity, but her biggest show of solidarity in 2017 was as host of Saturday Night Live–becoming the first African American woman to host the popular series while simultaneously calling out all the sexual harassers and abusers on their bad behavior in allusion to the #MeToo movement. “You wrong!,” she bellowed as she advised potential harassers to keep their clothes on if a woman has not invited them to remove them. Combining both sardonic wit, outrageous truth-telling, and comedic charm, here’s hoping for the continued meteoric rise of Haddish.

#3: Wonder Woman Stole the Show

Feminist storytelling was a major theme at the movies this year: from the NASA-driven biopic of African American path-pavers in Hidden Figures to black-girl-magical comedy in Girls Trip; to the feminist-led resistance depicted in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and critically-acclaimed women-directed fare such as Dee Reese’s Mudbound, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. But the biggest feminist film story this year is Wonder Woman, the superhero demigod daughter of Amazons, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. Grossing $800 million worldwide, Wonder Woman became the highest grossing live action film directed by a woman, thus shattering all the presumptions that exist suggesting women-led films (with feminist themes) don’t do well as blockbuster fare. Wonder Woman worked its wonders–both on the screen and off–to dispel myths and break multiple records.

#2: And Feminists Stole the Small Screen, Too

Smaller screens seem to be miles ahead of big-screen fare when it comes to women-led stories. Shows as diverse as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, OWN’s Queen Sugar (whose all-female lineup of directors is a standout in the entertainment industry), HBO’s Insecure and Big Little Lies and ABC’s Scandal–which has given us a fictitious madam president since we couldn’t get one for real–have all placed women at the center. Given the big wins at the Emmys for Big Little Lies and Handmaid’s Tale, with the wondrous view of author Margaret Atwood on stage among A-list celebrities, it seems safe to say that 2017 is the year that brought us feminist TV.

#1: The #MeToo Moment

When a few feminists and progressives questioned the validity of big-name celebrities publicly embracing the F word back in 2014–from Beyoncé to Emma Watson to Taylor Swift–few would have predicted the ways in which celebrity feminists would push beyond simply playing identity politics. First, the word “feminist” became acceptable in the commercial world of entertainment. Then, the political push for gender equity began–from calling out pay-inequality to breaking the silence on the rampant sexual assault and harassment that exists in the industry.

After myriad women alleged that studio mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed and abused them–among them Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd. Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lawrence, Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek–actor Alyssa Milano revived Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” movement by starting a #MeToo hashtag on Twitter, in which countless women from all walks of life shared their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

Now that the dam of silence has been broken, the question remains: will there be a sea change for women in the entertainment industry, who are still woefully underrepresented in movie storylines and behind the scenes as producers, directors and screenwriters? With a new commission addressing sexual harassment–to be led by Anita Hill, who famously came forward with her own story against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991–one cannot help but maintain hope that the #MeToo movement is just the beginning of a new wave in feminist resistance. This may eventually demonstrate that what was once dismissed as a fad or as a superficial brand, “celebrity feminism” has indeed become a major force for social movement.



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.