Celebrity feminism through pop music: “I don’t need a man, I put my own rock on my hand!”
Celebrity feminism has become a trend within the last decade. Many celebrities, ranging from Beyoncé and Taylor Swift to Emma Watson and Angelina Jolie, are not only calling themselves feminist but also making feminism a significant part of their mediated identity.
Only with feminism’s recent popularity have many celebrities started calling themselves feminists publicly, utilising the increased popularity of feminism to improve their own popularity and brand. With celebrities’ high visibility in society, their public support for feminism has contributed to feminism becoming trendier in popular culture.
Even though feminism gaining more visibility and popularity at first seems beneficial for progressing gender equality, the kind of feminism that has become popular only acknowledges the existence of gender inequality without recognising or challenging patriarchal structures that cause this inequality.
Although celebrities are real people, what is perceived as the celebrity in society is actually a commodified product created to be consumed by society. The images of celebrities within society are constructed carefully through various media, including films and TV, music videos, songs, news, and social media, by the work of various forces, such as production, marketing, publicity, news sites, audiences, and the celebrity themselves.
Feminism and celebreties
Celebrities have started to use the feminist label to complete their calculatedly constructed mediated images. Therefore, they often sell feminism like a product, for example through their music, as part of their image. This commodification of feminism decreases feminism’s political and social value.
Celebrity feminism is an example of popular feminism, which is influenced by neoliberal consumer culture. Popular feminism typically fosters neoliberal values, such as individuality, financial success, independence, and confidence, which can be used to advertise and sell a variety of products.
With the celebrity use of popular feminism increasing, many pop music songs with feminist messages have started to emerge in the last decade. Most of these feminist songs are about the empowerment of women, specifically financial independence and success, happiness without needing a man, and sexual confidence and agency, which reflect neoliberal individual values.
For example, the girl group Little Mix has many songs with feminist messages, most of which reference being happy without and not needing a man. The chorus of their song ‘Joan of Arc’ repeats “I don’t need a man,” the lyrics of their song ‘Salute’ includes “We don’t need no man,” and the chorus of their song ‘Power’ includes “You’re the man but I got the power.” Another similar song is ‘I Don’t Need a Man’ by the girl group the Pussycat Dolls, whose title and repeated lyrics promote not needing a man.
Being financially successful without needing a man is a common theme in feminist pop songs. Little Mix’s ‘Joan of Arc’ includes the lyrics, “I don’t want your cash, I put my own rock on my hand,” in the chorus. The Pussycat Dolls’ ‘I Don’t Need a Man’ includes the lyrics, “You know I got my own life, and I bought everything that’s in it.” The chorus of rappers Saweetie and Doja Cat’s song ‘Best Friend’, which is about the power of female friendships, contains the lyrics, “Got her own money, she don’t need no [man].”
The whole concept of the girl group Destiny’s Child’s song ‘Independent Women’ is women making their own money independently and includes many references to the objects the woman bought herself, including her own diamonds, rings, clothes, house, and car. Beyoncé’s song ‘Run the World (Girls)’ includes the lyrics, “This goes out to all my girls that’s in the club rocking the latest, who will buy it for themselves and get more money later.” In her song ‘Flawless’, Beyoncé sings “My diamond, flawless,” focusing on how self-bought materials make women flawless.
Songs through which women can express their sexuality are often instantly viewed as feminist. For example, rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s song ‘WAP’ has been branded as a feminist anthem, as through the song the two women express their sexuality in a way that men have long done, especially in hip-hop music.
Similarly, in Beyoncé’s feminist-considered song ‘Flawless’, featured artist Nicki Minaj raps, “This every hood n***a dream, fantasizin’ ’bout Nicki and B. Curvalicious, p*ssy served delicious.” Although such songs can be viewed as a form of women’s sexual agency, in effect they end up commodifying women’s sexuality and selling it as a product to make profit.
Even though these messages about independency are attempts to defy the social norms of women having to depend on men and being judged for expressing their sexuality, these songs usually do not reference or challenge power structures that still cause a gender pay gap and objectify women for profit. These forms of feminism focus on individual empowerment as the main means of achieving gender equality, and not dismantling the patriarchy.
The feminism of celebrities has mostly been white heteronormative feminism. Promoting a form of feminism that does not critique capitalism continues to profit celebrities, as capitalist structures allow them to become millionaires and billionaires, and allows the entertainment industry to keep making profit through them.
For example, singer Taylor Swift has been criticised for promoting a white feminism. Swift accused Nicki Minaj of “pitting women against each other,” when Minaj criticised the MTV VMAs for nominating only videos that “celebrate [white] women with very slim bodies,” for its most important award, Video of the Year, which shows how Swift did not understand that women of colour and women with body types that are not accepted as traditionally beautiful are often treated worse than white women.
Although the visibility of diversity has increased in the media, popular culture products often do not actually acknowledge or challenge intersecting structures of oppression, such as sexism, racism, and homophobia, which continue to create inequality, discrimination, and unfair privilege in society.
Ariana Grande’s song ‘7 rings’ is about the value of materialistic possessions and female friendships after a break-up, as she sings that she “bought matching diamonds for six of my bitches.” The song tries to promote female empowerment and resilience, and independence from men, which can be seen as feminist, but it also promotes neoliberal, materialistic ideals, putting value on women for being rich, which is inherently un-feminist.
Moreover, Grande has been criticised for the appropriation of Black culture through using hip-hop, trap and R&B sounds for her albums, ‘thank u next’, ‘sweetener’, and ‘positions’, as well as her presentation. She used Black fashion style for the video of her song ‘7 rings’, wearing the culture like a costume. She also appropriated Japanese culture in the video for ‘7 rings’ by using the Asian language for aesthetics.
Grande has also been accused of blackfishing through using spray tan to make herself look like a person of colour, when she is a white woman of Italian origin, to draw in certain audiences and make profit.
Many celebrities, such as Grande, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Miley Cyrus and Jesy Nelson, have appropriated cultures that are not their own for their aesthetic, without acknowledging the power structures that cause people to be judged for having those characteristics naturally or respecting that culture.
Beauty standards are affected by race, where certain characteristics attributed to non-white cultures are not considered as traditionally beautiful most of the time. Many white celebrities use their highly visible acts of cultural appropriation to appear cool and edgy, and make profit, without feeling any of the associated struggle because of their white privilege, while people of colour are judged and discriminated against for their own culture and natural characteristics.
Feminism through music can be effective in raising awareness, since celebrities and pop music, in general, have high visibility and access a wide range of people. However, without activism, these performances of feminism do not really change power structures and only works to market the celebrity as cool, trendy, and socially conscious, and to make profit, whether from selling their songs, live performances, films, merchandise, or advertised products.
Feminism has become a brand more than a political and social movement. Although celebrities embracing the title of feminist helps destigmatise the label, it should be reclaimed for political purposes. Moreover, the work of dismantling systems of oppression needs to continue along with increasing social consciousness.
Consequently, celebrity feminism mostly works to promote sexual empowerment and financial independence of women, without acknowledging or criticising structures of power that continue to marginalise and oppress many women that do not have the privileges of celebrities. Nonetheless, celebrity feminism still acts as a powerful tool of raising awareness, especially for younger generations, and feminist music can be an instrument for feeling empowered.
About the author
Meril Taseli is a 23-year-old, Cypriot journalist, who has recently graduated from MSc Gender, Media and Culture at LSE and previously from BA European Social and Political Studies at UCL.
Her writing interest areas include feminism and pop culture, including TV, films and music, and gender, sexuality and politics.