The Top 10 Feminist Pop Culture Moments of 2019

It’s that time of the year to assess the best of the best for 2019. Of course, this moment doesn’t just represent the end of a year but the end of a decade. This particular year witnessed the continued expansion of feminism across the media landscape, which has evolved over time since the start of the millennium. 

Here are some highlights.

#10: Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, Celebrates Women as “Forces for Change” 

While she is not the first British royal to guest-edit a popular magazine, or the first to engage in political issues, Markle’s first full year, after marrying Prince Harry, as the Duchess of Sussex—which included welcoming a new son, Archie—is met with intense scrutiny rooted in sexism and racism from the British press, including a noisy backlash against her powerful, guest-edited feminist special issue of British Vogue called “Forces for Change.”

Nonetheless, the Duchess’s guest-edited issue is to be commended for its assemblage of 15 notable women and girls across ages, races, ethnicities and nationalities engaging in acts of social and political change. It featured veteran actresses like Jane Fonda and Salma Hayek, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and young voting-rights activist and actor Yara Shahidi; to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who acted swiftly on gun reform in the wake of a gun-violence-based hate crime; to British actor Jameela Jamil, who earlier this year delivered a powerful critique of toxic masculinity in her speech “Tell Him” at the feminist Makers conference.

Despite the harsh criticism accompanying her this year, Markle is demonstrating how even commercialized feminism, considered lightweight in comparison to radical feminism, can be considered a threat to patriarchal systems of power. And yet, she persisted. Here’s hoping the duchess will remain a “force for change” by continuing to uplift and celebrate leading women and girls in the world.  

#9: Rihanna Proves That Inclusivity and Body-Positivity Sells

Pop star Rihanna made history this year as the first woman and person of color to have a fashion house with the luxury brand LVMH. Fenty Maison launched with a vision for racial inclusivity and body positivity: from the “Black is Beautiful” influence of photographer Kwame Braithwaite’s African-styled “Grandassa” models of the 1960s to her diverse representation of women—including bodies of color, plus-sized bodies, trans bodies and disabled bodies—that graced the stage of her Savage X Fenty lingerie show, which aired on Amazon Prime.

Proving that all body types can be sexy and beautiful, Rihanna kept her savvy finger on the pulse of women’s fashions, so much so that her direct competition—Victoria’s Secret—canceled their annual fashion show due to low ratings, most likely based on their refusal to embrace a more inclusive vision. While sexy lingerie may seem antithetical to feminism with its emphasis on sexualizing women’s bodies, Rihanna’s show subverted the runway paradigm, in which her models danced, pranced, posed and engaged in playful fun in such a way that emphasized women’s reclamations of their bodies rather than their submission to an all-powerful “male gaze.” 

#8: Lizzo is “100% That Bitch”

Rihanna wasn’t the only celebrity promoting body positivity this year. Plus-sized rapper and singer Lizzo skyrocketed to fame with a chart-topping hit: the catchy breakup song “Truth Hurts.” The song was first featured on the Netflix show, Someone Great, before Lizzo debuted the song in a breakthrough performance at this year’s BET Awards show, where she boldly wore a revealing bodysuit, danced alongside plus-sized background dancers, showed off her vocal prowess, played the flute while she twerked and elicited a standing ovation from Rihanna in the audience. She later topped that performance while performing under a gigantic booty balloon to her medley of “Truth Hurts” and her self-love anthem, “Good as Hell” on MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Named Time’s Entertainer of the Year while also garnering eight Grammy nominations, Lizzo brings newfound visibility for big, sexy grown women who intend to take up all the space that was once considered off limits. 

#7: Billboard Artists Make Feminist Statements

The Billboard Awards this year recognized 17-year-old breakthrough music artist Billie Eilish as “Woman of the Year” and 30-year-old pop star Taylor Swift as “Woman of the Decade.” Both popular artists managed to make significant feminist statements this year, whether in Billie’s baggy clothes resisting the male gaze’s sexualization of her body or in her expressive lyrics giving voice to rage and discontent among a new generation of young women and girls.

