The Evolving Presence of Feminism and Women in Rock and Roll


Rock and roll has long been seen as seen as predominantly a man’s genre, consequently catering mainly to its male audience. Since the big explosion of rock in the sixties, women have been fighting to find their place in the rock culture. It has been a struggle for women and it could be argued that even in the modern world, that they are still fighting for space. Through the decades however, different female rockers have had an influence that has helped pave the way for other successful women. Rock is an expansive genre, encompassing subgenres such as heavy metal, punk, grunge, and post-rock, all of which have their own particular associated codes of conduct and display” which offers and encourages “separate gendered responses” (Leonard 23). This research paper hopes to examine what exactly has the impact been over the years of women in rock and what it means to be a woman in a male-centric genre, as well as study the different eras of women in rock. Along those lines, it will examine what it took for women to fight through the male-dominated genre and how the female role has changed in music and in rock over the years. As well as studying various female rockers, it will also examine feminist theory and criticism, and how women have been portrayed and viewed over time from the early sixties all the way through the nineties.

Feminism and Rock

The feminist movement has evolved a lot over the years as society itself has changed as well. Since its beginning, feminism has taken on tackling different issues regarding inequality towards women. Throughout history, feminism has been organized into different waves–most predominantly second and third wave. While the waves do not particularly determine all aspects of the feminist movement, they represent “historical eras when feminism had a mass base” (Archer Mann and Huffman).

It wasn’t until the early sixties did feminism as a social movement began, “pioneered by the likes of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem” in order to “gain sufficient social momentum to warrant its identification as the second wave, organizing itself around issues of abortion, sexuality (regarding issues related to heterosexual women in particular), and equality for women” (Shugart). This included various issues that were covered during the sixties and seventies; the approval for marketing birth control in 1960, the creation of the National Organization for Women in 1966, demonstrations against the 1968 Miss America pageant, the famous case of Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion, and the passing of Title IX in 1968, which made it illegal for government-funded educational programs to discriminate based on gender (Meltzer 9).

While there was strong progress made with second wave feminism, it also had its struggles, particularly in the late 1980s–described as “a kind of grab bag for feminist gains and losses” (Meltzer 12). Its validity and future were also questioned by the media, such as in Time magazine where its December 1989 cover focused on feminism and the story “‘Women Face the ‘90s’ … featur[ing] a cover image of a woman with a baby in one arm and a briefcase in the other” and text that read “‘In the ‘80s they tried to have it all. Now  they’ve just plain had it. Is there a future for feminism?’” The article touched on the idea that would eventually lead to the creation of third wave feminism, that  “the generation of women that followed the second wave had reaped the benefits but were coming of age on their own and beginning to critique the past twenty years” (Meltzer 12).

Third wave feminism grew out of critique of the failings of the second wave and was “the rise of a new discourse or paradigm for framing and understanding gender relations” (Archer Mann and Huffman). Somewhat different than its predecessor, “the third wave is not a uniform perspective, but rather includes a number of diverse and analytically distinct approaches to feminism” (Archer Mann and Huffman). The third wave brought a “resurgence and a reaction” to the second wave, bringing a newer focus to “embracing the individual, and acknowledging that feminism could be different for everyone, and was not some monolithic force” (Meltzer 12). Within the new movement, there was also a focus on “the need for feminists not only to address external forms of oppression, but also to examine forms of oppression and discrimination that they themselves had internalized.” This is the idea that women contribute to the patriarchal society by working against themselves, allowing the standards set by men to influence how they treat other women. This helps generate female hate and oppression and further sets the feminist movement back (Archer Mann and Huffman). Young women who considered themselves a part of the third wave movement were “a new generation of young feminists who came of adult age in the 1980s and 1990s and who introduced a number of novel interests, concerns and strategies for political action” (Archer Mann and Huffman). Third wave feminism focuses on three main concepts and ideas:

