The Top 10 Feminist Pop Culture Moments of 2018

The new year is almost upon us—which means it’s time once again to take stock of all that transpired at the intersections of feminism and popular culture in 2018. Since I started doing these Top 10 lists in 2016, I’ve been inspired by the ways that feminism has impacted the culture at large, and 2018 proved to be another stellar year for the movement in the media. These 10 feminist moments shifted the media landscape and echoed across the Internet this year—inspiring, empowering and mobilizing feminists across the country in the process.

#10: Feminists Do Have a Sense of Humor!

With the recent passing of comedian and filmmaker Penny Marshall—who gave us the iconic working-class Laverne from the TV sitcom Laverne and Shirley; her first directed film, Jumping Jack Flash, featuring comedian-turned-actor Whoopi Goldberg; and the humorously classic sendup to women’s baseball during World War II with A League of Their Own—we were reminded that women have long been at the game of great comedic timing and storytelling. This year was no different.

In 2018, comedians Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish treated us to a brilliant takedown of women’s fashions and taboo-breaking moments of female physical comedy when they paired up as presenters at this year’s Oscars telecast. That the Academy Awards have yet to turn to these two hilarious entertainers as obvious replacements for Kevin Hart to host the upcoming show—Black women hosts! Diversity is still achieved!—goes to show that some of our cultural gatekeepers still need to find a feminist sense of humor.

Nonetheless, such humor was celebrated on streaming platforms. Amazon Prime’s Emmy-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel explored the 1950s, when the titular character finds life after marriage when she breaks into the masculine realm of standup comedy; Netflix gave us a chance to savor the biting sarcasm of Hannah Gadsby’s queer standup routine in Nanette. These on-demand feminist media moments proved that women can hilariously punch up to power and assert their much-needed comedic worldviews.

#9: Body Positivity is Powerful

L Brands CEO Ed Razek stepped down this year in the wake of disparaging comments about the exclusion of transgender and plus-sized models from Victoria’s Secret annual lingerie fashion show—he thought they didn’t fit the “fantasy” the lingerie company tries to sell. Meanwhile, pop star Rihanna showed everyone how it’s done during New York Fashion Week. After making a splash last year with her all-shades-inclusive cosmetics line, Fenty Beauty, she expanded her beauty company with the lingerie line Savage Fenty—and proceeded to feature all sizes and complexions at her body-positive fashion show Savage x Fenty, including very pregnant model Slick Woods, who gave birth not long after walking the runway!

The pop star was not the only black woman icon promoting body positivity this year. Despite Vogue’s continued use of photoshopped and airbrushed images, glimpses of different body types and the need for body acceptance filtered through its cultural lens thanks to tennis champion Serena Williams, who graced the January 2018 cover, and pop star Beyoncé, who sat for the cover of the coveted September issue. (A legendary moment that also proved historic, thanks to Beyoncé’s employment of Vogue’s first African American cover photographer.) Both women discussed their embrace of their postpartum bodies and the difficulties they faced with complications after giving birth in the magazine’s pages, and given the rise in maternal mortality rates among black women in the U.S., their candid truth-telling shined a much-needed spotlight on the issue while expanding the conversations beyond getting the “perfect body” back after childbirth—a cultural pressure Beyoncé admits to succumbing to after the birth of her first child. 

#8: A Feminist Princess?

Already topping Google’s list for the most widely searched person worldwide for 2018, and coming in at number seven for Time’s 2018 Person of the year, former Suits actor and mixed-race American-turned-British Royal Megan Markle made cultural waves this year when she married Prince Harry before an international televised audience of 40 million people. The wedding ceremony was marked by inclusivity—from African American Episcopal Bishop Reverend Michael Curry’s stirring sermon, to the Kingdom Choir’s serenading of the bride and groom with the classic standard “Stand By Me,” to a beaming dreadlock-wearing mother-of-the-bride holding her own stately presence opposite the Queen of England—but it was the sight of the bride, an avowed feminist, walking herself down the aisle before being joined halfway by the Prince of Wales, that indicated we might just be getting a different kind of princess for our modern era.

One of the biggest challenges for the now-Duchess of Sussex, who is a champion for women and girl’s empowerment, is to integrate the traditions of British monarchy with her own feminist worldview. “Women already have a voice,” Markle once said.”They just need to learn how to use it.” Given the glimpses of feminism that we have seen from her so far—from her first charity event featuring the recipes of a multiracial community kitchen from the women survivors of the Grenfell fire in London, in her endorsed cookbook, Together, to her championing women’s empowerment while giving an award to the designer of her wedding gown—she is learning well.

Markle is subtly but surely keeping alive her feminist views. While this might represent neoliberal feminism more than radical feminism, it’s a glimpse of a feminist sensibility that just might be mighty enough to clap back against a culture that is more concerned about what she wears, how she cradles her baby bump during pregnancy and if she’s having catfights with the Duchess of Cambridge than how she’s improving women’s lives around the world. Here’s hoping she continues to learn how to use the voice she most certainly knows that she has, especially when too many would rather she be seen and not heard.

#7: Love is the Message

Beyond these heteronormative headlines, this year saw the debut of one of the most transgender-inclusive shows on television: Pose on FX. Exploring Harlem’s Ballroom Culture from the 1980s—which gave us, among many things, voguing and the art of reading and shade—the series from Ryan Murphy and trans advocate Janet Mock balances humor and heart-wrenching drama to flesh out the full humanity of queer communities of color. Mock even made her directorial debut with the episode “Love is the Message,” bringing a trans, feminist sensibility to a nuanced storyline that featured a transgender woman of color played by Indya Moore asserting her womanhood to the cisgender white wife of her love interest, and illuminated the ravaging effects of HIV/AIDS in the gay community during this era.

