Where Have All the Riot Grrrls Gone? Pop Music and “Post-Feminism”

There was a pretty interesting article in yesterday's Houston Chronicle about some of today's female pop stars. The author, Steve Haruch, describes how candy pop acts like The Veronicas, Katy Perry, and Lady GaGa are consistently referred to as "post-feminist" by the media without there being much evidence for the claim (save for perhaps some glitter and a song about faux-lesianism).

I agree with Haruch; though I sometimes jam out to "Pokerface" I do not consider it a feminist anthem in any sense. And post-feminism? I don't buy it. What I do want to know is, are there any pop stars out there right now who are holding it down for feminism? Where have all the riot grrrls gone?

Before we go any further, I realize that there is a division among us feminists and her name is Beyonce. Blog readers may recall my Beyonce power pack wherein I made the claim that Ms. B is more of a feminist icon than she gets credit for. I also LOVE Beyonce and am willing to admit my biases. (But she does sing about empowering women instead of smooching them to get attention from men, so that's something, right? Right?!?) Haruch thinks otherwise:

As the F-word devolves further into marketing PR-speak, we're left with Katy Perry's infantilized, finger-sucking "naughtiness" — sexual transgression for the sake of male titillation more than anything — and a long list of songs that are Feminist Lite at best. (Really, Beyoncé could find another guy? What power! Meanwhile, Jay-Z's got 99 problems, and, um, a lady ain't one.)

Sigh. Fair enough. Pop stars like Perry, The Veronicas, Knowles, and GaGa (hey, it's her last name, right?) may be mentioned in the same breath as post-feminism because they are women who do not necessarily espouse feminist values, or care about them (though remember, I beg to differ when it comes to B). But I don't think that mean we're living in a post-feminist society, it simply means that these women aren't feminists. And why not? Is it because feminist pop singers have paved the way for them? Or is there just not room for gender equality in the world of pop music?

What I really want to know is, which pop stars are representing feminist values? Are there any popular singers out there who are actually keeping it real in the name of the f-word and still enjoying successful music careers? And do you think there is reason to hope that some of the post-feminist-lite pop singers out there will pick up a copy of Sisterhood is Powerful and change their tunes? Or is the pop music scene too far gone? Is it time for us to get out our old riot grrrl albums and call it a day when it comes to women and the current music scene? I hope not. Not because I don't love riot grrrl music (come on, I work for Bitch) but because I want to go out to the clubzzz and hear the beat of feminism alive and kickin'.

I could really use some help here, because I loves me some pop music but I hate supporting cheesy "post-feminist" acts. I never thought I'd say this, but some of the music out there today makes me long for The Spice Girls and their "girl power" message. Sorry, but The Pussycat Dolls just aren't cutting it. (Kids today, right? What happened to the 90s?!?) So if you've been rocking out to an awesome feminist pop song or act lately, write about it in the comments section!

Related posts:
Power Pack: Beyonce Knowles
Girls Like Us
Teen Girls + Boy Love Dolls = Tru (heart) + $ 4Ever
I'm anticipating the new Christina Aguilera album and I'm not ashamed of it

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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31 Comments Have Been Posted

I have a little confusion

I have a little confusion about the terminology here. I don't think of riot grrl music as pop music -- I think of it as rock. I can't think of any pop singers that have ever been as openly engaged in the question of feminism as bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney. But maybe I'm just splitting hairs? In any case, there are lots of indie musicians that I would say are not misogynistic, but does non-misogynistic = feminist? Am I splitting hairs again?

No, I don't think you're

No, I don't think you're splitting hairs -- bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney would fall under the "rock" classification in my book as well. I guess I was thinking of more pop-y riot grrrl fare (which might be considered riot grrrl lite) like Hole and even early No Doubt. Bands that were very popular and had videos in heavy rotation on MTV, and yet still identified as feminist and attempted (though not always successfully) to write songs that dealt with feminist issues while still remaining in the pop music genre.

Pop music and feminism definitely at odds...

I did some extensive study on this topic for a women's study class and found the lack of feminism (and feminism influence) to be disturbing throughout pop/rock culture. Just look at any Rolling Stone cover to know that male artists are regarded as "king"s, "genius, " etc. and see words like "dirty," "naughty," and "sexy" applied to the female artists. I really don't see anything feminist about Lady Gaga, Pussycat Dolls, and a host of other female artists that seem to be dominating pop culture.