  1. intersectionality theory–proposed by women of color and ethnicity to improve representation from non-white women in the movement
  2. postmodernist and postructuralist feminist approaches–taking a more critical approach to analyzing and studying different cultures, literature, art, philosophy, and history
  3. feminist postcolonial theory (also called global feminism)–created in order to balance the early feminist emphasis on just Western Cultures and working to dismantle racial inequalities  (Archer Mann and Huffman)

While feminism often does focus on legal and societal problems, it also focuses on pop culture and media and the handling of women. As discussed in the above list of third wave feminist main concepts, feminist critique examines the role of women in different platforms and studies how they are treated or represented. This includes analysis of how they are portrayed, stereotypes that are applied to women, and what their interactions are with the men in whichever form is being analyzed. In the case of music, an analysis done by analyzing the type of music produced, how the women were treated as stars and by their male counterparts, and then the image created by the women.

It is impossible to break down women’s role in rock and roll without the discussion of gender. In his book The Sex Revolts, Simon Reynolds relates the origins of the male stance in the rock genre to a Freudian thought process. Rock’s roots are in rebellion and “…a large part of the psychological impetus of any rebellion is an urge to separate from the mother” (Reynolds 2). While rock has often been ostracized and separated from societal acceptance, it generates its own separations in its extreme push of masculinity, and through this:

“The rebel may simultaneously worship an abstract femininity (a home away from home) while ferociously despising and fearing real-life women. He can long for the womb and for an idealised mother-love, while shunning or abusing the flesh-and-blood women in his vicinity. In the rebel imagination, women figure as both victims and agents of castrating conformity” (Reynolds 3).

Rock music itself is an expansive genre “encompasses many subgenres, such as heavy metal, punk, grunge and post-rock” and within all of these subgenres, each has “particular associated codes of conduct and display, offering and encouraging separate gendered responses” (Leonard 23). Across the board of all of the subgenres though, a struggle that women have faced in the music industry is fighting the different stereotypes that they are put in. These stereotypes are more than just generic labels that are applied, they also restrict women’s roles in rock. By creating these types of limitations for women, it makes it easier to prevent women from advancing or being taken seriously. In the case of rock and roll, “too often women’s only scope for self-fulfilment is as the muse, moll, and  groupie: hangers-on admiringly watching the male rebels’ derring-do” (Reynolds 3-4). By oppressing women to just the role of the fangirl, it discredits them.

The Sixties

Girl groups began their initial popularity in the early 1960s, “[providing] a voice for a generation of adolescents, female and male, in literally thousands of songs that addressed the issues of romance, heartbreak, and the endless search for true love” (Gaar 33). Amongst some of the more famous men of the time, women were still able to make a splash, such as with the 1961 hit from the Shirelles, “‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ … but more important than their string of hits was their role in popularizing the ‘girl group’ sound, the first major rock style associated explicitly with women” (Gaar 33). These early eras of music helped generate “a wave of fierce female musicians” who sang about their life experiences that were specifically related to being women “in a manner that was far more matter-of-fact than any music that had come before … yet mainstream rock remained resolutely, with some notable exceptions, a boy’s club” (Meltzer 5-6). The sixties might not seem like the origin to turn to when it comes to looking at the rock music genre and the iconic women that were a part of it, but it is a crucial starting point when it comes to creating the path for future women in music. The early 1960s represented a time and “an unprecedented instance of teenage girls occupying center stage of mainstream commercial culture,” something that would not be considered mainstream again until the later 1990s and early 21st century with groups and soloists like the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and Avril Lavigne (Warwick 13-14). So while finding a connection between girl groups the late ‘50s and early ‘60s to today’s pop stars seems far-fetched, there is a thread and women through the ages of music’s history can only thank these early girl groups. These groups “had lyrics addressing themes of special importance to teenage girls, such as boys, the strictness of parents, and the complexities of imminent womanhood,” things that previously had been considered unnecessary to sing about (Warwick 13).

