When Did Feminism Become a Job Requirement for Female Pop Stars?

Taylor Swift performs during The 1989 World Tour
Steve Granitz/WireImage

Taylor Swift performs during The 1989 World Tour Live In Los Angeles at Staples Center on Aug. 22, 2015 in Los Angeles.

The watershed moment came, like watershed moments do, via Beyoncé. Amid the frenzy unleashed by her surprise album drop in December 2013, one observation towered above the rest in the next day’s hot takes: Was that Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie giving a speech about feminism for 55 seconds in the middle of the track “***Flawless”? It was, and Beyoncé followed that in January 2014 with an essay called “Gender Equality Is a Myth!” for the Shriver Report. A few months later, she performed at the MTV Video Music Awards with the word FEMINIST in lights behind her.

Feminism had officially become a job requirement for female pop stars, and this was proof. For a few years before Beyoncé’s embrace of the movement, journalists had been asking female pop stars the pointed question in interview after interview: “Are you a feminist?” Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and even Beyoncé had said “no” at one time or another, and crucifying blog headlines followed: Why wouldn’t these successful young women admit to supporting gender equality? Eventually, and probably as a direct result, the tide did turn, with all three of them and many more—Miley Cyrus, Lorde, and Selena Gomez among them—bandying the word about in interviews.

But now the tide has turned so sharply that it threatens to wash out perfectly good female artists with it. This is perhaps best exemplified by vitriol aimed at Swift in the run-up to her new album, Reputation. Though she’s the rare star to engage in an actual feminist act—suing a former radio host whom she accused of groping her, delivering unwavering testimony against him, and winning—she’s been accused over and over of “fake” and “spineless” feminism. Before Reputation dropped, Bustle’s Rachel Simon wrote a piece that made the stakes as clear as possible: “’Reputation’ Needs to Be Taylor Swift’s Apology Album or Else I’m Not Interested.” 

If Taylor Swift’s job is to make excellent pop music, she more than succeeded with Reputation. The record even contains some pretty solid sex-positive feminism, with Swift acknowledging pre-meditated desire (“only bought this dress so you could take it off”) and subverting stereotypes about gender roles in sexual pursuit (“carve your name into my bedpost”). But for some, it seems, that isn’t enough unless it includes some serious soul searching over her flawed feminism.

It certainly makes sense for critics to examine female stars through a feminist lens. As public figures, our pop stars help to define—and perform—what it means to be a woman at any given time. Their popularity shows that a large number of people are responding to something about them, and young women often look to them for inspiration. (See: What Would Beyoncé Do? memes.) And unlike actresses, pop stars rely mainly on one cohesive persona that remains consistent throughout live performances, lyrics, and interviews. We believe that Taylor Swift means exactly what she says, as Taylor Swift, when she’s singing a Taylor Swift song. They are our modern version of goddesses, so it’s worth it to examine what, exactly, their personae teach us about womanhood.

This kind of analysis goes back at least as far as 1980, when Ellen Willis wrote about Janis Joplin’s feminist implications in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: “The male-dominated counterculture defined freedom for women almost exclusively in sexual terms. As a result, women endowed the idea of sexual liberation with immense symbolic importance; it became charged with all the secret energy of an as yet suppressed larger rebellion. Yet to express one’s rebellion in that limited way was a painfully literal form of submission. Whether or not Janis understood that, her dual persona—lusty hedonist and suffering victim—suggested that she felt it.”

But somewhere in the intervening decades, feminism went from an important analytical tool for critics to a job requirement for female pop stars. So much so, in fact, that all of our established pop stars were essentially forced to re-interview for the job, this time answering the key F-word question. Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry were among those who said “no,” qualifying their answers by adding that they loved men. Lana Del Rey said she was more interested in space travel than feminism (points for originality). Spice Girl Geri Halliwell called feminism “bra-burning lesbianism.” They all took heat from Bustle and Jezebel, among others; publications such as Time and the Huffington Post cast a lighter form of judgment by highlighting the stars’ anti-feminist answers in headlines and actual lists of “celebrities who say they aren’t feminists.”

It turned out, however, that saying “yes” was at least as bad as saying “no,” because from that “Yes I’m a Feminist” moment on, the pop star’s every action would be analyzed for its feminist purity. Jennifer Lopez included a few well-meaning, if heavy-handed, audio clips from Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem at the beginning of her video for “Ain’t Your Mama,” then experienced a backlash for the rest of the video’s lack of radicalism. Lorde and Selena Gomez engaged in a public war of words in which each accused the other of not doing feminism right. Even Beyoncé’s feminism has been questioned: Her marriage isn’t sufficiently feminist. She must cover herself up more to truly embody feminism. Even “***Flawless” is flawed feminism, according to one writer.

One can understand why, given this scrutiny, Nicki Minaj answered the F-word question in a 2015 Vogue interview by saying, “I feel like certain words can box you in. … There are things that I do that feminists don’t like, and there are things that I do that they like.” One thing’s for sure: She’s not alone there.

We live in an era in which a dizzying array of consumer choices are politicized: A chicken sandwich can be anti-gay, pizza can be white supremacist, coffee can be liberal, and blouses can be conservative. It’s no surprise that we also read feminist implications into our pop stars, who do, after all, often place sexuality at or near the center of their work. That makes them more relevant to our perception of gender roles than any other kind of entertainer—or public figure.

It’s a legitimate reason to celebrate when major female pop stars embrace feminism, and it’s fair to criticize them when they’re propagating regressive ideas. But they aren’t women’s studies scholars, either. They can’t serve as our main feminist theorists. They are unlikely to lead the revolution, even if they make some great music to march to. And because they’re human, their feminism is destined to sometimes be imperfect. It’s antithetical to feminism—and counterproductive—to write off every successful woman who doesn’t measure up to some impossible feminist ideal.