We explored this topic—in part—because a Bitch reader asked us to look into it. Got a question about feminism and pop culture that you want answered, too? Tell us!
To celebrate the closing of our 20th anniversary year, we asked the Bitch community to tell us about a pop culture moment that sparked or reignited their feminism. We received more than 100 moments and collected the most referenced to create this (chronological) list. Some of these moments are songs, television shows, and magazines. Some are movements and pop culture creators that we respect and admire. All of them have in common the registering of a “click moment” that sparked something real and strong in us. Feminism forever!
1. “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore (1963)
It can all start with a great song.
Can you believe “You Don’t Own Me” was recorded when Lesley Gore was just 17? Her words echoed in the hearts and minds of teenagers everywhere and in Gore’s obituary, the New York Times referred to “You Don’t Own Me” in the perfect words: “indelibly defiant.”
Gore said of the song, “As I got older, feminism became more a part of my life and more a part of our whole awareness, and I could see why people would use it as a feminist anthem. I don’t care what age you are — whether you’re 16 or 116 — there’s nothing more wonderful than standing on the stage and shaking your finger and singing, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’”
Lots of Bitch readers remember the song from a scene in the 1996 film The First Wives Club, but it never stops popping up: The song was also used in an anti-Mitt Romney PSA in 2012, and the 2016 film Suicide Squad featured a cool cover and a groovy remix of the original on its soundtrack.
And of course, it appears constantly in the hearts and minds of teenagers and feminsts and teenage feminists everywhere.
2. The Golden Girls (1985)
Some of us discovered it while watching Lifetime rerun marathons on days home sick from school, some of us were watching from the beginning, and some of us were watching with our mothers, but lots of members of the Bitch community have memories of watching The Golden Girls. The series was ahead of its time, exploring everything from chosen families and friendship to end-of-life care and sexual health, and depicting its four leads as attractive and sexually active. If you’ve never seen it, you have a great treat ahead.
3. Control by Janet Jackson (1986)
“My first name ain’t baby, it’s Janet—Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” is a pretty fantastic feminist rallying cry. The album also became an anti-Trump rallying cry after Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a nasty woman. And both cries are fitting, because Janet Jackson was inspired to write the songs on her breakthrough album after being sexually harassed on the street:
“The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That’s how songs like ‘Nasty’ and ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’ were born, out of a sense of self-defense. Control meant not only taking care of myself but living in a much less protected world. And doing that meant growing a tough skin. Getting attitude.”
Check out our Janet Jackson BitchTape if you’re ready to get into the nasty groove.
4. Sassy Magazine (1988)
Some Bitch readers grew up with Sassy magazine, and some grew up hearing of the legendary Sassy magazine. From our cofounder Andi Zeisler: “Those familiar with Bitch Media’s origins know that two of its founders interned at Sassy, that Sassy was the chief inspiration for Bitch, and that when Pratt perpetrated the extended celebrity ass-snuggling that was Jane magazine, we kind of lost our faith in her.” The magazine has been cited as a major influence on Tavi Gevinson and Rookie, a magazine, that just like Sassy, is creating a special place and community for teenage girls.
5. Riot Grrrl (1990s)
Wow this is a big one! Riot Grrrl is such an important part of pop culture and feminism that we have an entire categoy of articles about it on the Bitch site. Start with the great Popaganda episode “Riot Grrrl Revisited,” a review of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, and Kathleen Hanna on archiving Riot Grrrl. Keep in mind this quote from a piece on Riot Grrrl’s impact on art:
“Riot grrrl was never meant to have a single poster girl or be defined by one band. Riot grrrl identity is multi-dimensional, encompassing various mediums, political ideals, and lifestyles. It’s about DIY community-building, and working collaboratively against violence, capitalism, white supremacy, and the patriarchal state.”
6. Monica Lewinsky (1998)
Several Bitch readers talked about the disconnect and anger they felt watching the media treatment Bill Clinton received during his impeachment and the media treatment Monica Lewinsky received, including slut shaming. Lewinksy has intentionally taken up the subject of slut shaming and online harassment recently, in a 2014 Vanity Fair op-ed and in her 2015 TED Talk titled “The Price of Shame.” The talk has more than five million views.
7. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999)
Though Special Victims Unit began as just a spinoff, it’s now the longest-running of the Law & Order franchises, as well as one of the longest-running television series of all time. Lieutenant Olivia Benson has led her crew fearlessly through eighteen seasons, taking on all manner of especially heinous offenses, but from the beginning, the show has always treated the topic of sexual assault with care and thought. Most importantly, the detectives on SVU believe women. Want to read more about the amazing Olivia Benson? Who doesn’t. Last year, nine writers shared lessons they learned from Law & Order on Popaganda, and this essay movingly articulates how the show helped a survivor.
8. Pussy Riot (2012)
In 2012, five members of a Russian feminist punk collective performed a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral with the line: “Mother of God, get rid of Putin.” The world paid attention when three of those women were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison each. A member of Pussy Riot said the group formed after Putin returned to power in 2011 and many of them “realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow’s streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition with themes that are important to us: gender and LGBT rights, problems of masculine conformity, absence of a daring political message on the musical and art scenes, and the domination of males in all areas of public discourse.” Great quote, right?
Pussy Riot has a lot of lessons in punk feminist resistance we can use for the next four years.
9. Wendy Davis’s Filibuster (2013)
On June 25, 2013, Wendy Davis’s filibuster enthralled us. Davis stood in a smart suit and pink sneakers and spoke for eleven hours to block Texas Senate Bill 5, a measure that would have mandated restrictive abortion regulations, including a ban on abortions at 20 weeks, required oversight of women taking abortion-inducing drugs like RU-486, and recognition that the state has a compelling interest to protect fetuses from pain. Her filibuster was live-streamed and more than a hundred thousand folks tuned in. A few days later those pink sneakers were the top-selling shoes on Amazon. Though the bill passed in a later session, in 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the law is unconstitutional in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
10. Beyoncé & Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
When Beyoncé surprise-dropped her fifth studio album, we were all paying attention. And when we got to “***Flawless,” a song that samples Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” and heard the declaration: “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” we knew something special was happening. Beyoncé had taken an irrevocable “musical step toward the future.” In our Micro/Macro issue Tamara Winfrey Harris notes, “That Beyoncé speaks the language of feminism so publicly is even more notable in a climate where high-profile mainstream female entertainers often explicitly reject the very word.” All hail Queen Bey.
11. Steven Universe (2013)
Steven Universe is the first Cartoon Network series to be created and run by a woman, but that’s not all that makes it special. The show is sparkly, magical, and represents and unpacks gender in ways that kids can learn from. Most importantly:
“In Steven Universe, love is the cure. But women aren’t the only ones doling it out, nor are men merely receiving it as an impetus for self-transformation. Love is the currency of Steven Universe, and it transfers between characters with no regard for gender expectations.”
12. Kamala Khan (2014)
In the wake of President-elect Trump, Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan is the superhero we need more than ever. Kamala Khan was one of the most suggested pop culture moments in this list.
Kamala Khan is a Muslim-American teenage girl whose family is from Pakistan, but now resides in Jersey City. She’s the first Muslim character in the Marvel universe to headline her own title and Marvel editor and Kamala Khan creator Sana Amanat said she was trying to reprensent some of her own experiences growing up as a Muslim-American in Khan’s story. Ms. Marvel is written by G. Willow Wilson, who is also Muslim. “I wanted Ms. Marvel to be true-to-life, something real people could relate to, particularly young women,” Wilson said in a press release. “High school was a very vivid time in my life, so I drew heavily on those experiences—impending adulthood, dealing with school, emotionally charged friendships that are such a huge part of being a teenager. It’s for all the geek girls out there, and everybody else who’s ever looked at life from the fringe.”
13. Janet Mock & So POPular! (2015)
Janet Mock has worked as a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight and a contributing editor for Marie Claire, but it was her bestselling memoir, Redefining Realness, that made her a national star and one of the most recognizable trans women of color ever.
In 2015, she premiered her show So POPular!, which aims to foster “deeper conversations about culture that’s usually dismissed as fluff, taking a feminist and social justice lens to a series like The Real Housewives, for example.” Obviously, we’re so in. Check out this interview with Janet Mock for more of her greatness.