The sixties saw a variety of different girl groups come into popularity. One of the earliest and most popular girl group ensembles was the Chantels, who were “the first group of black girl singers to attract a significant following, beginning in 1957, only a year after the eruption of rock’n’roll into mainstream culture” (Warwick 14). Their success (particularly with their single “Maybe”) helped pave “the way for other girls to enter the world of the music industry, hithero populated largely by adults and a few teenage boys” (Warwick 15). Along side the Chantels were girl groups The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. These other wildly celebrated groups were a part of the Motown music scene, and “their elegance and sophistication–the attributes that helped to solidify the characteristics of the Motown brand–differentiated them from most performers in the first years of the girl group phenomenon” (Warwick 54).

During the sixties, there was a large play in how young girls and women were perceived that affected the performances and portrayal of the girl groups. The decade placed a heavy emphasis on femininity but also an emphasis on the control female persona and sexuality. This comes from the different social constructs placed on gender.

“The stylized performances of girlness involved in girl group music had far-reaching consequences, and they effectively wrote an embodied gender script for the girls who watched them. This kind of strictness is an inevitable part of social experience, and males as well as females tend to accept it willingly” (Warwick 58).

But as these girl groups grew in popularity and in exposure, they helped place an importance on the idea of the songs being strictly for girls. This promoted the idea of girls becoming open about their experiences, but also being comfortable in accepting the idea of freeing their bodies through the popular dance, the locomotion, “indicates that the dance performances of girl groups were also crucial in permitting girls … to explore their physicality and sensuality through experimenting with the stances and movements of artists such as Little Eva” (Warwick 58). This was a type of freedom for young girls who had grown up constrained by society’s standards, and while it seems small compared to how girls are able to express themselves today, these were still huge steps in progress for women. This era of girl groups helped bring “an unprecedented number of female artists to the charts, and more women were able to develop their roles in offstage positions during the era as well” and “as the decade progressed, women would later find the atmosphere of social change providing them with further opportunities they were now in a better position to take full advantage of” (Gaar 66-67). So while most of the names of these female groups and soloists have been forgotten, they began the legacy for women looking to make their mark in music history.

The Eighties

The eighties was the first era where the women pushed harder against conforming to their gender and began to revolutionize women’s role in rock.

While much of this decade was progressive at the time, it also brought with it problems due to that “there were only a few token women in punk, and to identify themselves as feminists would only make their non-maleness more central—it was hard enough just being accepted as a musician” (Meltzer, 8). This reflects back onto the discussion in the earlier sections about feminism attempting to reverse the internalized misogyny. Even though “there have always been female artists who’ve barged their way right through the ‘women in rock’ problematic, with a kind of brazen ‘can do’ attitude,” they’ve gone through the process “at the expense of bringing nothing new, different to the stock rock posture” (Reynolds 243-244). The women’s movement in rock had the potential to be extremely feminist but instead it had to take a back seat as women fought for their acceptance. Singer and musician Kate Bush has been quoted as having said, “I just think I identify more with male musicians than female musicians because I tend to think of female musicians as… ah… females” (Reynolds 236). This is based on the need to separate herself from the female identity and by shedding her gender, this allows Bush to become a part of the more dominant, male force.

It is hard to place blame against women like Bush for feeling that this was the solution. “The pioneers of female expression in rock … were venturing into uncharted territory, and pretty much the only models available to them were male. To make an impression at all, they had to imitate male rebels and define themselves against the ‘limitations’ of femininity” (Reynolds 236). These women were doing everything in their capabilities to elevate themselves in the industry, “emulat[ing] male rock rebels toughness out of necessity” as it was the “only way to get what they wanted, to be free of the restrictions that trammelled women in pop” (Reynolds 240). While there can still be critique of whether the women of the eighties were positive or negative feminist icons, many of the female rockers can still be considered some of the most powerful examples of strong examples. And though they haven’t always been the strongest examples of the feminist movement, it is still important to acknowledge their successes and how >they have helped revolutionize women’s role in music.

