From Y2K to Today: A Timeline of Celebrity Feminism

Given recent activism on the part of celebrity women—from the #MeToo movement to the Time’s Up Campaign—it’s easy to forget there was a time not that long ago when the link between fame and feminism was viewed with suspicion and even incredulity. (Think of bell hooks’s resistance to Beyoncé’s feminist claims, even as she’s willing to embrace Emma Watson‘s more academic approach to feminism, or of Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler’s criticism of “marketplace feminism,” or writer Roxane Gay’s assertion that celebrity feminism could only be a “gateway” to a more “authentic” feminist movement.)

But celebrity feminism is proving to be a force for change—and an evolving, ever-growing political process. Here, we chart its evolution over this millennium.

2000

  • Celebrity feminism at the start of the new millennium looks like “mock feminism,” with the film reboot of Charlie’s Angels, starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. The film reduces “girl power”—first coined in 1991 by the punk band Bikini Kill for the Riot Grrl feminist movement before it was co-opted by the British pop band Spice Girls—to a cartoonish sendup of a 1970s show, itself a sexy reduction of women’s empowerment during the height of the women’s movement. These action-powered ladies, who could fight as handily as they applied makeup and juggled romance, still answered to an unseen patriarchal voice on the job.
  • A new iteration of the R&B girl group Destiny’s Child—featuring Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams—drops their feminist anthem, “Independent Women,” for the film’s soundtrack.

  • Rumors float that rapper and singer Lauryn Hill, who won the Album of the Year Grammy for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill the year before, was approached to play Liu’s role. Instead, she busies herself with a critique of celebrity culture while working on her Unplugged album.

2001

  • The terrorist attacks on September 11 change the political landscape and launches the U.S. War on Afghanistan, which perpetuates problematic depictions of Afghan women. Feminist groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan make critical interventions.
  • A production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, which debuted off-Broadway in 1996, makes an appearance at Madison Square Garden—featuring such celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg and Melissa Etheridge.

2002

  • Feminists debate the hyper-sexual presentation of countless pop stars—the raunchy lyrics and presentation of rapper Lil’ Kim, the barely legal “sex kitten” Britney Spears, the “Dirrty” music video by singer Christina Aguilera and the provocative dance moves in Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” video in the next year all spark conversations.

2003

  • Country music trio The Dixie Chicks, known for such feminist resistance songs as “Goodbye Earl” and their socially conscious lyrics, face censorship and misogynistic backlash when they criticize President George W. Bush for starting the War in Iraq. They don’t apologize.

2004

  • Pop star Janet Jackson receives the brunt of the scandal surrounding the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, in comparison to Justin Timberlake, who performed with her and was responsible for ripping her costume and exposing her breast.
  • Students at Spelman College push for a dialogue with rapper Nelly, who plans to visit their campus, about his problematic portrayal of black women in his sexually explicit music video, “Tip Drill.” In response, Nelly cancels his visit.
  • The blog Feministing is launched to reach out to a younger generation of feminists; Facebook first launches as a social media site for Ivy League college students.
  • Premium cable channel Showtime debuts the lesbian-themed drama series The L Word, which runs until 2009.
  • Actress Jane Fonda helps to produce the first transgender-inclusive performance of Vagina Monologues.

2005

  • YouTube launches.
  • Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. Kanye West declares, on live television, that George W. Bush “hates black people.”

2006

  • Twitter launches.
  • An increase in blogs by women of color occurs in the wake of unbalanced media coverage of the Duke Lacrosse rape scandal.
  • Beverly Bond, a model-turned-DJ, creates Black Girls Rock! to celebrate black women trailblazers in the arts, entertainment and community activism.

2007

  • Tarana Burke creates the non-profit Just Be Inc. to assist survivors of sexual assault and harassment, emerging a decade after starting a Me Too movement to raise awareness.
  • The blog Jezebel launches as a site connecting celebrity gossip and feminism.

2008

  • Feminists are divided when former First Lady and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton seeks a run for the U.S. presidency but loses to Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. Obama will later go on to be elected as the first black president of the United States.
  • Queer feminist Rachel Maddow headlines her own news show on MSNBC.

2009

  • Ms. features President Obama wearing a “This is what a Feminist Looks Like” tee-shirt on its winter issue cover. He will later select Hillary Clinton to serve as Secretary of State.
  • Pop star Rihanna becomes an unwitting poster girl for intimate partner violence when the gossip site TMZ releases a photo of her bruised face after an altercation with her then-boyfriend and singer Chris Brown without her consent. It begins a widespread discussion on violence against women, while Rihanna refuses to play victim—both in her subsequent music and on Twitter.

