Tina Turner’s impact on the American cultural landscape—and her status as a feminist trailblazer—is undeniable.
Her iconic name was famously bestowed and trademarked without her permission by her abusive husband, who wanted her to emulate “wild” white women like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and Nyoka, the Jungle Girl, from 40s and 50s comics and film serials. The story of how Tina Turner got her stage name recalls the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the male artist who sculpts a woman out of ivory to satisfy his own desires.
But Tina Turner was no ivory statue, no Galatea, no Eliza Dolittle. Neither was she the white jungle goddess of her husband Ike Turner’s fantasies. Instead, she was the queen of rock & roll—a Black female superstar with global and crossover appeal who found her greatest success as a solo performer. She left Ike behind, but kept her name. Despite a childhood marked by poverty and racism in the Jim Crow South and a violent first marriage that left her with physical and emotional scars, Tina Turner was never defined by victimization. She ultimately became a model of triumph, determination, and self-made success, especially to women.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Turner was not publicly involved in the American civil rights or women’s rights movements. She did not march for causes, although she lent her star power to efforts like the 1985 Live Aid Concert and the 1985 charity single “We Are the World.” Her solo career breakthrough happened in England, where she recorded her multiplatinum album Private Dancer (1984). In later years, she retired to Switzerland, renouncing her American citizenship to naturalize as a Swiss citizen.
Turner embodied a present where a Black woman’s music and talent was, as Rolling Stone put it, “Worth sitting down and paying close attention to.”
Yet her impact on the American cultural landscape—and her status as a feminist trailblazer—is undeniable. Hers was a different kind of march, a strut really, into places previously barred to women and people of color. In 1967, she was the first woman and the first Black artist featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. Incidentally, Nichelle Nichols, also sporting a recognizable miniskirt, appeared on the cover of Ebony that same year. If Nichols signaled a space age future where a Black woman could be a Starfleet officer, then Turner embodied a present where a Black woman’s music and talent was, as the Rolling Stone caption put it, “Worth sitting down and paying close attention to.”
In 1988, she broke the world record for the highest attendance at a single artist’s ticketed concert, playing to 180,000 fans in Brazil. In 2000, she was the highest grossing live entertainer of the year. Her chart-topping hits spanned seven decades and she was inducted twice into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—first with Ike in 1991 and then, exactly thirty years later, as a solo artist in 2021.
As an actress, she played unprecedented roles, again proving her ability to transcend limits. Her electrifying performance as the Acid Queen in the 1975 British rock opera film Tommy showcased a cinematic rock goddess. In the 1985 Australian science fiction film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, her casting as Aunty Entity gave the world a charismatic Black femme fatale in a chainmail dress. The fact that neither film was an American production reiterates Turner’s global popularity and her ability to see the bigger picture. At a time when Black women were largely typecast or just plain invisible on the big screen, Turner looked to the fantastical and the speculative to make her mark.
In her 1992 book, Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks memorably criticized the role of Aunty Entity as a “Black ‘mammy’ turned power hungry and the sexual savage who uses her body to seduce and conquer men.” Of Turner’s solo career, hooks wrote that “Without Ike, Turner’s career has soared to new heights, particularly as she works harder to exploit the visual representation of woman (and particularly black woman) as sexual savage.” But Turner’s “wild” and “raw” persona was more than just a cold capitalist appropriation of stereotypes—it was an obvious source of performative pleasure, a form of play, and an image of empowerment that inspired millions of fans and generations of women. Her legendary dynamism, smoldering sensuality, raw vocals, minimalist outfits, and athletic choreography were also celebrations of Black womanhood. She carved out a reputation as a peerless artist who defied labels and was capable of reincarnation at any age.
Turner’s “wild” and “raw” persona was more than just a cold capitalist appropriation of stereotypes—it was an obvious source of performative pleasure, a form of play, and an image of empowerment that inspired millions of fans and generations of women.
In a popular edition of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, the source for the 1956 musical and 1964 film My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins declares to the uncouth Eliza Dolittle, “I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba.” In a similar act of ego and imposition, Ike Turner attempted to transform Anna Mae Bullock into Tina Turner, his personal “queen of the jungle.” But what remains startlingly clear as one looks back at the life and legacy of Tina Turner is that she was never just raw talent waiting to be shaped into a male fantasy of womanhood. Her undisputed titles as the Queen of Rock & Roll, the incomparable Acid Queen, and a queen of global hearts speak to a singular and autonomous legacy. In a poignant reversal of the Pygmalion narrative, Tina Turner was only ever the sculptor—claiming her voice, crafting her stage presence, and immortalizing her name.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.