Considered one of the most iconic women in music history, Joan Jett helped pave the way through the music industry. Jett’s “songs and black-leather image was pure macha: a feisty, defiant espousal of the ‘bad girl’ role … [her] stance was delinquent and proud of it” (Reynolds 244-245). Her music was described as “damn-the-gender-and-dig-the-music” and she created her image around that (Hirshey). Even as a young teenager, at the age of fifteen she was considered “a pioneer in black leather and liberation, the songwriting leader of the first successful all-girl hard rock band, the Runaways” (Tianen). Besides being a successful teenage, female artist, she is also recognized as being the first female artist to own her own record label, and was “one of the first American punk stars to perform behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s” (Fitzpatrick and London). Even looking more shallow than her contributions to music was her own imagery, Jett generated her image into making her  a “brand name in snarling, punch-in-the-gut, stomp on your ears, shoot-the-prisoners rock‘n’roll” (Tianen). With this, “her studs-and-leather punk-rock fashion style is now standard on stage gear for many heavy-metal bands” (Fitzpatrick and London). Through all of this success though, Jett still faced obstacles based on her gender. When asked about what it was like being a part of the Runaways and dealing with the issues of being a part of an all female band, Jett responded that the girls “took such a huge amount of [abuse],” and “[she] couldn’t understand it,” asking herself, “Why are people treating us like we’re the devil?” (Tianen). Today, however, Joan Jett is widely recognized as one of the top female rockers of all time.

On the other end of Joan Jett was the more mainstream section of music, featuring artists such as Madonna and Pat Benatar. Unlike the almost-anarchist Jett, these female performers played with mainstream media as well as taking on their own stances. The eighties provided different opportunities thanks to the media and technology, especially with “with the advent of MTV–unleashed at the stroke of midnight on Aug. I, 1981–Madonna and her contemporaries were swept into media whirlwinds that would create a stampede of ‘instant’ divas in that go-go decade” (Hirshey). What was most likely to the chagrin of feminists fighting the often negative and overly-sexualized image of women, “by the mid–‘80s, video was fast becoming a tough, voracious and rather sexist master,” described as a “post-feminist lapse that set even committed sirens’ teeth on edge” (Hirshey). This continues to ring true today as the power of music videos dominates the star image of female performers.

Still massively recognized today as the “Queen of Pop,” Madonna might be one of the strongest female performers in music history. “Mainstream pop, feminist issues, fashion, the rising cult of celebrity would all cluster in the force field of Madonna.” While a departure from the traditional rock genre, she’s seen as a “crucial bridge between the vital club scene and the less-flexible corporate rock” (Hirshey). Some of Madonna’s strongest, and also controversial, aspects came from her power over her display of gender and sexuality. Some feminists were concerned that Madonna’s postmodern re-inventions were a “threat to women’s socialization which entails the necessary integration of female identity,” based on the concept that postmodernism lacks “authenticity, unity, and stable categories” and “challenges the more modernist foundational tenets of [second-wave] feminism itself” (Schwichtenberg 121). But while these critiques existed about Madonna, these were some of her strongest assets. Madonna takes her gender and sexaulity and instead of being used by the patriarchal society, uses it on her terms and in her own control, such as with her common role as femme fatale in her music videos. In this videos, she “organizes her excess of femininity around the drama of vision. Her body functions as a ‘prop’ that simulates the excessive femininity of male projections only to turn that vision against itself” (Schwichtenberg 123). She continues to challenge the idea of gender in how she was filmed for her “Express Yourself” music video, taking on characteristically male shots of herself such as “powerful low angle shots … as [she] punches the air, grabs her crotch, and spreads her legs …  teasingly open[ing] and clos[ing] her jacket, revealing a black lace bra in a dissonant interplay of difference” (Schwichtenberg 124). Amongst all of this, she provided a stark difference in the image of rockers like Joan Jett and what would eventually be the punk movement in the 1990s. She kept an image of beauty and an emphasis on the total package of being a star, rather than turning away from it. It took an entire group to maintain her image, “a canny manager, stylists, video directors, fashion designers, panting magazine editors, two record companies (Warner Bros. and her own Maverick label), hair and makeup swamis, platoons of challenging and worshipful photographers” but there was never once a question that Madonna was completely in charge of her image (Hirshey).