Meanwhile, Taylor Swift has spoken out against the purchase of her masters of her early recordings, offering a scathing critique in her Billboard acceptance speech that connects the sexism of the music industry to the disempowering treatment of artists who are often not permitted to own their artistic work. As Taylor Swift’s evolving feminist voice continues to be amplified, may it influence the younger women artists still contending with these issues. These popular artists offer glimmers of hope in their insistence on owning their voices, bodies and artistry. 

#6: Feminists Make Music Under the Radar

While some pop artists can obtain high visibility for their feminist statements, other music artists have created feminist work in the margins—notably black feminist artists like the rapper Rapsody. Despite Eve being called the best rap album of 2019, it received no Grammy nominations. And Country music artist Rhiannon Giddens assembled three other black women country singers—Amethyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell—for the phenomenal roots album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, released by Smithsonian’s Folkways Recordings in affiliation with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Both Eve and Songs of Our Native Daughters have centered black women’s histories and lives, with Eve featuring songs each named for a notable black woman; while Songs interrogates the roots of banjo music, minstrelsy, blues and folk songs Diaspora to uncover black women who survived slavery and the Jim Crow South. Both albums remarkably subvert the most masculinist forms of music—hip-hop and country—and expose how indebted both genres are to black women’s creative musical prowess. 

#5: Beyoncé’s Many Gifts 

Beyoncé, one of the few black feminist pop artists to obtain high visibility, continued to prove she’s one of the hardest working entertainers in the business, releasing not one, but two, albums and a documentary via Netflix. Having wowed the masses with her Coachella performance in 2018, the pop star generously offered her devoted fanbase, the Beyhive, with various “gifts” this year. One is an album literally called The Gift in association with the soundtrack to the live-action remake of The Lion King, in which Beyoncé portrayed Nala. The other, Homecoming, was a concert album accompanying the Netflix documentary of the same name.

The concert film knitted footage from her Coachella performances with behind-the-scenes videos and powerful quotes and statements from noted black feminists like Nina Simone, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison—the latter who died later in the year and whose words of flight served as the documentary’s opening lines. Using these statements as a way to illuminate her intentions to “bring the culture” along with her “flower crown,” Beyoncé demonstrated how the feminist consciousness expressed in earlier outputs—specifically, her magnum opus, Lemonade, which was named by the AP as “album of the decade,” continued to evolve through intersectional politics. If Homecoming represented a more local homage to her Houston roots and the Southern cultures of HBCUs, The Gift embraced a global Afropop sound, using the African setting of The Lion King to claim an entire continent. Among the songs on the latter album is the celebratoryBrown Skin Girl,” featuring Beyoncé alongside Wizkid and her daughter Blue, fast becoming a black feminist anthem for dark-skinned black beauty and self-love. 

#4: Reigning Black Beauty Meets Black Feminism

Beyoncé was not the only person this year celebrating “brown skin girls / skin just like pearls,” as not one, not two, but five prominent beauty pageants crowned black women as 2019 winners: Miss America (Nia Franklin), Miss USA (Cheslie Kryst), Miss Teen USA (Kaliegh Garris), Miss Universe (Zozibini Tunzi) and Miss World (Toni-Ann Singh).

While feminists have a long-standing opposition to beauty pageants highlighting women as sex objects, over time, women contestants have subverted patriarchal pageant politics to advance feminist agendas—and several of these reigning beauty queens are advocates for social change.

Miss World (former Miss Jamaica) double-majors in women’s studies and psychology. Miss Universe advocates against gender-based violence in her native South Africa. Miss USA is a lawyer working for fair trials for disadvantaged persons targeted in the criminal injustice system. And Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe, whose very bodies challenge the beauty paradigms of the pageants, wore their hair natural. These changes are subtle, but they have forced feminists to deepen their critiques.

