From the "Sister Suffragette" scene near the start of Mary Poppins to riot grrrl to girl power to "Goodbye Earl" to a flashing F-word in lights behind Beyoncé as she closed out last year's MTV Video Music Awards, music and the women's movement have long shared the stage. But like the best songs, feminism has always been a bit messy, right down to semantic confusion over what the word actually means. Now seemed as good as a time as any to take a deep dive into the movement and its soundtrack, so we invited some of our favorite artists, activists, writers, and scholars to an old-fashioned roundtable (er, email thread) on the topic.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: music critic and culture editor at Jezebel
Juliana Huxtable: DJ, artist, writer
Elizabeth Keenan: feminist musicologist
Lauren Mayberry: writer and frontwoman of Chvrches
Peaches: electronic musician and performance artist
What is a feminist?
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: Generally, I think a feminist is someone who not only fights for equal rights for all genders and persuasions but also for social justice across the board. Can’t have one without the other, not interested in feminism that isn’t deeply intersectional.
Elizabeth Keenan: “Feminist” is a word that describes someone who wants equality for women, but the movement hasn’t always been as inclusive as the word, and it hasn’t always recognized differences between women.
Juliana Huxtable: A feminist is someone who seeks to understand the ways patriarchy has modeled the world around us, and actively, as a result of that understanding, seeks to change those structures. It centers on issues like wage gaps, reproductive freedom, fighting for the representation and empowerment of trans and gender-nonconforming people. I am as much a feminist as I am an anti-racist, and as much as I realize the structures of class and how they influence the world around me.
Are you one?
All answer with a resounding “Yes!”—though Julianne feels more attuned to Xicanisma, as it speaks more specifically to her Mexican-American upbringing. And to Elizabeth, it’s important, both in her academic work and real life, to be an intersectional feminist: “Flavia Dzodan said it best—‘My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.’”
Did music introduce you to feminism?
Meredith Graves: Sort of. My mother and father raised me to understand the need for feminism and the troubles I’d face throughout life as a woman, but they also raised me in an extremely rich musical environment—my mother was a musical theater actress and my dad is a notoriously huge music nerd who favored performers like Debbie Harry, Kim Gordon, Janet Jackson, and Diana Krall. In this way, I grew up understanding stage performance as a place where women could be centered in the conversation.
Lauren Mayberry: I definitely became more aware of feminism through pop culture in my teens. Artists like Le Tigre, Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, and any pseudo-feminist character in ’90s teen movies. Lelaina in Reality Bites wanting to be a filmmaker and an artist was very inspiring to a young me, and I remember hunting down all the books and records that the Kat Stratford character has in 10 Things I Hate About You. Part of me used to wish I had a more intellectual “introduction to feminism” story, but now I think that making feminism open and approachable is important. Sites like Feministing are invaluable in terms of placing feminism in a relevant and topical world, especially for younger women.
Juliana: I was introduced to feminism through my high school debate coach, and I studied it throughout college (I was a Judith Butler fanatic). Music-wise, I was raised on gospel, R&B, and Southern hip-hop, and I had access to the radio and dance music at Barnes & Noble, LOL. Through R&B and hip-hop, I discovered a certain type of female strength that I identified with—I’m thinking of Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411?. Even though the album is largely about a relationship with a man, her agency in narrating—and that celebration of what so many single black women went through—was powerful, as was her aesthetic. In high school and college I was exposed to artists who explicitly identified as feminist, and I was deeply influenced by them—so many female MCs, the riot grrrl movement, M.I.A., and (if I may fan out for a moment) Peaches were inspiring to me.
Peaches: I became a feminist through music by turning a negative into a positive. I loved so many classic rock songs that were all objectifying women, treating women like meat. Only “sweet little 16” girls were worth obsessing over. I started to question what I was singing along with—how I was participating in the male gaze even if I didn’t want to. It is precisely why I make the music I do, and when I started I made sure that I established the whole world as my own. Me as producer, writer, and performer.