While not as largely-known as Madonna, the eighties heralded several other famous soloists and girl groups. One iconic artist to come out of the eighties was New York native Pat Benatar, a “glam belter with a tiny body built for spandex,” and she knew how to play “the corporate rock game and played it well, delivering a well-calibrated mix of knee-jerk power chords and melody” (Hirshey). Some of her top charters were songs like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Love is a Battlefield,” and “Shadows of the Night.” Next to Benatar was the girl band the Go-Go’s. While they started out in the late seventies as a punk band, they became “America’s New Wave sweethearts by 1981” with their album Beauty and the Beat becoming the first number one album by an all-female band. It maintained its spot at the top of the Billboard list for six weeks before generating singles from the band “Our Lips are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat” (Hirshey).

The Nineties

It was with the arrival of punk rock in the nineties that really helped boost the staying power as well as the political power of women in rock. While a smaller, and often ignored music genre, it actually helped promote the feminist movement and female empowerment almost more than any other music genre before it. “The women of punk were creating a new female archetype … responsibility from the women’s liberation movement and … the utmost pride not just in individuality but in being an outcast” (Meltzer, 6-7). The punk rock movement came along with the third wave of feminism, a time when women began to focus on individuality and social as well as political issues. The punk genre encompassed the idea

“that rejected technical virtuosity and professionalism in favor of amateurishness, iconoclasm, and a do-it-yourself aesthetic … [giving] a generation of boys who didn’t fit the All-American Boy Scout type a new blueprint for masculinity and a license to be whatever they needed to be. Punk gave girls who never felt at home in the bows and dresses and canopy beds of traditional girlhood a new way of being female” (Meltzer 6).

As well as being a strong genre both genres, the punk phase helped truly give a younger generation of girls independence. This was a time “for music made by (and often for) women, and the culmination of a long history of girl bands. Bands that were unabashedly feminist, that made angry and challenging music” (Meltzer ix). Out of the punk movement, the strongest idea to emerge was the concept of riot grrrl. Riot grrrl was “a feminist network” that was originally founded on both the west and east coast, in Olympia, Washington and Washington D.C. respectively in 1991. It was created by female-centered indie rock bands, such as the bands Bratmobile and Bikini Kill, who “voiced the the idea of girls and women asserting themselves through underground music” (Leonard 115). The women’s movement in punk emphasized individuality and “the women of punk were creating a new female archetype, borrowing notions from the women’s liberation movement and at the same time, taking the utmost pride not just in individuality but in being an outcast” (Meltzer 7). The nineties also generated the still-popular term, girl power. The catchphrase “reflect[s] both a feminist message and a changing feminism. Girl power encompasses the story of a music and feminism over the last twenty years” (Meltzer viii).

This  female-empowerment movement in the punk genre came at the same time that third wave feminism began to pick up in popularity. The women of punk worked most consistently hand in hand with feminism to promote not just their music, but also female empowerment. For instance, lead singer Exene Cervenka of the band X helped found the Bohemian Women’s Political Alliance, an organization “aimed at promoting sexual awareness and feminism, organising voter registration, recommending candidates and organising benefits” (Leonard 116). Along with these organizations that they worked with, the riot grrrl movement followed the feminist ideologies about openness in female experience and sexuality. “A dedication to honest sexual discourse and reclaiming their sexuality … was inherently political. Whether it’s the artist, the critics, or her audience who gets to decide if she’s really in control of her sexuality was something all of these women were working through” (Meltzer 54) and women of the punk genre “spoke frankly about issues adolescent girls faced that the larger culture didn’t want to talk about … includ[ing] some subjects previously considered too dark or taboo, such as incest, rape, and eating disorders … encourag[ing] girls not to be passive cultural consumers, but to create zines or bands themselves” (Meltzer 15-16). The idea of a zine was created by the girls of the band Bratmobile: Tobi Vail, Kathleen Hanna, Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman. They joined together and created the first zine, which is a handmade, self-published magazine and they  called it Riot Grrrl (which was the origin of the punk movement’s name). Vail then recreated the word ‘girl’ to ‘grrrl’ in order to give it a ferocious growl (Meltzer 13). From one of the zines in 1991, Riot Grrrl demonstrated the feminist ties in this excerpt:

Riot Grrrl is:

BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock”you can do anything” idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.

BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl=Dumb, Girl=Bad, Girl=Weak

BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real (Meltzer 14)

A driving force behind the nineties’ pop culture was Generation X, a group that was “generally considered to have been born between 1965 and 1976” and are considered “multiracial and ‘cool’ about race, gender, and sexuality, the result of being the first generation born into an (allegedly) fully integrated society” (Shugart). Generation X was a helping driving force behind much of the music and fashion of the nineties, even small aspects of riot grrrl though most particularly in rock. Much of what Generation X was about was these underground cultures and the emphasis on grunge and what became grunge music, “a sort of collision of punk, heavy metal, and hard rock” that derived from the grunge-type fashion of the musicians and the fans that were attracted to the bands (Shugart). Within the grunge and Generation X subculture there was an element of power to the women involved. They were considered alternative purely because of choices they made based on gender, often dealing with their aesthetics and behavior. There was a purposeful anti-mainstream aspect to the subgenre, and the women emphasized “a pronounced edginess to their personae” and provided a contrast to the mainstream popular female stars, and were “lank haired, consciously and assertively not ‘done up’ but dressed decidedly down” and created a strong contrast with the “ultra feminine cult of beauty” that was charistically applied to other famous women. As well as their difference in attire, they also created “a sullenness and/or cynicism [that was] integral to their identities,” making their music aggressive and angry. To fully round out their identity, the women created characters that were “often individual and nonconformist, frequently counterpoised rather than complementary to male characters” (Shugart).

As per most analyses, there are still elements of criticism to the punk movement. These critiques do not seek to undermine the positives of a movement, but to look for ways to improve future movements. And so while there was a strength in the punk movement, there were weaknesses as well. While it “made many inroads for women, it was rarely disputed that there was room for improvement. [It] may have been a source of liberation for some women, but it wasn’t always explicitly feminist” (Meltzer 8). Some of the issues that arose were a combination of “riot grrrl succeed[ing] at drawing attention to the sexual desires of teenage girls, but [giving] them little indication of how they should deal with that energy” and it was still “a movement started largely by and for white, middle-class women” (Meltzer 38). Riot grrrl had the power to get girls introduced to different concepts of feminism and opening their eyes to various mishandling of women in society, but it failed to generate knowledge of ways to fully fight it or create a stance that fully takes on the patriarchy. And by being a movement powered by the creation of vines and the formation of bands, two things that needed the proper resources and were more often than not, only available to white-middle class girls that had most likely had the ability to go to college. Much of riot grrrl dealt with the extreme acts to retaliate against society but it might not have always been productive. There are questions though about the handling of situations, such as “L7’s notorious antic … the incident at the 1992 Reading Festival when singer/guitarist Donita Sparks pulled her tampon out of her vagina and hurled it into the crowd” and whether they are more counterproductive than actually helpful (Reynolds 248).

And while the movement did focus on the idea of individuality and staying original, the riot grrrl movement still maintained elements of mainstream cliquiness. The irony of this fell into the that “even though ‘Every girl’s a riot grrrl’ was a common refrain on stickers … there was, as in many subcultures, a clear divide between insiders and outsiders.” So while riot grrrl fought so hard to separate itself, it still retained some of the worse traits in “mainstream girl culture, including something that second wave feminism suffered from as well–the feeling that there are popular and unpopular girls” (Meltzer 36).

The 2000s and the Transition to Pop

The strength of female representation in music today lies in pop music, a separation from the rock genre. However the women of today owe their thanks to the women of the previous generations; “after the ’70s, women took over rock-and-roll … laying the foundation for singers like Madonna and Lady Gaga to stand firmly on” (Ferguson). The strength of this women today and the control that they have over their careers would not exist if not for the hard work of the women before them. Similarly, many of today’s female artists also take a stronger stance on feminism as the movement has gathered steam in the twenty-first century and don’t shy away from making their feminist connections known.