However, I do find a lot of hope for those of us who grew up w/Joan Jett, Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner and even before then w/Carole King, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, etc. There are still women making great music and showcasing their talent instead of their body parts: Brandi Carlisle, Adele, and Regina Spektor...the fact that their popularity is also growing amongst 20 and 30-somethings makes me hopeful that the fads that attract the teenage population do get old and die out when maturation leads to yearning for something with a little more meaning.

And I have to give a thumbs up to American Idol - no matter what you think of the cheeziness and exploitation of the talentless, when you look at the female artists who were chosen by the public, the public always picked substance over style. Artists like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia and Jordin Sparks never had to put their lady parts out there to get noticed or have an attention-grabbing scandal to get attention. What we're seeing in today's pop music culture is largely the industry trying to push something that is more "marketable" onto the public. Unfortunately, this is done mostly by a lot of men who would die at the altar of "sex sells" rather than by artists who want to share and inspire.

I agree there is a serious

I agree there is a serious lack of feminism/feminist identity within pop music. I also have to agree with the notion that a pop music machine exists solely for the purpace of generating large sums of money not only for the artists, but their management and affiliated record companies. So the question is, why is feminism not welcome? Perhaps a better question to ask is, where are the women owned record companies? The fact that major record companies are predominantly composed of male executives, owners and managers might explain some of pop music's feminist short-comings. After all, the number one objective within pop music is to make a profit, not to spout political/feminist lyrics that question the very foundation of the pop machine itself. Rather, pop music seems to subscribe to a formula: good looks + sex = hit record. The music that accompanies this equation is an afterthought, second to the image being sold. While it is commendable that some pop artists such as Pink and Christina Aguillera have bucked the system, somewhat, in order to carve out their own identity and voice, the fact remains that the majority of pop artists have songs written for them, and they pick and choose (most likely with the help of their managers, executives, etc.) what they will record like they are picking out which kind of soda they want from a convience store. There is little self introspection in this process and let's face it, to identify as a feminist and to generate a feminist view in this world requires some self introspection. It seems like we are taking any scrap of what appears to resemble girl power within pop music and call it feminism because that's all there is. For me Beyonce's music poses a problem when it comes to the feminism question. After all, living in a post-modern world, we know that language is more meaningful than we like to think and the fact that Beyonce's songs contain the lyrics "if you like it, put a ring on it" objectifies women as things, "its" that can be bought, not human beings to be treated with respect. The fact that Beyonce gyrates her hips and legs in a garment that no one in their right mind would wear outside of a swimming pool doesn't help. She didn't need the Brittney paparrazzi crotch shot, she put it in a music video tinted in black and white (to make it more classy?) Many have already commented that feminsim can be found in the musical subcultures, which makes sense for a few reasons. One, within the indie culture the rejection of mainstream identites is often a given, thus the lack of feminism in pop music illicits a response within the indie subculture to fill that void. Also, these artists are driven by making music as a higher priority to making a profit, another act of rejecting the dominant culture. While the dominant culture claims we are living in a "post-feminist" world, this term is problematic because it implies that feminism is no longer needed (and I think we would all agree that's a grossly wrong assumption). Thus, feminism may be "dead" in the mainstream, but it is alive and thriving within the indie subculture. This is especially true for indie music and film. Strange that feminism has submerged "underground." How do we pull it out into the mainstream? Do we want to?

I hear Beautiful and I think...

Two Words:

Christina Aguilera

She is most assuredly pop music, not rock, and she is a proud, f-word wearing feminist. As in, she will proclaim it loudly, even when some of my rocking heroes like PJ Harvey won't call themselves feminists. She also works for women's and gay rights.

I know, some people will call attention to some of her heavily sexualized songs/looks (Dirrty?) But I think in the context that she obviously has some political ideas and strong convictions, I'm not sure that we can say that's any worse than something like a feminist burlesque troop who we're sure is in on the statement. I'm more of a rock, especially riot grrrl, type grrrl myself, but I think to claim she's not a feminist is marginalizing her just because she sings pop music, which is considered inherently lesser than other, more credible types of music. Hey, it sells, and why shouldn't we like to have someone who's reaching millions of girls not be afraid to wear her "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like" tshirt.


