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My complicated relationship with Feminism: Feminism in popular culture

I have never thought of myself as a feminist. Now hold on, before you go getting out your hatchets ready to tear me to shreds, let me explain myself. I absolutely believe in equality for women – but more than that, I believe in equality for all people. For my part, I have always felt that identifying myself as a feminist (or more specifically – making a point of the issue) would be to the detriment of my other beliefs. Perhaps this sounds odd to you, but it is something that has bothered me for a long time.

A while ago now, I read an article on Susan Sarandon where she discussed the notion of feminism being outdated, and that the younger generation of socially minded people think of themselves more as humanists than feminists. This really spoke to me and I have been mulling it over ever since. I don’t want to focus my identity on fighting only for one specific set of rights, and I fear that feminism as a word/title/label has become just this. Sure, if we actually look at the definition of the word (or at least what it should mean/represent in people’s minds) we see that this is not the case… anyone who believes in equality for women is a feminist.

I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of the word feminist, as some female pop culture icons these days appear to be. I don’t really view it as a ‘radical’ frame of mind, but I get frustrated when people fixate on it like it is the only cause we are fighting for at the moment. Everyone should be beneficiaries of equality – be they gay or straight, male or female, religious (of any religion) or atheist, cheese eaters or cheese haters, readers or illiterate, left-handed or right-handed… you get the gist. This is not Animal Farm, where every human was born equal, but some more equal than others. We are all equal. OK?! OK?!!!!!!!!!!!!

Alright, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s have a little celebration of awesome feminists in popular culture (a list very much influenced by things that I like, rather than generically celebrated by many people in all works of life – or at least not necessarily the latter). I’ve decided to break this down into two lists of five: feminist artists – be they filmmakers, writers, whatever – and feminist characters in pop culture.

The feminist artist

1) Obviously the first one that springs to mind is Joss Whedon. There’s no real comparison to the good he has done women everywhere. His female characters have strength and depth. He loves women and isn’t shy about expressing this opinion. And why should he be?

600full-fables-#71-cover2) Many of you should know by now that I am a massive fan of the comic book series Fables by Bill Willingham. One of the reasons I love this series is that Willingham has taken the female characters from classic fairytales and fables and turned them into empowered badasses. Traditionally, these characters are passive or helpless, and certainly unable to take charge of their own lives (at least not until they are saved by some man).

3) Margaret Atwood is well-known and celebrated as a feminist writer, from Surfacing to The Handmaid’s Tale, many of her novels have feminist themes and often focus on a female protagonist. One of my favourite pieces of hers though, is a short story called ‘Hairball’ which first appeared as part of the short story collection Wilderness Tips. If you like weird stories with feminist undertones, the story is a must-read.

4) What I love about Doris Lessing is that she was a kind of reluctant feminist icon. Her work was considered very important in promoting the feminist cause, but she wasn’t always so positive about the movement. For instance, she was quoted saying ‘Things have changed for white, middle-class women, but nothing has changed outside this group.’ I particularly liked that she stood up for men – she recognized that not all men were bad and that feminism shouldn’t mean ‘automatic rubbishing of men’.

5) To round out the list of pop culture artists, I think I should include a musician. And the winner is? Robyn. This petite Swedish blonde bombshell is fiercely independent and empowered. Unhappy with her record label, she stepped out on her own and created Konichiwa Records. She has given us the feminist tracks ‘Who’s That Girl’, ‘Dancing on My Own’, ‘Don’t Tell Me What to Fucking Do’, and ‘Indestructible’, among others. Personally, however, I love her take on Prince’s ‘Jack U Off’ as a bonus track to the self-titled 2005 album.

The feminist characters

1) To coincide with her creator, I have to have Buffy on any list of great feminist characters. The little blonde girl that kicked the asses of every vampire in Sunnydale. Buffy rose up to every challenge, saving the world from multiple apocalypses, and surviving the death of her mother. Sure, she needs the support of the Scoobies, but everyone needs some kind of support network. Special mention has to go to Willow as well. She uses her brains rather than brawn to fight evil all while standing up for gay rights.

princess-leia-wallpapers_26061_1600x12002) Growing up, there was only one woman I really wanted to be and her name was Princess Leia. Rebel leader, skilled fighter, opinionated, and beautiful. What more could you ask for in a badass woman? Well, there was the fact that she also got the scruffy nerf herder, but I am a romantic at heart after all. Above everything else, what I loved about Princess Leia was her supreme confidence. She held her head high and knew that she fought for the right side. She took responsibility for her own actions and never just passively accepted anything.

3) We have had so many iconic male detective characters that by the time Veronica Mars entered the scene we were all thinking ‘It’s about bloody time!’ Veronica is so strong that she investigates her own rape when the sheriff’s department lets her down. Even if it means defending someone whose morals are more than a little bit questionable (looking at you Dick Casablancas), Veronica always fights to get to the truth. She is also very conscious of her own boundaries and what she needs.

000 Cover Feb-Mar 2012.indd4) After the completely passive pining that went on with Bella Swan in the Twilight series, it was great to see the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’s novels be such a strong character. Katniss Everdeen doesn’t take kindly to being put down, used, overlooked, or manipulated. Throughout the trilogy she is put in a position where it would be easy for anyone to feel helpless. But Katniss fights on and never gives in.

5) In the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast, as told by Disney, Belle is a wonderfully feminist icon. She takes a stand on the social convention for women, spending her time reading rather than pining over boys. When her father is taken hostage by a terrifying beast, Belle sacrifices herself. She refuses to give in to fear, however, and proves time and time again that she is strong, empowered, and opinionated. She fights for herself and for her man. Belle is my kind of princess.

About Megan Leigh

Writer and editor of Pop Verse. Co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper. My special interests include publishing, creative writing, and geekery.


  1. I have to say, while Veronica Mars is pretty cool, I do think you’ve overlooked some well known female dectives that pre date her by a long way, like Miss Marple, and of course my personal favourite, Jessica Fletcher from ‘Murder She Wrote’.

    • Overlooked? Not so much. This is just a list of five personal favourites – no claims to saying these are the first or recognised as the best. I have to say I wasn’t really a Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, or Nancy Drew fan. I’m a Veronica girl through and through.

  2. Being a feminist has never prevented me from believing in equality for all people. In addition to being passionate about feminist issues, I also care deeply about LGBT, race, class, secular, environmental, and game industry issues, amongst others.

    Also, some people call themselves “feminist humanists” or “humanist feminists.” The American Humanist Association even has a Feminist Caucus.

    Another aspect of feminism that appeals to me is intersectionality (how combinations of gender, sexual orientation, race, class, etc. affect us). And helping women can often help men, too. Dismantling gender roles gives everyone more choices and personal freedom.

    But even if it were only or primarily about fighting for one specific group’s rights, so what? Are LGBT rights groups obligated to spend an equal amount of time discussing Native American issues? Do children’s rights groups need to start focusing more on veterans’ issues?

    We need to evaluate the causes of and solutions for the unique issues that different people face. Although I agree with humanist values, I don’t think humanism is enough to help everyone. As long as women are denied bodily autonomy, are portrayed as accessories in the media, are expected to be the primary caregiver, and so on, then feminism will not be “outdated,” and neither will other specific rights groups.

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