Artists like Lady Gaga stand firmly in the pop genre of music, but her image and power reflect that of Joan Jett and Madonna. Lady Gaga is seen as an “avant-garde artist who makes the most of her art school background and combines aspects of performance, art, and fashion into a musical style that represents a distinctive multimedia melange philosophy” (Peters). Gaga plays with the idea of shock and awe, having startled society over the years with her costumes and antics, as well as strange videos and performances. Even though Gaga does typically cause more aversion than approval, she is still extremely successful. As of 2009, when she was only twenty-three years old, she was the third artist to have had three number one singles from a debut album. Released the year prior, The Fame had already sold four million copies worldwide after being released for only a year (Hutton). And like her fellow female stars before her, Gaga relies on being a product of her time. Her impact on the art and music world is greater thanks to modern technology; “performance in the age of new social media enable[s] us to examine the ways in which individual performances reflect, reproduce, or challenge cultural norms, and how they shape social life much more directly” more than we were able to in the past (Peters).

Even though Gaga has been seen is iconic for her time, she is most often compared to past stars like Madonna. Michael Peters discusses Gaga and her ties to the music industry in his article, “On the Edge of Theory: Lady Gaga, Performance and Cultural Theory,” and refers to comparisons like this, defining Gaga’s influences coming from “glam rock of Bowie and Queen, the costume self-styled creations of Cher, the raunchiness of Madonna, the performance ethic of Michael Jackson, the sexuality of Britney Spears”–showing Gaga’s connection through the different eras of music (Peters). The comparisons with Madonna continue in Jen Hutton’s visual reading of Gaga, where she calls Gaga Madonna’s “pop progeny.” A strong throwback to the club kids and queer movement in the eighties that made campiness, overt drag, and gender play, Gaga and Madonna both “reference components of gay subculture, like vogueing and club music, in order to infiltrate a patriarchal and heteronormative system” (Hutton). Modern feminism and queer theory both work together to create a more welcoming system for different sexualities and identities, and the work of artists like Gaga would not be able to be carried out if not for the time when these artists were famous. And much like how Madonna was challenged for her stance with feminism, Gaga has equally had obstacles to showing her support for the movement. And while her methods are not always conventional, Gaga’s words and actions affirm that she ascribes to a sex-positive feminism that embraces transgression, and therefore, personal liberties.” She defines that her “penchant for being pantless is not meant to entice sex but free her own sense of sexuality” (Hutton). Her openness in her sexuality falls directly in line with third wave feminism’s position on female sexuality, and she describes her relationship with sex and pop culture as being tied together:

Being a woman in the pop world, sexuality is half poison and half liberation. What’s the line? I don’t have a line. I am the most sexually free woman on the planet, and I genuinely am empowered from a very honest place by my sexuality (Hutton).

Known by only her first name and now recognized as one of the most popular artists today, female or male, Beyoncé has taken the music world on head first. A part of the industry from an early age, Beyoncé got her start as a part of the girl group Destiny’s Child, before going solo and creating her own individual image. Becoming an icon for strong, independent female artists, Beyoncé created herself into a role model for both women in music in general as well as what it means to be a feminist. While some celebrities are good examples of what it means to be a feminist, some still shy away from the label. Beyoncé however fully embraces being defined as a feminist. She has helped shine “a light on women’s power: the power to perform in a male-dominated music industry; the power to acquire fame and fortune; the power to delight in one’s beauty and sexuality; the power to crossover into mainstream media while championing a “girl power” anthem” (Hobson). As a black woman, she works fiercely within third wave feminism’s intersectionality theory discussed earlier. Her performance at the 2013 Super Bowl Championships was a strong show-case of her performance abilities as well as her feminist values. In the performance, Beyoncé portrayed two different female-empowerment goddesses, Oshun (an African spirit known for self-love, generosity, and wealth) and Durga (a Hindu warrior goddess). Combined with that, she had an all-woman ten-piece band, and having all women back-up singers and dancers that included women of many different and diverse ethnic backgrounds (Hobson). Beyoncé’s performance was a true embodiment of girl power.