Did you read Ashley's post from a few weeks ago on XTina? (The link is above under "related posts") I think you're right that she might not be considered a feminist by some simply because of how she looks and the fact that she is a pop artist. But take a look at this video:

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It may not be perfect, but I think it is feminist at heart. (Also, I love this song!)

these pop stars are the

these pop stars are the result of a general impoverishing of contents typical of the contemporary society,in which everything must simple and appealing and functional.
and they represent the simple and appealing and functional side of feminism.
the one according to which girls can wear whatever they like,go out and have fun without feeling guilty,explore their sexuality with no shame,have more than one partner without being labeled as sluts etc.
that sounds like the fun part,and it does exists,i mean,these things are right and i'm not saying they are superficial sides of the matter or something.
the thing is they're part of a bigger project - which altogether put up the whole feminism act.
but they just ignore it - consciously or not. they miss the bigger frame and just exploit the convenient part of it. and it sells.

the only thing that's simple

the only thing that's simple is you. if you all have to scream "feminism" at the top of your lungs just to make yourself heard then you really are a sorry lot. i have tits and i like them - end of story.

no no, thats you....you just

no no, thats you....you just proved their point. not the article in particular but in general.
the scope of taking eerything face value has developed a lack of thought behind how we percieve gender and its social construction. its you and all women and men we take a stand against these binaries and their assumption. how dare you...

Feminist Music/Feminist Music Artists or both

I love this post! My question is are we talking about pop music artists whose songs have feminist content, or are artists whose content is simply not misogynistic, hyper-sexualized or full of gender inequity? OR are we talking about artists who are feminists and wouldn't deny proclaiming so, even if their music doesn't speak directly to feminism? This may seem nitpicky, but it's a genuine question I have, as a female, feminist music artist myself. I don't like to get hung up on criteria at all, and I think regardless, this is an excellent post and the conversation surrounding it is important. I am constantly trying to represent feminism in my musical approach, persona and finished product, in blatant and subtle ways, and how music artists "own it" or "neglect it" is an interesting topic.

It's not quite the same category...

...but when you ask the question about what awesome feminist acts I've been rocking out to lately I have to mention Amanda F'n Palmer.


fuck yes!



Ugh I would not call AP

Ugh I would not call AP feminist, per say. She seems so at first, but having followed her music for several years, there's something super off about it all. She lowers her voice below where it would be naturally to cultivate the authority of a more male sounding voice, she says women shouldn't be "afraid to be feminine" (uh, since when have we been, it's normative?) among other kinda weird things. I don't think she's a feminist, I think she's just self absorbed.

I don't really follow Amanda

I don't really follow Amanda Palmer but I do have something to say about the whole "afraid to be feminine" thing.

Femininity may be normative, but it is also very much looked down upon. Erica Jong wrote a great article a couple years back about how fiction dealing with romantic relationships will never be taken seriously because it's considered too feminine to be important. There's a very strong tendency to associate "girliness" with stupidity, and a lot of traits generally considered feminine are also considered to be signs of weakness.

If that's what she was talking about then more power to her.

grrrl pop

I don't even know where to start!

The Blow
Pan de Sal
Le Tigre
Lesbians on Ecstacy
Crystal Castles

Obviously these bands/ppl aren't all pop, they're mainly in electro- or indie- sub genres but that's to be expected. The POP machine isn't necessarily a feminist playground but a misogynistic patriarchal creation that keeps us in a specific cultural place. The above artists have carved out a political and ethical niche in post-pop. I'd rather look for the post-pop'rs in feminism over the post-feminists in pop. feminism and feminist culture is where it's at. pop just isn't.

What has YACHT done? I'd be

What has YACHT done? I'd be interested to know what he's done. I love his music, his lyrics are very positive and empowering most of the time

Pure Pop?

Love this post. As the other comments have mentioned, there are a ton of indie/electro bands that openly espouse a feminist tone, but for pure pop I'd say Pink does a pretty great job. I'm thinking of songs like Stupid Girls, Sober and So What... even when Pink is making pop songs about gender construction, alcoholism and divorce she always comes off as empowered and badass.


Pink definitely has a huge influence on me and my friends(male and female). when we talk about pink or listen to her music we all appreciate the empowerment she gives to woman. she is a strong and independent woman, and a totally awesome artist! she is the best. even when she sings "please don't leave me" she is still confidant, and not to proud to admit that she was wrong! that's what makes her awesome!

Riot grrrl music to me is

Riot grrrl music to me is more of a genre and style, as well as time period (think The Raincoats, Bratmobile and The Gits). But when it comes to applying that term for current musicians, I think of CocoRosie, Le Tigre, M.I.A., Santogold, Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and most definitely Alix Olson.

