Role Call: Feminism in Pop Culture

October 13, 2015


This summer saw the budding friendship between Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer, much to the joy of every Buzzfeed user and Twitter fanatic. According to Rolling Stone, after spending the last few months together on tropical getaways and dancing together atop Billy Joel’s piano, the pair is co-writing a movie where they appear as sisters, according to the New York Times.

The project is likely to be green lighted by a movie studio regardless of what it’s about, considering the high pop culture status of both Lawrence and Schumer. Lawrence easily topped Forbes Magazine’s “World’s Highest Paid Actresses 2015” list in August with a whopping $52 million in earnings, making her the second highest paid actor or actress in the world, behind perennial earnings leader Robert Downey Jr. The likely success of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, set for release in November, along with awards buzz for her starring role in the upcoming dramatic film Joy, means Lawrence could occupy a top spot for yet another year.

Schumer herself has gained wider prominence and recognition more recently than Lawrence. An an on-the-road stand-up comic for many years, Schumer developed a compelling, unapologetic feminist stage presence. This carried over to her Comedy Central sketch comedy show Inside Amy Schumer, which has received rave reviews since it began airing in 2013. Schumer’s debut film Trainwreck, which she wrote, cemented her place as a darling of late-night talk shows and one of Hollywood’s preeminent female voices.

The movie features Schumer in the titular role as a women opposed to monogamy who finds herself falling for a sports doctor (Bill Hader). Although it does not stray too far from traditional rom-com tropes, the movie gives Schumer’s trademark subversive feminist humor a venue to the masses. And, as Trainwreck grossed $30 million opening weekend and continued to rake in cash following some laudatory reviews, it seems like the masses approved.

Dr. Emerald Christopher-Byrd, a faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University, completed her PhD dissertation on media representation of gender. In an email to the Voice, she noted the special significance of Schumer’s triumph in the traditionally male-dominated field of comedy.  

“Women have simply been labeled as ‘unfunny’ for various reasons,” she wrote, “Now that there is an understanding that there is actually a market for women comedians, there has been a small change. However, there is this constant need, just as in other professions, for women to find that balance between smart and raunchy in order to somehow remain relevant. There is not the same expectation for men.”

Soyica Colbert, an Associate Professor of African American Studies and Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown, sees reason to celebrate the dialogue surrounding Trainwreck. “What’s so exciting about Schumer is that she doesn’t look like a prototypical Hollywood star and she is very open about that fact,” she said. “In general, I think it is important for women to be able to occupy spaces usually associated with men. That is central to feminism. Schumer isn’t just participating in those spaces, but she’s having a conversation about why she’s participating in those spaces. And she’s drawing attention to the structures that prevent other women from participating.”


Trainwreck was just one of the many films that led critics to call this summer a defining season for women. Over the last few months audiences saw women in central roles in big, high-budget hits—not just low-budget independent films. Charlize Theron drew acclaim for her commandeering, scene-stealing performance, in the highly anticipated reboot Mad Max: Fury Road. Spy, the comedy starring hit-maker Melissa McCarthy, was a financial and critical success. And Pitch Perfect 2, a film directed by Elizabeth Banks became the highest-grossing musical comedy film to date.

Still, despite these celebration-worthy summer movies, the vast majority of big blockbusters are touted by men, about men, and for men. And no matter how many accolades and critical acclaim films like Mistress America or Diary of a Teenage Girl receive, statistics show that the studio, for the most part, is still completely dominated by men. In a study done in 2014, The Guardian reported that more than three-quarters of the studio was run by men — and only 22% women.  After studying over 2,000, the study proved just how minimal effect women had on the filmmaking process; only 17.5% of visual effects were done by women, music 16%, 13% editors, 10% writers, and just 5% directors.

“We have women in the military in larger numbers; directing [still] remains one of the most segregated fields” said Bonnie Morris, an adjunct professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and self-professed film buff.

Performing Arts Department Chair Maya Roth sees this trend occurring in theater as well, and hopes to nurture a variety of roles for women and men that challenge existing preconceptions.

“In the canon and in contemporary plays staged, male roles are more often central and numerous,” she said, “…one of my guiding commitments as professor, director, and acting mentor, we aim to level the playing field—and to provide diverse, multiple roles for women…Often plays that focus on feminist stories and women’s experiences reimagine form and cultural relations. That’s exciting—and I see my students revel in discovery of that artistic and social range.”

Of late, many movie stars have spoken out about feminist issues and the changes that must be made in their industry, including UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, Viola Davis (notably in her recent history-making Emmy acceptance speech) and Meryl Streep. But when it comes to celebrities embracing feminist rhetoric, female professors who spoke to the Voice preached caution.

“One of the biggest shifts that I’ve seen is that when I ask one of my Intro to Women’s Studies classes who they identify with feminism, they name a famous woman,” said Dr. Morris. They identify feminism with power… coupled with the explosion of social media leads to young girls feeling like attention means success.”

“There are a couple of things happening with what I call ‘pop feminism’,” wrote Dr. Christopher-Byrd, “Celebrities are profiting off of the use of feminism… without really embodying what it is to be feminist. On the other hand, given our culture’s obsession with celebrities, the feminist ‘endorsement’ sometimes opens a door for dialogue… The dangerous area is when people take the word of celebrities as the end all be all of what feminism is.”

“I definitely think young celebrities ascribe a certain ‘cool factor’ to feminism,” said Dr. Colbert. “…I do think that it opens the door to make feminism something… accessible. You have to ask: what precisely am I talking about when I say someone is a feminist?”