14. #FreeKesha (2016)
Kesha came onto the music scene in 2010 when her album Animal debuted as the number-one album in the United States. In 2014, she sued her producer Dr. Luke for alleged sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, gender violence, emotional abuse, and violation of California business practices which had occurred over 10 years—Kesha was signed by Dr. Luke to his label Kemosabe Entertainment when she was just 18. Kesha has also been petitioning to be released from her contract with Kemosabe Records, andm illions of fans rallied behind the hashtag #FreeKesha to support the musician being released from her contract with Dr. Luke. In February of this year, a New York Supreme Court judge ruled that Kesha was contractually bound to Sony and Kemosabe, Dr. Luke’s record label—despite her reports that the producer drugged and raped her when she was 18, and continued to abuse her for years afterward.
Though Kesha is still figuring out what her career is going to look like in the future, she’s received massive support for bringing the issue of sexual assault to the fore, including from musicians and producers who have offered to work with her for free. We talked more about Kesha on this episode of Backtalk, and if you’re ready for a good cry, Kesha’s performance of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is here for you.
15. Ghostbusters (2016)
Ghostbusters! While MRAs were whining about their destroyed boyhoods, lots of Bitch readers were buying popcorn and settling into their theatre seats to watch four women kick ass. If you need proof that the new Ghostbusters is capable of having an impact on women and girls worldwide, you need look no further than this gorgeous photograph of Kristen Wiig at the premiere with some mini-Ghostbusters. I’m not crying; you’re crying!
16. Jane the Virgin (2016)
Aside from the fact that Jane the Virgin features some of the most realistic women on television (and so many actors of color), one moment from the past season really stuck with the Bitch community: A Latina had an abortion on prime-time network television for the first time ever, and not only did she know what she wanted to do, she also didn’t spend time on camera debating it. We talked more about Jane the Virgin in this episode of Backtalk.
17. Lemonade (2016)
Uh, yeah, of course there’s more Beyoncé in this list.
Lemonade was a world event. Beyoncé debuted her amazing visual album in an HBO special, and I still remember the head-shaking awe I experienced every oh, four seconds watching it. There’s so much to say about this cultural landmark, so I’ll let our “Some of Us Are Brave” columnist Tamara Winfrey Harris take it from here. As she says, “The doors to the Church of Feminism are indeed open.”
18. “Soy Yo” by Bomba Estéreo (2016)
In the music video for “Soy Yo” by Colombian electro-cumbia band Bomba Estereo, a confident young girl walks through the streets of New York with no shame and all pride in her step. Watching the video, the Bitch community expressed a similar sentiment to this one from our piece “ ‘Soy Yo’ is a Necessary Anthem for Being a Loud and Proud Girl”:
“Watching ‘Soy Yo’ awakened feelings I had long forgotten. I can recall having a similar self-confidence, charisma, and love for movement as a young child. Now, as an adult, it becomes more difficult to tap into such qualities. Bomba Estereo’s music helped to revive my inner child and evoke these genuine personality traits once more.”
You go, girl.
19. Campus Sexual Assault (2016)
So many members of the Bitch community referenced the growing attention the world is paying to the issue of campus sexual assault. The documentary The Hunting Ground powerfully took on the culture of silence around rape on college campuses, and YA novels like Wrecked are addressing the issue, too. Personal stories from survivors are also coming to the fore, most famously the work of Columbia University artist and activist Emma Sulkowicz and Stanford sexual assault case survivor Emily Doe’s letter to her rapist, Brock Turner, which has been read millions of times and received a response from Vice President Joe Biden.
This groundswell of activists and artists grappling with the issue is truly powerful, inspirational, and transformative.
20. Ava DuVernay & A Wrinkle in Time (2016)
Everything director, screenwriter, film marketer, and film distributor Ava DuVernay touches turns to gold. Her 2014 film Selma was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Her series Queen Sugar and her documentary 13th about the Thirteenth Amendment are both fantastic. The announcement that she’d be directing A Wrinkle in Time, based on the YA science-fantasy classic filled our hearts with joy. And then her casting announcements? We are over the moon and too excited for 2017.