I know I'd be a huge fan of the following west coast bands even if I still lived in South Florida, so here's my loving list:

Tender Forever
Erase Errata
New Bloods
Tender Forever


IMHO Beyonce is the antithesis of feminism. Regarding If I were a Boy, why not refuse to accept a man who does not answer your calls, and hardly recognizes your presence? Did you not see the Deja Vu video where Beyonce is literally undoing JayZ's belt while he is pretending like she does not exist? Or in Single Ladies, if you liked 'it'--I think this is more about sex than anything else cause she's basically saying 'you didn't want it so i got another man and i'm flaunting him in front of you to make you jealous'--not because the woman is actually seeking something greater. How about Ring the Alarm where she blatantly says 'i don't want you but i want it' and talking about how the other woman will take the chinchilla coats and other material items 'if i let you go'--as if she's more attached to the material items than anything else. This whole dynamic of women wanting men for money and resources and taking their garbage in their quest is played out and frankly we deserve better if we can really and actually do it for ourselves.

Must we forget Beyonce's greatest hit 'crazy in love' where Jayz sets her on fire in a car? Am i the only person who saw that?? And why is she so crazy and 'not myself' while he's so cool and confident and she's so dispensable he can set her alight? Oh yeah, then she just shows up for a booty dance. Sorry, girlies, I don't see the feminism here. I put Beyonce in the same category as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and even money hungry rappers like Lil Wayne (hence 'i got so many Benjis I dont' know how to spend in Diva). Fine we haven't seen her crotch shots (actually some have appeared on the web but she has amazing management who will squash the distribution--i.e. her father). Regardless she is always under the thumb of a man whether it's her dad or Jayz, but frankly I don't think we've ever gotten to learn who the real Beyonce is or what she actually thinks. The whole Sasha Fierce gimmick is a way to excuse otherwise slutty stage behavior while protecting her as an innocent while she pops that cooch, many times on a pole actually (google image it, but here you go). http://turkeywhisperer.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/bm.jpg

Beyonce can go and do hers and keep on making that money, but let's not fool ourselves that she's some sort of role model like Alicia Keys (um..clothed AND Columbia Univ. anyone--too good), vocal powerhouse like Jennifer Hudson, or brilliant and political mind like MIA who has the guts to spit at every stereotype and rock the Grammys fully pregnant with HER song which unfortunately other rappers had to jump on, ironically rapping 'Nobody's got swagger like us''--they actually stole her swagger.

I think Beyonce makes for a fascinating study in marketing but otherwise her overall message is weak and I have not even mentioned how she sounds in interviews with her limited vocabulary and thoughtless blabber, please this girl should have been in school instead of 'Since 15 in my stilettos' as she boasts in 'Diva'.

All my single ladies--shouldn't we have higher standards?

I can think of individual

I can think of individual feminist songs even if not outright hardcore feminist artists.

Fairytale by Sara Bareilles:
Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom
Man made up a story said that I should believe him
Go and tell your white knight that he's handsome in hindsight
But I don't want the next best thing
So I sing and hold my head down and I break these walls round me
Can't take no more of your fairytale love
I don't care
I don't care
Worry bout the maiden though you know
She's only waiting spent the whole life being graded on the sanctity of patience and a dumb

Cinderella by Play:
I don't wanna be like Cinderella
Sitting in a dark, old, dusty cellar
Waiting for somebody to come and set me free
I don't wanna be like Snow White waiting
For a handsome prince to come and save me
On a horse of white unless were riding side by side
Don't want to depend no one else
I'd rather rescue myself

It's interesting how feminist songs, because they have to very quickly break down a complex idea, often come back to the princess stereotype.

I've always interpreted this one -- Breathe by Anna Nalick -- to be about abortion:
2 AM and she calls me 'cause I'm still awake,
"Can you help me unravel my latest mistake?,
I don't love him. Winter just wasn't my season"
Yeah we walk through the doors, so accusing their eyes
Like they have any right at all to criticize,
Hypocrites. You're all here for the very same reason

Then there are the artists like Pink, who try to put forward a relevant cultural criticism, and just end up slut-shaming instead. Her lyrics are about how stupid all the victims of our culture are for buying into it, not about how stupid the culture itself is. One her songs is even called "Stupid Girls", lamenting our lack of a female president while placing all the blame on the women themselves.

Where were the feminist pop icons...ever?

I agree that in the early 2000's there was a cultural shift, a backlash. Rolling Stone and the likes had been featuring covers with women like PJ, Tori and Fiona... suddenly they were featuring Britney, Jessica, Beyonce and Gwen--half dressed. Overglossed pop blew up and culturally erased what riot grrrl and these feminism songstresses had established.