Not one act of violence was perpetrated against any transgender woman in the show—a relief for the viewers who unfortunately expected worse. Against this backdrop, the extravagant spectacle of the ballroom served as both escape and survival, and a reminder that we can’t have the entertaining and pleasurable aspects of this life without also empathizing with the pain. 

#6: Acing the Bechdel Test at the Movies

Television isn’t the only medium for new and improved representations of women. A recent study showed that women-led films dominated the box office—and those that passed the Bechdel Test, in which two or more women talked about something other than a man, outperformed those that failed. 

Whatever the genre, 2018 proved to be a stellar year for feminist-themed films. It also featured a growing list of women-of-color-led movies, including A Wrinkle in Time, Crazy Rich Asians and The Hate U Give. But most exciting were the ensemble films, in which all-female casts dominated the storylines.

The lightweight heist film Ocean’s 8, starring Sandra Bullock, and the heavier heist film Widows, starring Viola Davis, both debuted to much excitement; an all-female scientific team featuring Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson went on a quest to save the world in the science fiction film Annihilation; and Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone teamed up to form a queer love triangle on the 18th-century court of Queen Ann in The Favourite. Earlier this year, the women of the Africa-themed superhero comic Black Panther also joined forces as warriors, scientists, and international spies to save an entire nation called Wakanda—and 2018 will wrap up with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, hitting theaters just moments after a successful run of the documentary about the same notorious Supreme Court Justice, RBG. 

#5: Rage and Rumblings in Music

2018 will forever be remembered as the year Beyoncé graced the Coachella stage as the first African American woman headliner, bringing all her black pride and HBCU culture with her. But feminist themes blared from boomboxes (and bluetooth radios) all year long.

Ariana Grande’s provocative song and video “God is a Woman” and the rage against patriarchy captured in Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato’s “Fall in Line” were just two of many new feminist anthems to take over the airwaves. Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy testified to her survival instincts—and she boldly breastfed her baby in her music video “Money” in a striking statement that juxtaposed her lactating breasts, often forbidden for public view, to her earlier years as a stripper, often promoted for public consumption. Barbra Streisand dropped her album Walls to protest the Trump administration, while Amanda Palmer’s “Mr. Weinstein Will See You Now” and Gracie and Rachel’s “HER,” a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford, amplified the #MeToo movement.

It remains to be seen if a #MeToo reckoning will take place in the music industry, as had occurred with the movie industry, but the rage is barely contained beneath the surface. The passing of legendary Aretha Franklin was a reminder that she too had a #MeToo story—and raised her voice constantly in defiance with her anthems “Respect” and “Think.” While her funeral included moments of men behaving badly, her legacy can be retooled for women’s constant raging and rumblings. 

#4: A Queer Black Feminist Future

Women music artists dominated this year’s Grammy nominations for Album of the Year, so we also might expect to see and hear more of these rumblings. Regardless, 2018 also gave us one of the most unapologetically queer black feminist albums in recent herstory. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer is both an infectious pop album and a provocative sci-fi “emotion picture,” offering a vision of feminist resistance against systems of oppression while embracing her pansexual liberation. This concept album is rich in creativity, quirky originality and the brilliance of Black Girl Magic. 

#3: Times Up!

The #MeToo movement transitioned to #TimesUp this year—and women across Hollywood partnered with grassroots feminists to fight against sexual assault and harassment. At the 2018 Golden Globes Awards, many celebrity feminists powerfully shared the red carpet with activists including Me Too founder Tarana Burke and made pointed commentary from the stage. The collaboration didn’t end there: industry feminists went on launch a legal defense fund and form an advisory board headed by none other than Anita Hill. 

#2: Oprah Leads the Way

Oprah highlighted the issues of #MeToo and #TimesUp throughout the Golden Globes telecast, but her stirring acceptance speech for the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award gave the movement momentum. Winfrey, utilizing her great oratory skills, demonstrated intersectionality to millions tuning in as she connected the fight for racial justice to challenges to cultures of sexual harassment and violence—and reminded the audience that truth-seeking journalism shares common ground with the women and men who have broken the silence on their experience with sexual violence when she invoked the memory of Recy Taylor, an African American woman who suffered a gang rape during the Jim Crow segregation era and was aided by Rosa Parks in the quest for justice. Her words were a reminder that “celebrity feminism,” at its best, can put its highly visible platform to great use for public consciousness-raising.

#1: Women Leading in Politics and Pop Culture

Oprah’s Golden Globes speech was so moving that the hashtag #OprahforPresident began trending soon afterwards—but while she has not expressed any interest in running for office, other women did in record numbers this year, and they made big waves on social media and beyond.

In November, a diverse group of women were elected to Congress—among them the first Native American and the first Muslim women to ever serve in the chambers. The youngest, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is pulling the curtain back on the political process on Instagram (and getting record numbers of “likes” for living our wildest #SquadGoals). Meanwhile, veterans on the Hill are also having their moments: Maxine Waters birthed a thousand memes when she reclaimed her time; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the focus of multiple films and former First Lady Michelle Obama released a bestselling book and launched the Global Girl Alliance with a video set to the empowering music of Aretha Franklin.

We may not have had our first woman president—and television shows like Scandal and House of Cards may have to indulge this “fantasy” for a bit longer before it becomes reality—but across Twitter and Instagram, women are finally taking the reigns in politics—and snagging headlines across political media.


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.