From the swearing in of our first woman vice president, Kamala Harris, to the severe restrictions on reproductive rights, 2021 has been a mixed bag for feminism. Of course, popular culture—ever a pulse from which to measure the present moment—served as a guide this year for feminist expression.
Here is a list of what got us thinking and talking about feminism in popular culture.
10. Amanda Gorman: Making Poetry Cool Again
From the moment she stepped on the inauguration stage in her trademark yellow coat and red hairpiece—becoming the youngest poet to serve as an inaugural poet, discovered by First Lady Jill Biden—Amanda Gorman took the country (and world) by storm, capturing the moment of “healing” in her poem “The Hill We Climb,” so desperately needed only days after the horrors that unfolded on Capitol Hill on January 6.
Filled with grace, standing on the shoulders of previous Black women inaugural poets like Maya Angelou—Gorman dazzled us with her spoken word. It wasn’t long before her as-yet-to-be-published book of poems sold out, and she even performed at this year’s Super Bowl, an NFL first for a poet. She has graced the covers of Vogue and Time, walked the red carpet of the Met Gala and she’s just getting started. Here’s to making Black women’s poetry cool again!
9. Expanding Trans Representation
While Gorman embodies the best of what our country offers when it dares to be inclusive, other representations in popular culture have widened the net to challenge our gender binary representations. After only three seasons, the groundbreaking FX television series Pose bowed out gracefully but not before marking a historic first for its star MJ Rodriguez, who became the first trans woman to receive an Emmy nomination for her role as “house mother” Blanca Evangelista. The show’s progressive portrayal of 1980s and 1990s ballroom culture in New York City captured both the joys (voguing, loving) and sorrows (HIV/AIDS, homophobia/transphobia) of queer life within Black and Latinx communities. It was a short-lived journey but one that definitely left an indelible mark in the world of television.
Its impact can even be felt in the world of cinema, as Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story—apart from revamping the more problematic representations of Latinx in the original musical—reinterpreted “tomboy” character Anybodys as a trans man (played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas). Here’s hoping that these creative choices become more the norm than the exception.
8. More Women in the Director’s Chair
Among other historic firsts this year, Nia DaCosta became the first Black woman director to have a film—the reinterpreted racial justice horror Candyman—debut at number one at the U.S. domestic box office.
Earlier in the year, Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color and Asian American woman (and only the second woman in general) to win the Best Director Oscar for her brilliant film Nomadland about the economically forgotten.
The cinematic landscape is promising with more women earning opportunities to sit in the director’s chair on big (and small) movie projects. A major award contender, Jane Campion, is already a frontrunner in the Oscars race for her film The Power of the Dog, and previous actors, such as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Hall, have debuted with their first feature films, respectively The Lost Daughter and Passing, both stories placing women’s lives at the center.
Whether redefining masculinity (Power of the Dog), or race (Passing) or complicating expectations of motherhood (Lost Daughter), we are all the better when women finally call the shots at the movies.
7. Award-Winning Screenplays on Sexual Assault
It’s not just enough to have women behind the camera but also receiving honors. And this year, both the Oscars and Emmys rewarded two brilliant screenplays exploring the subject of rape: Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (which she also directed) won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and Michaela Coel’s HBO limited series I May Destroy You (which she also produced and starred in) received the Emmy for Writing in a Limited Series, becoming the first Black woman to win this award.
Both stories are uncompromising in their handling of the subject and courageously shifted narratives of victimization and revenge. Hopefully, these narratives will have ushered in new ways of telling the #MeToo story in which survivors are always more complicated than the story of assault that they must overcome.
As you can surely tell from my beaming smile: I am thrilled to now be officially inducted into the @rockhall as a solo artist. What an honor! I am grateful to so many people who stood by me on my journey here – especially you, dear fans. Keep on rocking! 💃🏿 pic.twitter.com/LSD2PE6FBk— TinaTurner (@LoveTinaTurner) October 31, 2021
Speaking of survivor stories, one of the most triumphant and courageous “survivors” in popular culture, Tina Turner, is the subject of HBO’s documentary film Tina. In a year in which she was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the music legend reclaimed her narrative, bravely telling her truth about her abusive relationship with first husband and manager Ike Turner and how she re-invented herself both musically and in her personal life. If ever there was an advertisement for how your life isn’t over after 40 or 50 or 60, this is the testimony!
While Tina Turner has officially “retired” from music and appeared at the premiere of the Broadway musical based on her life, she is quietly living her life in Switzerland, having made peace (she’s a practicing Buddha) with her past (including the tragedy of losing one of her sons) and living in her present moment. This is a truly awe-inspiring documentary.
5. Marginalized No More: Women in Hip-Hop
There is something to be said for the hypersexualization of women in hip-hop, and yet its biggest stars—Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion—have truly changed the game in the way they have shifted the “hip-hop hottie” from “object” into “subject.”
