By Akshara Karthik (‘22)
The Bachelor’s sordid storyline. Victoria’s Secret’s overtly sensual campaign. Even in today’s day and age, we may believe that we have moved past gender stereotypes, but the more we try to persevere forward, the more we realize that these stereotypes are deeply rooted in the medium of pop culture.
We often forget the monumental effect pop culture has on us, and rarely remember that this extends to children as well. The media and pop culture have an unparalleled influence over the younger generation. Today, children grow up with phones, television, IPads, and so much more technology, which exposes them to the world of pop culture very early on. Now, when I say children, I mean girls and boys, but pop culture’s effect on females is dramatically different.
Taylor Swift said it best in her documentary Miss Americana, “Because if you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that [butt] that everybody wants, but if you have enough weight on you to have an [butt], then your stomach isn’t flat enough.” Statistics from 2017 on the way pop culture affects the mentality of young people have divulged that 42 percent of first to third-grade girls want to lose weight, while about 81 percent of 10-year-olds are fearful of being overweight. In fact, more than 73 percent of girls who misuse diet pills and 79 percent of teenage girls who self-purge frequently read women and health fitness magazines, which are known for promoting the ‘skinny is perfect’ ideology.
While these toxic stereotypes have remained prevalent in our society, the last decade has been the scene of a global conversation on feminism, thanks to the acceptance of feminist ideas by the pop culture scene. For example, Beyoncé’s iconic performance at the 2014 VMA’s transformed feminism and made it an ambition overnight. Merely 24 hours after her performance, Beyoncé was trending on Twitter and there was a spike in internet searches for Beyoncé and “Feminist Beyoncé”. After the Single Ladies singer’s inspirational performance, Emma Watson recited a speech about the significance of gender equality. In addition, in Paris Fashion Week of 2014, the Chanel runway show finale was inspired by a feminism movement rally. Andi Zeisler, the co-founder and creative director of a nonprofit feminist organization in Portland, Oregon explained to Magdalene.co, “A lot of celebrities like Emma Watson who in the past few years have been coming out and talking about feminism are getting quite well known for it in part because they don’t match what so many people seem to believe about feminists and feminism. So, a lot of what they’re doing is making feminism palatable to outsiders, more accessible, but also simpler. The drawback to feminism that is made mainstream and made more visible is that it makes feminism less about activism and more about personal identity.”
Today, corporations build advertisement campaigns around the subject of female empowerment. Sometimes, though, appealing to feminism just becomes a campaign strategy to sell products to women. Dove Beauty, known for its advertisements featuring females using their body products, initially vouched for a campaign centered on female diversity and empowerment. However, now, according to Zeisler, “[Dove] has become much more normative and insistent on shifting the weight on cultural expectation and beauty standard back on to women themselves. It’s still centering beauty as the most important quality that women can have.”
In addition, it has become more normalized for pop culture icons, like Beyoncé, to use feminism as a part of their personal branding, though this can be both beneficial and harmful. Female celebrities have a massive amount of influence, in ways that a century of a women’s movement has not been able to have, which can be used to rally more support. However, making feminism a piece of one’s brand may simplify the movement, which has so many complex layers that must be addressed to truly reduce gender stereotypes. Ziesler noted, “So, for instance, you have Taylor Swift, an international pop star whose feminism translates into being friends with women – that should not be a feminist value, it should be kind of given. It’s an inevitable stance, it’s not a policy stance. For people like Taylor Swift or other celebrities to really engage with feminism as a transformational movement requires them to work at the systems that support their careers, and these are systems that are built on fundamental power inequality. So, there’s only so far that kind of feminism can go.”
Overall, we obviously have a lot to improve on as a society, to eradicate gender stereotypes. Pop culture is both beneficial and destructive to this essential movement, and it is our collective responsibility to aid in advancing feminism from a movement to a reality.