#3: Black Superwomen, Gods and Racial Justice in HBO’s Watchmen

Already called one of the best—if not the best—TV show of the decade, HBO’s Watchmen, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, featured profound storytelling from showrunner Damon Lindelof and superb performances from its star Regina King, who anchors this alt-superhero universe as Angela Abar, who also masks herself as vigilante Sister Night.

While the source material focused on white characters, this iteration of Watchmen effortlessly weaved in characters of color and boldly explored the racial politics of this universe from the first episode. The show opened on the explosive scene of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and then ended its finale by boldly teasing the prospect of a black woman with godlike powers. In so many ways, Watchmen subverted the typical portrayals of black womanhood, in which our heroine is loved on by a doting husband who turns out to be a deity in disguise and regularly pulverizes white supremacists as part of her vigilantism. She also literally embodies the memories of her grandfather who survived the Tulsa massacre and witnesses/experiences a near lynching. That the show chooses another woman of color to vanquish all the white supremacists and stop them in their tracks before they engineer a world takeover is just icing on the cake.

Not only did Watchmen exact a satisfying approach to racial justice, it did so while also upending gender roles in the creation of one of the biggest, bravest and baddest black women superheroes to ever grace our screens. 

#2: (Even More) Women in the Director’s Seat

Over the years, women-led films have been out-earning other films at the box office, so perhaps it was just a matter of time before we started seeing more women behind the scenes. This marks an unprecedented year in which dozens of women directed successful films, both in terms of box office and critical acclaim.

Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, starred Alfre Woodard in a drama about the death penalty. Melina Matsoukas’ debut feature film, Queen and Slim, penned by award-winning Lena Waite, bridged the politics of #BlackLivesMatter with the love story of a couple on a first date who go on the run after killing a police officer in self-defense.

There were foreign films like Mati Diop’s Senegalese Atlantics, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, which engages magical realism to explore the impact of young men migrating to Europe and the loss felt by the women left behind. Another African film, Lionheart, was directed by popular Nollywood actress Genevieve Nnaji, who made her directorial debut. Also making her directorial debut is American actress Olivia Wilde with her independent teen comedy film, Booksmart, following two nerdy girls trying to break free from their roles to have fun their senior year in high school.

On the more serious side is Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, starring Awkwafina in a family drama linking the East and West. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers features a diverse cast of women (co-starring Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez) based on a true story about strippers scamming Wall-Street broker types; while Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood preached the kindness of Mr. Rogers (played by Tom Hanks).

Finally, there were the period dramas that reclaimed women’s history for contemporary feminist storytelling: from Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, which boldly twinned the horrors of rape alongside the colonization and genocide against indigenous peoples in Tasmania; to Celine Sciamma’s queer art film Portrait of a Lady on Fire; to Kasi Lemmons’ empowering Harriet, based on the life of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman; to Greta Gerwig’s meta approach to Little Women.

All these diverse movies illuminated the power of women to shape the camera’s gaze and ace the Bechdel test once they assume the director’s chair.

#1: From Surviving R. Kelly to #MuteRKelly

Even before 2019 began, Lifetime’s premiere of dream hampton’s game-changing documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, was greeted with threats of violence, thus signaling how explosive it would become once it aired. Channeling the #MeToo movement, the #MuteRKelly hashtag widely circulated in the wake of the documentary. 

Featuring survivors who endured sexual assault and other acts of violence they claimed occurred under the R&B singer, as well as members of the music industry and notable black feminists like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, Surviving R. Kelly explored complex issues of rape culture, racism and the enabling of abuse in contexts of fame and wealth. It also showcased how such pervasive violence took place for decades, which could only happen in a society that does not care about black women and girls who slip through the intersectional cracks of race and gender. Since the airing of Surviving R. Kelly, the singer has been arrested and now faces new and ongoing charges of sexual violence. Lifetime will air a second part to the documentary in the new year, which will explore the aftermath of Surviving R. Kelly and the power of media to effect social change.  

About

Janell Hobson is 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.