First, there was the pearl-clutching moment in which they performed their controversial “WAP” on the Grammys, but they have since gone on to bigger moments (Megan garnered three Grammy wins, including for Best New Artist). Megan not only became the first rapper to land a Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover, she has also signed a Netflix deal, expanding her “hottie” brand. She also graduated with a bachelor’s degree in health administration from Texas Southern University (a moment that she celebrated with #MegTheeGraduate).
As for Cardi B, who welcomed a son to her growing family, she has been named Creative Director for Playboy.
Of course, it’s easy to be cynical, as these mainstream media platforms seek to capitalize on racial diversity and the popularity of these women of color, but both rappers have proven themselves to be astute and aware of the machinations behind the industries in which they work. Here’s hoping they will know enough to maintain their subversive representations.
4. Taylor Swift Reclaiming Her Masters
It never would have been possible to go back & remake my previous work, uncovering lost art & forgotten gems along the way if you hadn’t emboldened me. Red is about to be mine again, but it has always been ours. Now we begin again. Red (my version) is outhttps://t.co/ZUAWDuv4jL pic.twitter.com/Ji26KdOlWQ— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) November 12, 2021
Speaking of subversion, is there anything more “boss move” than Taylor Swift not only owning her masters but re-recording all her songs so that she can own them outright? It’s an important lesson for artists but also for women as well, as they not only reclaim their artistry but their autonomy. Her re-release of Red, for example, may have gotten folks to gossip about some of her high-profile breakups, but the more important story is the way Taylor Swift owns her story and the way she wants to tell it.
Whether you’re a fan of Taylor Swift’s music or not, this moment must be celebrated.
3. Reclaiming Her Narrative: Monica Lewinsky as Executive Producer
Monica Lewinsky may very well be eternally linked to President Bill Clinton after their much publicized affair back in 1998, but what she has done triumphantly this year is to reclaim her narrative. Reclamation is the overall theme it seems in 2021 when it comes to feminist moments, but Lewinsky truly grabbed the reins and went on a full ride!
As a Hollywood executive producer, she gave us the provocative documentary 15 Minutes of Shame (which aired on HBO Max), an extension of her acclaimed TED TALK about the toxic effects of social media and the Internet (describing herself as “ground zero” for Internet shaming).
She also produced the equally provocative Impeachment for the FX anthology series American Crime Story. Helmed by impeccable performances from Sarah Paulson (as the infamous Linda Tripp) and Bernie Feldstein (playing the young and impressionable Monica), Impeachment included episodes recentering women in the political scandal: from Linda Tripp’s betrayal of her friendship with Monica to Hillary Clinton’s experience of infidelity to Paula Jones’s exploitation by those with political axes to grind. One of the more “feminist” moments juxtaposed the First Lady at the White House sitting for her Vogue portrait, while Paula Jones poses for Penthouse just to pay the bills after her expensive legal fees become insurmountable. The contrasts, in which both women pose under duress, upends notions of agency when confronted with limited choices.
The ending, however, in which young Monica literally reclaims her narrative at a book-signing event, leaves us on an ambiguous note. Suddenly confronted by her instant “celebrity,” she composes herself before meeting her adoring crowd of fans. “I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay.”
Somehow, knowing that she is still here and telling her story, flaws and all, it’s a reminder that we all survive and can indeed transcend the shame and the mistakes when we confront our stories with honesty and openness.
2. Rihanna is Barbados’s National Hero
Barbados declared singer Rihanna a national hero at its republican celebrations in her hometown of Bridgetown. Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced that the 33-year-old would be conferred with the honor of National Hero of Barbados to cheers https://t.co/z8RVAXnWBi pic.twitter.com/3P4TsgGtkO— Reuters (@Reuters) November 30, 2021
While it may be some time before we get new music from pop star Rihanna, she continues to make her own boss moves beyond the music industry. This year, she became the first woman billionaire in music, with the successful sales of her Fenty Beauty cosmetics and Savage X Fenty lingerie lines. She also was named Barbados’s National Hero at the same moment the country became a republic and removed Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state.
Rihanna, who has given back to her native island through her philanthropic Clara Lionel Foundation (named for her grandparents), has shown that her celebrity can indeed be a source for good and positive influence.
1. Changing the Narrative on Mental Health: from Princess to Athletes
While it may only be a coincidence that Barbados replaced one queen for their own homegrown one, other royals also shifted the conversation.
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who became the first woman of color to marry into the British Royal Family, sat down next to her husband Prince Harry to talk to Oprah about why they stepped down as senior royals. The interview, widely viewed both in the U.S. and U.K., made headlines for her accusations of racial prejudice within the family (although she spoke most favorably about the Queen herself), but mostly she shed light on the subject of mental health, a mantle that other high-profile celebrities took on this year: Most notably athletes like tennis champion Naomi Osaka and Olympics gymnastics champion Simone Biles. Suddenly, they changed the narrative on “quitting” as they boldly put their mental health first, helping others to finally talk about a once taboo subject. That it took women of color to raise the stakes is a subject we cannot overlook, shifting both the raced and gendered implications of the issue.