In a year when women seemed to dominate both culturally and economically, it was not hard to find many feminist moments in pop culture that defined 2023. Here are our top 10 favorites:
10. Rihanna Performs the Super Bowl Halftime Show
With high anticipation for pop star Rihanna’s debut performance at the Super Bowl’s halftime show earlier this year, very few expected to see a baby bump reveal so soon after she had given birth to her first child in 2022. While reviews of the show were mixed, the main headline centered on how Rihanna became the first person in history to perform the Super Bowl while pregnant. This was certainly quite the feat, as the pop star kept up the pace with scores of background dancers while floating in the air on high wires. She went for androgynous costuming, which could have easily camouflaged her pregnant belly, but she intentionally made her condition a subversive part of taking up space as a woman dominating such a male-dominated field (quite literally!) of football and sports that evening.
Her performance currently stands as the most-watched Super Bowl halftime show in history with over 120 million viewers. (Rewatch it here.) She gave birth to a second boy later in the year.
9. Women Confront Racism on Fictional Shows
With the increased presence of women of color across television and streaming services, it was only inevitable that their stories and experiences would take center stage in some creative, smart and provocative ways.
Specific highlights include Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix series Queen Charlotte—a prequel to her immensely popular Bridgerton—which tackles racism, sexism and mental illness in the subtlest of ways, while trafficking in the escapist fantasy of a Regency-era England open-minded enough to tolerate a biracial Queen of England (young Charlotte played by India Ria Amarteifio while series regular Golda Rosheuvel played the older queen).
The sixth season of the sci-fi series Black Mirror stands in stark contrast to Queen Charlotte‘s vision of a racially tolerant British culture. The show explores the alternate history of the postcolonial, anti-immigrant racism of 1970s Britain, with a focus on a South-Asian British working girl (played by Anjana Vasan) who is given an opportunity to kill her racist oppressors with the help of a handsome Black devil in the episode “Demon 79.”
In a more realist setting is the confrontational politics of the episode “White Noise” on Apple TV’s Morning Show, highlighting a searing performance by Nicole Beharie who plays a television anchor interviewing an executive who called her a racial slur while trying to undercut her salary.
HBO’s The Gilded Age highlighted African American history in subtler ways—from Booker T. Washington’s philosophy, to educational opportunities and the dangers of lynching—through the Ida B. Wells-like woman news reporter, depicted through Peggy Scott (played by Denée Benton).
From fantasy to realism, from history to the present, our stories dare to depict us in all our complexities and nuance.
8. Michelle Yeoh Makes Oscars History
With more acting roles for women of color come more opportunities to receive awards. And this year, Michelle Yeoh made Oscar history as the first Asian woman to win the Best Lead Actress Academy Award for her starring role in the Best Picture winner Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.
In her acceptance speech, the 60-year-old told us: “Ladies, don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re past your prime!”
Being a woman of color of a certain age is certainly inspiring, and Yeoh is more than deserving with a career-spanning oeuvre of critically acclaimed roles. This of course does not mean the Oscars is even remotely at the level of gender and race equality—as the same year, it had failed to recognize the outstanding all-Black cast of the feminist action drama The Woman King, and snubbed the excellent work of Danielle Deadwyler for her role as Mamie Till Mobley in the hard-hitting drama Till.
Still, it was a touching tribute to have Halle Berry, who made history as the first Black woman to win the Best Lead Actress Oscar, pass the torch to Yeoh during its Oscars telecast.
With the rising talents of Aunjanue Ellis in Origin and Native actor Lily Gladstone’s star turn in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon this year, here is hoping that Yeoh’s win will lead to more regular occurrences of award-winning actresses of color.
7. Women Lead Award Nominations
If women were a cultural force in 2023, this was made evident in the world of music: For the first time, women dominated award nominations for two top prizes in music:
- MTV’s Video Music Awards for Video of the Year—where Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” beat out videos by Miley Cyrus, Olivia Rodrigo, SZA, Doja Cat and Sam Smith featuring trans woman Kim Petras.
- The Grammy Awards for Album of the Year—including SZA leading with the most nominations, Swift, Cyrus, Rodrigo, Janelle Monáe and Lana Del Rey.