2010

  • Ms. launches its blog site the same year that Crunk Feminist Collective—drawing on “hip hop feminism,” which was coined by Joan Morgan in her 1999 manifesto, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost—launches theirs. Both blogs have influenced the conversation on feminism in the public sphere, with CFC popularizing the concept of intersectionality, first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, introducing to the masses the term “misogynoir,” coined by Moya Bailey, and educating bloggers and celebrities alike—including pop star Beyoncé Knowles’s sister and music artist Solange Knowles.
  • Instagram launches.

2011

  • Three different social movements—Arab Spring, SlutWalk and Occupy Wall Street—spread globally, thanks to the power of social media.
  • The Feminist Wire blog launches.
  • Oprah Winfrey launches the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a cable network owned by Discovery Communications and Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, before ending her talk show after 25 years later in the year.
  • Beyoncé releases her feminist anthem, “Run the World (Girls),” which doubles as a tribute for Oprah Winfrey’s talk-show finale.

  • Feminist comedian Tina Fey publishes her memoir, Bossypants, which discusses how she advocated for more women writers in the entertainment industry.
  • The movie Bridesmaids—starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy—proves that women can headline raunchy comedy and top the box office. This hilarious film that some have dubbed “a female version of The Hangover” paved the way for comedians like McCarthy and Amy Schumer and later films like Girls Trip (2017), which introduced African American comedian Tiffany Haddish to the mainstream.

2012

  • Black feminist public intellectual Melissa Harris Perry headlines her own news show on MSNBC, which will run until 2016.
  • Academic Jack Halberstam embraces pop star Lady Gaga, who emerged on the mainstream scene in 2009, in a book declaring Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal, in celebration of the pop star’s embrace of queer sexual politics. Lady Gaga nonetheless hesitates to call herself a feminist.
  • Rapper M.I.A. releases her music video, “Bad Girls,” in solidarity with the movement for women in Saudi Arabia to obtain the right to drive—a right that they will receive in 2017.

  • HBO debuts Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, which is viewed by many as the millennial version of Sex and the City, down to the gentrifying move from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The show runs until 2017.
  • Black feminist showrunner Shonda Rhimes introduces the world to Olivia Pope, the Washington D.C. “fixer” based on real-life crisis manager Judy Smith and starring Kerry Washington on ABC’s Scandal, thus becoming the first television drama series in nearly forty years to feature an African American woman lead.
  • The first in a movie trilogy of post-apocalyptic young-adult sci-fi, The Hunger Games, adapted from the novels of Suzanne Collins, introduces female hero Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence). Young actress Amandla Stenberg receives racist hate mail from book fans, who did not realize her character, Rue, was based on a person of color.
  • President Obama is re-elected.

2013

  • Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, both self-identified feminists, co-host the Golden Globes for the first time.
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg publishes her controversial book Lean In.
  • Both instances put a public face on feminism as both a celebrity and corporate venture, which comes to a head with pop star Beyoncé, whose lucrative $50-million-dollar deal with Pepsi gives her more autonomy and creativity on her subsequent music projects, as well as a platform at the Super Bowl.
  • Beyoncé’s “girl power” halftime performance—replete with her all-female Sugar Mamas band and 130 female background dancers—as well as her co-founding with actress Salma Hayek the Chime for Change global initiative on the advancement of women and girls, inspires Ms. to explore Beyoncé’s connections to feminism. The Ms. cover story, “Beyoncé’s Fierce Feminism,” ignites feminist debates about Beyoncé as a role model for feminism.

  • The Chime for Change benefit concert bridges celebrity and feminism, where high-profile men like John Legend suggest, “All men should be feminists.”
  • Netflix debuts the women-led, multiracial and queer prison drama Orange is the New Black, introducing award-winning actor Uzo Aduba and transgender actor Laverne Cox.
  • Seventh months after appearing on the Ms. cover, Beyoncé samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists,” remixed in her single “Flawless” and featured on her independently produced and released digital self-titled visual album. Adichie’s speech was first delivered for TED X Talks in November 2012.