That question was at the heart of a debate involving another tale of powerful celebrity female friendships. The firestorm started this July, when Nicki Minaj complained that “Anaconda” was not nominated for video of the year for the MTV Video Music Awards. Taking to Twitter to voice her opinions, Taylor Swift was quick to critique the rapper, chastising her for not supporting fellow female artists. Fast forward to September. Right before the VMAs, Miley Cyrus critiqued Minaj’s character with The New York Times. When wrapping up her acceptance speech for Best Hip-Hop Video at the VMA, Nicki Minaj referred to Miley Cyrus as “this b*tch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press”, following up with a pointed “Miley, what’s good?” Needless to say, these moments sent the Internet ablaze with exclamation point-laden tweets and conspiracy theories that fueled morning talk shows for days after the fact.

While the concept of intersectionality within the feminist conversation has been around for decades, the renewed focus on the word is a testament to pop culture’s unmistakable influence on the movement, for better or for worse. The fact that Georgetown’s United Feminists hosted a discussion on tone policing and diversity in the media based on the debacle is a small example of its impact.

Mary Rogers (COL’16), an undergraduate assistant at the Georgetown Women’s Center, saw a theme prevalent in contemporary feminism.

“It [the VMA debacle] definitely spoke to a lack of understanding between parties on intersectionality. The needs and wants of a feminist movement comprised of upper class white women is radically different from a feminist movement that incorporates women of different sexualities, races and socioeconomic status,” Rogers wrote in an email to the Voice, “It’s something the feminist movement has struggled with from the beginning—becoming more inclusive and including all women’s voices.”

Dr. Christopher-Byrd highlighted the lack of celebrity understanding as one of the causative factors of the dispute.

“When Minaj sent her original tweet about her video not being nominated for Video of the Year, she was critiquing beauty standards that are so prevalent in the media. Swift took Minaj’s words and solely attributed them to be a gender issue, and then accused Minaj for pitting women against one another,” Christopher-Byrd said, “Failing to look at the intersections of race, class, sexuality, etc. ignores the very lived experiences of women.”

“The exchange between Minaj and Cyrus is yet another example of the failure to fully examine the social issues happening in the media,” she continued, “Rather, Cyrus focused on Minaj’s failure to be nice when addressing her issues rather than Cyrus (privileged based on race and body type) acknowledging the double standard that exists in the media not only based on gender, but race and body type as well.”

Rogers cited the media’s habit of dubbing a disagreement between female celebrities as a “cat fight” and still sees a reason to admire all three music giants.

“I think they [Swift, Minaj and Cyrus] represent empowerment in their own ways. Some may identify with Swift’s strong call to sisterhood and the way she handles her business decisions, others may find empowerment in the way Minaj refuses to apologize (and I mean that in a good way) for looking the way she does as a black woman owning her sexuality. Others still might see Cyrus’ display of her own sexuality as empowerment as well as the way she has been questioning gender binaries in the public eye.”

The music industry has always been a lightning rod for feminist issues, which has, like the movie industry, been exacerbated by social media and our fascination with celebrity. “Although some of the spats can seem quite juvenile when they start calling each other names and subtweeting each other, they also bring these issues to the forefront for discussion and awareness” said Dr. Stilwell. However negative and uncomfortable, the Cyrus, Minaj and Swift exchange provoked a necessary, constructive dialogue that brought attention back to an important tenet of feminism that is often ignored by mainstream media.  

Georgetown’s theater department has led the way for such conversations. Dr. Colbert is part of a national organization called the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, which aims to bring together theatre professors across the United States. “We made criteria of the things you should be doing and I was really proud that Georgetown stood out as an example; we checked all the boxes.” Looking back at the past few years of Georgetown theater, she noted, “I am really proud to be a part of a department that focuses on having an inclusive season to connect with everyone at Georgetown.”

While Georgetown itself has been making strides to promote intersectionality and inclusivity in its performing arts, Hollywood still has a long way to go before it passes the test. “There has to be not only equality of representation for directors and actresses but also [equality] in salary,” said Dr. Christopher-Byrd. “Unfortunately, the industry focuses largely on consumerism and the bottom line. [In order for change to occur] it will not only take films that star or are directed by women to do well in theaters, but it will also take actresses and actors standing up in their profession for change to be made.”

Rogers sees an important role for women in the decision making process. “[We need women as ] the power players who decide, ‘Hey, you know what, people would actually like to see this movie, people would actually like a female story and a female perspective. The success of movie like Bridesmaids, Trainwreck, Pitch Perfect—they’re not anomalies. We are half of the population; our views do resonate.”

“In particular for film and music we still grapple with the [sexualization of women],” she said.
“We still need to overcome assumptions that women can’t be funny or that people don’t find female perspectives interesting, that women can’t make their own decisions and be successful. That’s just a short list. I think film and music influence and are influenced by these things. It’s not one directly affecting the other but more of a give and take.”

This summer saw a movie about a preteen girl’s emotions (Inside Out) and a song about “Bad Blood” between old girlfriends. “Fight Song,” an anthem of female empowerment, soared out of every radio station. The trailer for Amy Poehler and Tina Fey’s new comedy Sisters dropped to wide excitement from women and men alike. New conversations will arise because of these events.  The relationship between feminism and pop culture is a nuanced, adaptive movement — yet certainly, this summer, and hopefully the upcoming year, will point women in an upward direction.

Amy Guay
Amy was an American Studies Major and a staff writer for the Voice. In her tenure, she served as Multimedia Editor, Leisure Editor, and Halftime Leisure Editor. One time she saw Cate Blanchett on Broadway.

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