Given how women “pop stars” are often dismissed for their musicality—in comparison to, say, “rock stars”—this is quite the accomplishment and an indicator that women are driving and shaping the culture at large. From Janelle Monáe’s The Age of Pleasure—affirming nonbinary and queer and polyamorous desire—to Lana Del Rey’s musically innovative Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, to SZA’s breakup album SOS, which dominated album sales for a good chunk of 2023; these women artists tapped into the culture’s zeitgeist by expertly articulating our collective anxiety, angst, and strong desires for escapism.
6. Raising Women’s Voices for Hip-Hop’s 50th Anniversary
Hip-hop—the ultimate youth culture expression—proved it too can grow old gracefully, and throughout the year, we witnessed different elaborate celebrations of its 50th birthday. While often depicted as a male-dominated genre, Ms.‘ “Turning 50” series highlighted the many women who have shaped the culture from jump: from Cindy Campbell, the sister of DJ Kool Herc, who issued the invitations to that first hip-hop party, to producer Sylvia Robinson who amplified the music to a commercially viable audience.
Joining Ms. in this endeavor to spotlight women in the culture, filmmaker and writer Dream Hampton premiered her documentary Ladies First on Netflix, while the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted Missy Elliott as its first female rapper. Not to be outdone, the Kennedy Center Awards selected rapper Queen Latifah as an honoree, also making history like Elliott as the first female rapper to receive this award. Added to these honors, women hip-hop artists, from Megan Thee Stallion to Cardi B to Nicki Minaj to newcomers like Ice Spice and Flyana Boss are making waves throughout pop culture. No wonder the New York Times declared “the future of rap is female”!
5. Adult Survivors Act and Its Potential Impact on Music
If the future of music is decidedly female-driven, we cannot advance without reconciling with its volatile past.
Drew Dixon, one of the hip-hop voices highlighted in our “Turning 50” series, has accepted that her legacy is more than just facilitating iconic rap records and hip-hop artists. She is also shaping the voices of survivors when she not only spoke out about sexual harassment and assault in the music industry—through the HBO Max documentary On the Record (2020)—but emerged as a leader pushing for the Adult Survivors Act in New York, which expired last month but allowed adult survivors to seek justice beyond the statute of limitations for sexual assault and harassment.
With this policy in place, more than 2,500 survivors came forward—including Dixon herself who filed a lawsuit against music executive L.A. Reid—while other survivors made accusations against hip-hop music mogul P. Diddy, among others. The future of this act is unclear, as is the impact on survivors and those in the music industry with the cultural, social and financial power to evade justice.
Whatever the outcome, we salute those survivors, like Dixon, who dare to break the silence and seek redress.
4. Fran Drescher’s Leadership During the SAG-AFTRA Strikes
Prior to her presidency of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Theatrical and Radio Actors (SAG-AFTRA), Fran Drescher was most known for her titular Emmy-nominated comedic role in The Nanny. But this year, she presided over a 118-day SAG-AFTRA strike, which demanded better wages for actors and protections against the rising threat of AI technology.
Even when higher-end celebrities sought to end the strike earlier with their own deal, Drescher stood firm in representing the guild and modeled a different kind of leadership of persistence and influence that many have praised. Given the length of the strike and its impact on the entertainment landscape, we could not let this year go without acknowledging a strong woman leader who would not back down without a fight (and a billion dollar deal).
3. More Women of Color Featured On (and Off) the Big Screen
Just as with television and streaming services, more women of color are establishing a bigger presence on and off the big screen—from terrifying horror stories like Talk to Me and The Exorcist: Believer, to raunchy comedy like the all-Asian cast of Joy Ride (directed by Adele Lim), to action adventures like The Marvels (directed by Nia DaCosta, the first Black woman to helm a big-budgeted superhero blockbuster film, and starring the multiracial cast of Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and Iman Vellani).
Women are now front and center and no longer simply supporting roles. Even racially controversial moves, like casting the beautiful and vocally talented Halle Bailey in the live remake of The Little Mermaid, paid off considerably for Disney. Diversity is a lucrative market—contrary to what white supremacists and chauvinistic naysayers believe—and the wave of our present and future.
