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The Proto-Feminist Heroes

As Gloria Steinmen once noted, “Power is being redefined. Women often explain with care that we mean power to control our lives, but not to dominate others.’’ Often known as the leading feminist spokesperson since the mid-20th century, Steinmen and many other historic feminist figures played an important role in the women’s liberation movement that amplified the voices of women.

In recent decades marked by a more radical advance of women and some appreciation for that shift - variations on the theme have emerged in society and pop-culture. In films, books, music and television we have rethought gender roles. Bringing us more on this topic is Perspectoverse’s Hiba Riaz.


Second Wave feminism, a movement that was represented by the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and was seen as a seemingly abrupt break with the tranquil suburban life pictured in American pop culture. Unlike the first wave, second-wave feminism provoked extensive theoretical discussions about the origin of women’s oppression, the nature of gender and the role of the family. Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics made the best-seller list in 1970 where she broadened the term politics to include all ‘power-structured relationships’ and posited that the personal was actually political.

One year later, Germaine Greer, one of the major voices of the radical feminist movement, published The Female Eunuch, where she argued that the sexual repression of women cuts them off from the creative energy they need to be independent and self-fulfilled.

A lot of other feminist fiction, feminist non-fiction and feminist poetry created new interest in women’s writing. There has been a close link between feminist literature and activism, with feminist writing typically voicing key concerns or ideas of feminism in a particular area.

Another genre was women who were involved in the film industry including all roles, such as female directors, actresses, cinematographers, film producers and other film industry professions. Though, women have been underrepresented in creative positions, also called the ‘celluloid ceiling’, a variant on the employment discrimination term ‘glass ceiling’, they continue to break barriers and establish themselves.

Now, in keeping with, what some call, the age of female empowerment, women are likely to be cast or depicted as sex objects. One of the most popular Hollywood actresses and sex symbols of the 1950s and early 1960s was Marilyn Monroe.

In one of the famous photos of the 20th century, Marilyn Monroe stands on a subway grate, trying to hold her skirt down as a gust of wind blows it up, exposing her underpants. The photoshoot was a publicity stunt, one of the greatest in history.

In her only discussion of the shoot, she stated that she wasn’t thinking about sensuality when she posed, she was just having a good time. Although, when Billy was shooting the scene and the men kept on applauding, he ended up then bringing the camera close and changed a fun scene to yet another sensual one.

While many saw her as irreparably damaged, too victimised, Monroe was a woman who made herself into a star, conquering numerous disabilities in the process.

By the 1990s, a generation of ‘third-wave feminists’ contended that sexualising women was liberating, not demeaning, for it gave them self-knowledge and power. So was Marilyn Monroe dismissed too easily? Was she a precursor of 1960s feminism? Was she one of the women who changed the world’s attitude toward women?

She certainly took actions that could be called feminist. She made herself into an actress and a star. She formed her own production company, she fought the moguls to a standstill, and she publicly named the sexual abuse visited on her as a child: an unacknowledged feminist act. Such self-disclosure would become important to the feminist movement in the 1970s.

Although Marilyn Monroe’s life was cut short at the age of 36, her legacy and iconic style lives on. From movies and music to magazines, Hollywood still manages to be inspired and influenced by Marilyn’s glamorous life and epic beauty.

One of the stars who has been influenced the most by Marilyn Monroe is Madonna. She struck a Marilyn-esque pose for the April 1991 cover of Vanity Fair and famously drew inspiration from an iconic scene in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ for her ‘Material Girl’ video.

Madonna also explained her love for the actress in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1987, saying, “I do feel something for Marilyn Monroe. A sympathy. Because in those days, you were really a slave to the whole Hollywood machinery, and unless you had the strength to pull yourself out of it, you were just trapped.’’

A great deal of other celebrities who have been inspired by the actress in their work and personal style include Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Michelle Williams and Anna Nicole Smith.

Women’s music is another genre that emerged as a musical expression of the second-wave feminist movement as well as the labor, civil rights and peace movements.The movement was started by performers such as Cris Williamson, who served as a catalyst for change in the creation of women-owned record companies in the 1970s and activists such as Bernice Johnson Reagon and her group Sweet Honey in the Rock, who devoted their life to social justice through music via recordings, activism and community singing.

Other women such as Madonna and Lady Gaga have revolutionized feminist music today by breaking barriers and allowing artists from all walks of life to have their time in the spotlight. However, the question remains, how did these women accomplish such coups within their career? This can be acknowledged while reflecting on the lives of these exceptional women.

Since the beginning of her career in the early 1980s, Madonna has had a socio-cultural impact on the world through her recordings, attitude, clothing and lifestyle. Madonna as a feminist icon has generated a variety of opinions worldwide. In 2011, The Guardian included Madonna in its ‘Top 100 Women List’, with editor Homa Khaleeli declaring “no matter the decade or the fashion, she has always been frank about her toughness and ambition.” She further added on by stating that “Madonna inspires not because she gives other women a helping hand, but because she breaks the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable for women.’’

Multiple international critics and media outlets felt in retrospect that Madonna’s presence is defined for ‘changing’ or ‘revolutionizing’ contemporary music history for women.

Lady Gaga, another American singer and songwriter, also known for her image reinventions and musical versatility strided on stage in a dress made of meat during the MTV Music awards in 2010. It raised an avalanche of questions when worn in public. What did this dress mean? Was it a comment on the treatment of women in the music industry? Or was it just an outfit worn to grab the maximum share of the world’s attention?

In an interview with Ellen Degeneres after the show, Gaga offered her own interpretation. She had come to the awards ceremony with four former servicemen and women, all of whom had been forced to leave the U.S military because of the highly discriminatory, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy (You can be gay, says this policy, so long as you never reveal it). Gaga suggested her dress had been a part of that statement, “If we don’t stand up for what we believe in,” she said, “if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as many rights as the meat in our bones.”

The meat dress attracted attention at a time when Gaga’s very unpredactibility had begun to seem predictable, when her constant innovation threatened to drag.

Today, the biggest issue in the way we see modern feminism is that we often conflate it with the feminist movement from the 60s. The term is a little outdated and often associated with bra burning and man-hate. These wildly-inaccurate stereotypes portrayed in pop culture worked to turn people, even women, away from the movement. But through the years, as the movement has morphed into its current form, the image of feminism itself as portrayed in pop culture has transformed alongside it.

The extension of feminism from the academic world into pop culture has opened up and allowed individuals to not only find a community of people with similar ideals but also invited them to affiliate to. This includes organisations such as The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, that has been lobbying the industry for years to expand the roles of women in film.

From the popularization of ‘relatable’ Hollywood stars like the hilariously candid Mindy Kaling to Matt McGorry’s social media campaign promoting male feminism, to Emma Watson’s #HeforShe initiative, feminism has become an accessible form of women’s rights advocacy that everyday people are regularly exposed to.

Written by Hiba Riaz

Illustrated by Urvi Agarwal


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