But pop was never feminist. None of the aforementioned 90's strong songstresses were pop stars. And I really can't think of a single feminist pop star. Madonna? She ended up as quite a bust.

Strong, feminist musical icons live on but with the internet everything cool and non mainstream has gone ultra underground. The music mags and MTV went mainstream but there is still an underground.This legacy carries on in bands like: Hearts Revolution, Kap Bambino, Dandi Wind.

When this whole mainstream pop thing hit feminist music was at its most rowdy--in the NYC electroclash scene (think Peaches, Chicks on Speed, Miss Kittin, Lesbians on Ecstacy, Tracy and the Plastics, etc) While current electro is gaining popularity and has swung back to male domination, strong women are still making music. But alas, it is harder to find.

There are some exceptions

Pop music definitely rides on waves, in the 1990s there was Fiona and Gwen Stefani bursted out fronting No Doubt, then we have the pop tarts like Britney and Beyonce but now it seems that we are moving more towards an edgy and androgynous aesthetic like Lady Gaga and Rihanna. While Rihanna truly disappoints me with her response to the Chris Brown incident, she should have stomped him with her shoe and not have allowed any impetus to these rumors that they are still together etc. That in my opinion is devastating to young girls. However when she first cut her hair short she won an instant fan in me for rejecting the long weave Beyonce seems contractually glued to (although she was introduced to us with mermaid locks) and something that only features her face and seems non-fussy.

With this recession I don't think anyone wants to hear about bling, rocks, benjis, bullshit and the music industry seems to be running more towards dance-based music that doesn't require you to shake your ass or act like a ho and instead embrace the energy of dance itself. I do have to say though that the aforementioned Gwen Stefani continues to inspire me. Her and no doubt songs serve heavy doses of real talk like in what ya waiting for, underneath it all, cool, ex girlfriend, sunday morning, etc. There seems to be the running theme of feeling rejected/worried/anxious and coming out triumphant without any pageant posturing. Her music is pop-ish as in its popular and far from her ska roots, however she has stayed mostly the same, save for the added throwback Hollywood glamour which is something I think comes with maturing gracefully. Well played.

MTV isn't a feminist network

Pop could be understood as a totally generic abbreviation for "popular music" or as a particular sound. In either case, I don't know that my suggestion fits "pop". However, I'm shocked that no one has even mentioned Ani Difranco. Whether the sound grabs you or not, any feminist can, at least, appreciate Ani's dead-on lyrics.This is particularly true of female feminists, as it is directly from a woman's very personal point of view. Seriously- people are mentioning Christina Aguilera and Beyonce as feminist artists??? I mean I know that it is hard to find many artists out there writing about feminism directly, but, really, these two artists are so far off the mark that it really concerns me that I'm reading this on a "feminist" blog.....No mention of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Melissa Ferrick...??? Hell, I would've much sooner mentioned Queen Latifah or Pat Benatar before Christina or Beyonce! I don't know if this says more about our current perception/lack of exposure to music or to feminist theory...

As for Beyonce, the songs

As for Beyonce, the songs I'm familiar with have always struck me as fun and pro-women but in a sort of shallow "you go, girl" kind of way. Which is way better than most of the pop crap out there, but I think she has a long way to go before I'd consider her some kind of feminist songwriter. For instance, that song Irreplaceable which embedded itself into my brain last year -- fun, catchy, but the whole, "that's my stuff," and "I could have another you by tomorrow" ... I don't know, just really immature, in my view. That being said, I think she's smart and talented and totally deserving of her success.


thank you all so much for posting on this often quiet subject. Im in the midst of writing a paper on the subject and these post were a 'god' send. every opinion was useful and thought provoking.
feminists and post feminists(the legit ones) unite!

origin of term "riot grrrl"

on the iggy and stooges live album "metalic ko" ...recorded in early '74...iggy says at one point...."is it time for a riot, grrrls.....riot!!"

and thats the twooth!!

what about M.I.A.?

What do y'all think about M.I.A.? I love that her music videos aren't overly sexualized and the violence and aggression in her music (in the fast tempos, heavy drums, lyrical bravado, etc) is feminist in my book. plus, i just love her music!

Missy Elliot, for the same reasons.

Where Have All the Riot Grrrls Gone? Pop Music and "Post-

Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this
is wonderful blog. An excellent read. I'll definitely be back.

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