2014

  • Maria Shriver publishes The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink early in the year, which gives a summary of the state of women regarding social status and pay equity. Beyoncé includes an essay in the report titled “Gender Equality is a Myth!”
  • The renewed popularity of Adichie’s TED speech on feminism, thanks to Beyoncé’s sample, continues with a publication in book form of We Should All Be Feminists.
  • Laverne Cox graces the cover of Time Magazine in an issue marking “The Transgender Tipping Point.”

  • The Black Lives Matter movement—first launched as a hashtag in 2013, in response to the acquittal of the man who killed teenager Trayvon Martin, and co-founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—goes viral and global in response to police violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
  • #Gamergate launches a barrage of misogynistic online attacks and real-world threats against game developer Zoë Quinn and feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian.
  • Pop star Taylor Swift finally claims the feminist label, crediting her friend Lena Dunham for raising her consciousness.
  • At MTV’s Video Music Awards show, Beyoncé stands in front of the word ‘Feminist,” lit in neon lights, during an audio sampling of Adichie’s speech from the music “Flawless.”
  • Actor Emma Watson promotes the “He for She” campaign at the United Nations, subsequently inspiring young Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai to identify as a feminist.

2015

  • #OscarsSoWhite trends on Twitter when filmmaker Ava DuVernay fails to receive a Best Director Oscar nomination for her critically acclaimed film Selma, which is nominated for Best Picture. Actress Reese Witherspoon urges reporters to #AskHerMore when it comes to interviewing women on the red carpet (referring to the relentless coverage of what they’re wearing, instead of asking what their next creative projects are). During the Oscars telecast, Patricia Arquette advocates for equal pay during her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, which drew both praise and criticism (e.g. her speech seemed to erase the struggles of queer women and women of color).
  • Pop star Kesha files an injunction request that will allow her to stop working with music producer Dr. Luke at her SONY label. This comes months after filing a lawsuit claiming Dr. Luke sexually assaulted her.
  • Hillary Clinton announces that she will make a second run for president of the United States.
  • Amandla Stenberg raises awareness of cultural appropriation and black women’s hair and fashions with her viral video “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows.”
  • Black feminist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, as Co-Founder and Executive Director for the African American Policy Forum, launches #SayHerName as an extension of Black Lives Matter, which calls attention to black women who have also been targeted for state violence. R&B singer Janelle Monáe releases her protest song, “Hell You Talm ‘Bout,” which is a variation on Say Her Name/Say His Name.
  • Viola Davis becomes the first African American woman to win the Emmy Award for Best Leading Actress in a Drama Series for her work in the Shonda-Rhimes-produced How to Get Away with Murder. In her acceptance speech, she quotes freedom fighter Harriet Tubman.

  • Lena Dunham co-founds the online feminist newsletter Lenny Letter, launching the platform with a notable essay by actress Jennifer Lawrence advocating for pay equity in the movie industry and Dunham’s interview with Hillary Clinton—who declared that she was “absolutely a feminist.”
  • Dunham, Meryl Streep and Jada Pinkett Smith speak out against sex trafficking—although some of them face backlash from sex workers for their opposition to the decriminalization of sex work.
  • Former exotic dancer and reality personality Amber Rose headlines a SlutWalk in Los Angeles after being “slut-shamed” on social media.
  • The year later ends with a new female hero, Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), in a new iteration of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

2016

  • Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is subject to sexist attacks—including a distracting report of an “email server” scandal—while Donald J. Trump unleashes racism, xenophobia and sexism without much charge during his presidential campaign. Lauren Duca’s “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” which adeptly creates an analogy of domestic violence to describe the nation’s political landscape, stuns the American public since it appears in Teen Vogue.
  • Celebrity feminists, including America Ferrera, Katy Perry and Shonda Rhimes, campaign for Clinton and affirm, “I’m With Her.” Days before the election, Beyoncé headlines a get-out-the-vote concert in Cleveland on behalf of Clinton, where the pop star reclaims Clinton’s “baked cookies” comments from 1992 while wearing a pantsuit with her dancers, thus joining the “Pantsuit Nation,” and declaring “I’m With Her.”
  • Beyoncé makes waves and controversy linking Black Lives Matter with feminist consciousness in the music video for and Super Bowl halftime performance of her single “Formation.” A police union encourages a boycott after misrepresenting her video and performance as “anti-police.”
  • Kesha loses her injunction case against SONY and is forced to continue working with Dr. Luke. She receives support from fans and various celebrities, including Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, the latter offering to pay her legal fees.
  • Lady Gaga performs her anti-rape anthem, “Til It Happens to You,” with fellow rape survivors during the Oscars telecast. The song from the documentary, The Hunting Ground, about campus sexual assault, was nominated for Best Original Song.

