Feminist icons in the media – pressure and presence

Most people had one of two responses when they first saw Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” music video: disgust or empowerment. The same goes for Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” or virtually any of the videos off of Beyoncé’s album “Beyoncé.” Let’s be honest: these videos could be described as vulgar, disgusting and indecent—you would not be wrong if you said this, and at points, I would agree with you. And if you were somehow offended by them, I don’t think many could blame you.

It’s irrefutably true that these videos have caused problems. But to me, being vulgar and obscene is not the issue that’s caused the most harm in our society. The response I’ve heard most about these videos and individual artists after the releases is that they are “bad feminists.” People think that because these three women are being arguably “too open” with their sexualities, they’re somehow letting down the feminist community. Many think that these three supposed feminist icons are exactly the opposite because they are not illustrating “good behavior” or wholesome values for other women. But that raises the question: does feminism have to be synonymous with being a good role model?

I’d argue that it doesn’t. Over the years, the umbrella of feminism has widened a considerable amount. There are so many more layers and different types of icons than there used to be. Feminists aren’t limited to study-hard professionals who take the more traditional, Sheryl Sandberg-esque “lean in” method to stay ahead and stay up to speed with the men in the world, though this is a completely legitimate way to think about feminism. Nowadays, women are taking back every aspect of life: yes, ladies, that means socially and sexually as well as in the classroom.

But it seems that whatever take one has on feminism, feminist women are constantly being criticized. Even Michelle Obama has gotten heat for saying that her most important role is being “mom-in-chief”—Michelle Obama, the most educated and [one of] the most active First Ladies in history, is being criticized for not being feminist enough. Beyoncé has been criticized for focusing on her marriage in her music because some believe that she’s not appearing as independent as she should be—she is literally getting hated on for being happy just because she is in a traditional role. There’s just no satisfying everyone for these women in the media.

People have started to lose the meaning of feminism: let’s not forget that first and foremost, feminism is the advocacy for equality amongst genders from all walks of life (sorry if that’s been beaten into your head, but clearly it hasn’t been enough for everyone). That should not mean that it’s every woman’s responsibility to put career before everything else, get a P.h.D and be an outspoken activist who pickets for pro-choice. It should mean that women should be able to choose whatever path in life they want. We need to stop shaming women for doing or advocating for things that a man could do and not face any criticism. If a woman chooses to rise to the top of the corporate ladder, or stay at home and raise her children, or sing songs about her ass and shake it for the camera, then she should be able to do that without being demoted from being considered a feminist.

This brings us back to the question of being a woman in the media and what that means for the message she sends. It’s a hard issue to tackle because of the innate gender inequality in the media: it’s very apparent that there is a lot more heat on women to be good role models than on men, especially in the music industry—in fact, this pressure is almost nonexistent for men. If you listen to Kanye West’s or Childish Gambino’s lyrics (don’t get me wrong, I love ’em both), you’d hear awful language, misogyny and explicit sex. And they don’t get any criticism for it because it is their music and people therefore think they have the right to say what they want, for the most part, and actually figure that they don’t mean what they’re saying in their verses. But for someone like Nicki Minaj, who has the difficult task of being one of a few women in a boys’ rapper club, similar lyrics and themes are taken very seriously and literally, and are criticized for sending the wrong message to listeners. Whether you like the song or not, “Anaconda” has made a lot of women feel better about not having a type-A thin body, and whether you like Nicki Minaj’s ass or not, her showing it in her video isn’t really about you; it’s about empowering others and herself. And what’s difficult about this topic is that yes, it should not be the aspiration of every 10-year old girl to be showing skin all over the internet, but it also shouldn’t be the case that Nicki Minaj’s outlet of empowerment is considered illegitimate feminism.

The bottom line is: men can show skin. They can curse in their verses. They can be explicit about sex. So women should be able to as well. Women in the media have a tough job: let’s not force them onto any one track of feminism just because we think that’s the right one. Let’s not force on them the responsibility of being a feminist and a good role model and assume that they are the same thing, when really they’re two separate attributes and issues—they have a hard enough job as it is.