Even with all of her achievements both musically and as a feminist role model, Beyoncé is still battling the issues that came with early second-wave feminism. Besides the early girl groups of the sixties, rock and pop have both been dominated by white musicians, regardless of gender. Although we are in 2014, Beyoncé’s race continues to cause obstacles for her. Her stance as a feminist is often questioned, as if it is more marketing than actual passion. Filmmaker and blogger Simmons commented that the resistance to see Beyoncé as a feminist is purely due to racial politics.

If Beyoncé were white, she would definitely be called a feminist. But mainstream culture often doesn’t recognize women of color in that way … As black women, we aren’t even viewed as acting, as performing. Everything we do is supposed to be based in reality. So, if there are any contradictions, you don’t get to be the face of feminism. Even though Bey is definitely in control of her image (Hobson).

Beyoncé only has achieved something that no previous female musician has achieved, comparisons to the First Lady of the United States. While Michelle Obama has never directly stated herself to be a feminist, she has often taken on various issues involving feminism. At a White House reception for International Women’s Day in 2011, she talked about pay equity and celebrated different women who had helped lead the way for women in the world (Hobson). Anna Holmes, a New York writer and founder of popular feminist and women’s website Jezebel agreed with Simmons comment about the strength of Beyoncé as a feminist, relating her relationship to Michelle Obama as an example of positive feminism, or at least what feminism has become in the twenty-first century.

They are incredibly competent women who have not just flourishing careers but flourishing marriages and flourishing children. That’s a very inspiring feminist message … It’s not contrived, but by default it feels very revolutionary (Hobson).

There has never been anything wrong with the take on feminism that was portrayed in the eighties and nineties, the extreme push away from femininity and the separation from expectations. Beyoncé combines the traditional idea of being a mother and puts the modern feminist spin on it, owning her sexuality while also being an independent, working mother. Like Gaga being a product of her time, Beyonce is able to full capitalize on third wave feminism’s stances and help individualize herself and what she stands for. So while her music genre that she’s helping redefine is pop and not rock, her roots lie in those original girl groups at the beginnings of rock and she’s now able to help guide future girl performers into being their own examples of what it means to be a feminist music icon.





 Works Cited

Archer Mann, Susan and Douglas J. Huffman. “The Decentering of Second Wave Feminism and the Rise of the Third Wave*.”Science & Society 69.1 (2005): 56-91.

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Gaar, Gillian G. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll. Seattle, WA: Seal, 2002. Print.

Hirshey, Gerri. “The Eighties.” Rolling Stone Nov 13 1997: 79-85.

Hobson, Janell. “BEYONCÉ’s FIERCE FEMINISM.” Ms Spring 2013: 42-5.

Hutton, J. (2009, Winter). GOD and the “GAZE:” A VISUAL READING of LADY GAGA. C Magazine, 5-8.

Leonard, Marion. Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse, and Girl Power. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Meltzer, Marisa. Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music. New York: Faber and Faber, 2010. Print.

Peters, Michael A. “On the Edge of Theory: Lady Gaga, Performance and Cultural Theory.” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 4.1 (2012): 25-37.

Reynolds, Simon, and Joy Press. The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.

Schwichtenberg, Cathy. “Madonna’s Postmodern Feminism: Bringing the Margins to the Center.” The Southern Communication Journal 57.2 (1992): 120-131.

Shugart, Helene A. “Isn’t it Ironic? The Intersection of Third-Wave Feminism and Generation X.” Women’s Studies in Communication 24.2 (2001): 131-68.

Tianen, Dave. “Jett Still a `Notorious’ Rocker.” Milwaukee Sentinel: 0. Jan 17 1992.

Warwick, Jacqueline C. Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s. New York: Routledge, 2007.


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