  • Kerry Washington produces and stars in the HBO film, Confirmation, which revisits the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 about Hill’s testimony on the subject of sexual harassment.
  • The U.S. Department of the Treasury announces that historical figure Harriet Tubman will front a new design of the $20 paper currency.
  • Beyoncé premieres her second visual album, Lemonade, on the premium cable channel HBO, which immediately receives critical acclaim and praise for its black feminist message. Her sister, Solange Knowles, releases her own black feminist themed album, A Seat at the Table.
  • After taking over the Christian Dior fashion house, Maria Grazia Chiuri debuts her Spring 2017 collection with runway models sporting “We Should All Be Feminists” tee-shirts while Beyoncé’s “Flawless” plays on the soundtrack. Adichie is in the audience. Part of the proceeds for the sale of the tee-shirts go to charities run by pop star Rihanna.
  • In the summer, an all-female Ghostbusters re-boot gives a new generation of girls an opportunity to see themselves in a much-loved classic; it also sends swarms of trolls to actor Leslie Jones’ Twitter notifications, led by not-yet-infamous alt-right darling Milo, who loses his account permanently for racist and sexist harassment in violation of the platform’s policies. Jones is doxxed and shuts down her Twitter account.
  • Clinton wins the popular vote but does not win enough electoral votes to become the next president of the United States. The day after the election, Teresa Shook creates a Facebook event inviting others to protest the election of Donald J. Trump in Washington D.C. Her call becomes the basis for a global day of action that would make world history.

2017

  • The Women’s March attracts crowds of 500,000 in Washington D.C., the day after President Trump’s inauguration, and millions more across the United States and the world. Celebrity feminists—including Ashley Judd, Madonna, Janelle Monae and America Ferrera—are featured speakers. In other cities, celebrities like Chelsea Handler, Miley Cyrus, Natalie Portman, Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi and Chrissy Teigen take to the streets and to march stages.
  • Hidden Figures hits theaters, unearthing the hidden stories of African American women whose hidden labor fueled NASA’s eventual flight to the moon. The film, starring Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henderson and Octavia Spencer, rewrites the history of STEM—and our own tales of genius.
  • Beyoncé performs at the Grammy Awards while pregnant with twins, invoking goddesses from Yoruba, Hindi and Catholic traditions. She loses Album of the Year to Adele.
  • Elaine Welteroth becomes editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, which features more overtly political, feminist and racial justice topics.
  • Wonder Woman becomes the first female superhero blockbuster film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins, which grosses $800 million worldwide.

  • Pop star Taylor Swift successfully defends herself in a courtroom trial against DJ David Mueller, who groped her in a 2013 photo shoot. She enlists the help of a Gender Studies professor to assist her with her defense. Pop star Kesha writes the song “Praying,” which is produced by her abuser, refusing to be silent about her experience with sexual assault.
  • The New York Times breaks a report about a slew of allegations of sexual harassment against studio mogul Harvey Weinstein spanning decades. Actors speaking out against him include Rose McGowan, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd, Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek.
  • Ten days after the report, actor Alyssa Milano revives Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement with the #MeToo hashtag, which sets off an avalanche of silence-breaking and shared stories of sexual assault and harassment. In its wake, countless abusers are outed and penalized in the movie and music industries, in politics, the news media and the sports arena of gymnastics.
  • Alianza Nacional de Campesinas—the only organization that advocates for farmworker women—declares solidarity with the women of Hollywood and dives in to the #MeToo movement.
  • The “Silence Breakers” become Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.
  • Anita Hill, who once testified against future Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas before a Senate Hearing in 1991, is selected to lead a Hollywood sexual harassment commission.
  • The top-grossing films of 2017 all star women: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Emma Watson’s star-turned Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman.

2018

  • 300 Hollywood women launch Time’s Up the first day of the new year. The initiative targets sexual harassment in the workplace, supports a legal fund for women seeking to defend their rights and holds accountable any place of employment that tries to silence those who come forward.
  • A “feminist takeover” of the Golden Globes highlights not only Time’s Up, but women’s rights more broadly as celebrities walk the red carpet with advocates and activists and take to the podium with messages of female empowerment. Oprah closes out the night with an impassioned declaration that the future ahead will be different—and dreams of a world where “nobody says #MeToo.”

Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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