With as yet to be released movies—from Oprah Winfrey-produced The Color Purple musical, to Ava DuVernay’s Origin starring Aunjanue Ellis and based on the critically acclaimed book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson—this trend does not seem to be fading away. We can only hope this continues in the right direction.
2. Barbie Tackles the Patriarchy
As much as there is to celebrate in the year of women in movies, nothing came close to the sheer cultural impact of the box-office-smashing Barbie, the first movie directed by a woman (Greta Gerwig) to achieve this status. It was fun, hilarious, and literally tacked the “patriarchy” in a tongue-in-cheek engagement with feminist theory. This is quite the journey for a doll that used to be dismantled and deconstructed by actual feminist theorists. Now, here is a film directed by a decidedly feminist filmmaker well-versed in this discourse and able to influence a global audience on issues of gender equality and women’s liberation.
What a lesson in feminist art opening up our imaginations to think differently about the world we wish to live in—whether in play (through our Barbie-made doll houses) or in the “real world.”
1. The Sisterhood and Combined Star Power of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift
This year belongs to the combined star power of pop stars Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. No one else dominated our culture and our economy like these two. This was, of course, inevitable, given their mass appeal to women (as well as queer and communities of color to whom Beyoncé dedicated her Renaissance era).
When her Renaissance World Tour closed in early October, Beyoncé made history as the first woman and first African American performer with the highest-grossing world tour, making the top 10 tours of all time with a gross of $579 million. And to top that off, she turned around to write, direct and produce a concert film documentary based on that same history-making tour! Not bad for an entertainer who began the year as the most decorated Grammy Awards winner.
Not to be outdone, Taylor Swift—who holds the record for a woman solo artist with the most Album of the Year Grammy Awards (three total)—reclaimed her masters, became the first woman billionaire just from her music alone, and was the first entertainer to be selected for Time’s Person of the Year. In addition, she headlined a 100-plus world tour called Eras, which also was turned into a concert film that broke records when it grossed $98 million during its opening weekend. In the end, Swift’s Eras tour became the first tour in history to gross over $1 billion.
Together with their Renaissance and Eras tours, Beyoncé and Swift drove the global economy.
Swift is also the most streamed music artist, encouraged her millions of followers to register to vote, and generously gave big bonuses to her tour workers; while Beyoncé hired several women for her world tour. Swift gave generously to food banks at each tour stop, and Beyoncé opened a housing complex for the homeless this year with Destiny’s Child bandmate Kelly Rowland in their hometown of Houston, Texas. Both Beyoncé and Swift have demonstrated their propensity for philanthropy—while also making “money moves.” Both pop stars negotiated with AMC Theaters so that they can be paid directly in a 50-50 deal with their film distributions. These women, insisting on gender pay equity and independence, are the role models.
Beyond their popularity, however, is their demonstration of sisterhood as they each supported each other by appearing at each other’s movie premieres. And when Taylor Swift was selected as Time’s Person of the Year, she commented on how neither she nor Beyoncé will play the game of “pitting women against each other.” This is admirable, given how both women benefit from “pretty privilege”—with Swift having the added advantage of white privilege (after all, she would not be attacked for sporting platinum blonde hair and, thus, be accused of self-hate, as had occurred with Beyoncé, who discussed in her Renaissance film the micro-aggressions she has faced as a Black woman). If whiteness is still culturally dominant, it stands to reason that one star is held up as an ideal, while the other is celebrated (yet still criticized) for her proximity to it.
Both women—as self-identified feminists—have received backlash from conservatives, or have been accused by progressives of not doing enough politically. Nevertheless, they have both ascended to the top of pop stardom by their own merits and have achieved “independent” status, regardless of their marital status (Beyoncé is married with three children, and Swift is perpetually single with a string of romances, while posing with one of her cats on Time’s Person of the Year cover in a subversive upending of the “cat lady” stereotype).
Media, stan culture and businesses may be invested in competitions, but Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have modeled a sisterhood and a path forward on how women can shine and adjust the light for others. More than their lucrative deals, high-grossing world tours and movies, more than their fans, is a story of powerful women recognizing how their stars shine brighter in a constellation rather than in an eclipse.
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