Elizabeth: Music didn’t lead me to feminism, but it was my mixtape for the journey. My first record was Blondie’s Autoamerican when I was five, and I wanted to grow up to be Debbie Harry. At my Catholic high school, while I was arguing with my teachers about reproductive rights, I was listening to ’90s alt-rock. Some of the women I was listening to didn’t call themselves feminists, like Juliana Hatfield. It bugged me that I identified with her music, and she didn’t identify as a feminist! (What can I say, I was 15.)
When our heroes deny they're feminists, the Internet often responds with a public shaming. A recent NYLON cover star said she was for sisterhood but didn't like the feminist label, and thought we should focus on issues like genocide rather that "the small things actors say." She was speaking to the outrage that followed her initial dismissal. Is there value in calling someone out for such statements?
Meredith: Ahh, this sort of drives me nuts because, if you look past her initial knee-jerk reaction, any genocide is inherently a genocide of women. Women are a key tool used against nations in war—we’re just passing the one-year anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnappings, and if, like me, you consider the capitalist and colonialist actions of the U.S. military in the Middle East to be a genocide, look at the statistics on rape as a tool of war. There’s less value in calling out actresses for making goofy “sisterhood not feminism” statements, but there’s implicit, important value in using those statements as a jumping-off point for larger conversations about women and their role in issues of international importance. Regarding the issues as separate is indicative of a certain white, Western brand of feminism that identifies itself as being concerned with (some of) the rights of (white, middle-class-ish, usually educated) women here in the U.S. Women outside the U.S. are women, too, and if feminism serves all women, then feminism is important to the conversation about genocide.
Julianne: Agreed, Meredith—that statement is Oppression Olympics, full of false equivalencies, as well as being dumb as hell. But also, I think there’s no reason to excoriate anyone for not embracing the term “feminism” if they believe in, and fight for, its tenets. There are many reasons a person wouldn’t want to call themselves a feminist, some of which have to do with the feeling that institutional/establishment feminism has excluded them (i.e., Womanists, Xicanistas, etc.). I think if you walk the walk, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you talk the talk.
Meredith: Yeah, that’s exactly it. You’re so goddamn smart. And not to make this about dudes, but I get waaaaay red-alert-y every time a guy refers to himself as a feminist (seriously, nine times out of 10 it’s like, nope), but I know tons of dudes who walk the walk and don’t feel the need to broadcast it.
Peaches: I don’t see how any woman can say she isn’t a feminist in some form. It’s saying she hates herself. But men do need to take an active role in feminism. They need to call themselves feminists. There need to be men-only discussions on feminism. I want to see them come forward as feminists, change their conversations, and speak out. What if a JT LeRoy situation happened, and we find out that one of the most incredible feminist books was written by a man? Would we no longer find this book as helpful as we did when we thought it was a woman writing it? I’m sure some of you are even angry at me for bringing up men this way and wondering why I am giving them more attention.… I think we have to be inclusive. I think it’s even harder but necessary.
Juliana: I find it really sad that so many younger people are dis-identifying with feminism. There’s been a bit of a regression culturally in terms of gender, and it’s shocking to see people like Katy Perry say she’s not a feminist because she has a boyfriend, essentially. It’s nonsensical because, like what Peaches said, it means you hate yourself on some level. I do think a lot of people have no history of what feminism is so they have terrible reductive ideas that boil down to “women who hate men.” I love the way that bell hooks deals with the inclusion of male experiences in The Will to Change. I think men can be pro-feminists or allies and need to be addressing the ways they perpetuate so much of what goes on. It’s weird knowing when/how that should play out, but I do think there’s an aspect of male introspection that feminists are in a position to provide insight to. I don’t really have any conclusions to this, as I personally am a bit exhausted dealing with trying to “explain” or “justify” feminism.
Lauren: Whenever I get exhausted by having to justify my stance as a feminist to people, I come back to this Kathleen Hanna quote: “I would much rather be the ‘obnoxious feminist girl’ than be complicit in my own dehumanization.”
Elizabeth: Part of my point about Juliana Hatfield was that, well, I was 15 and having my own knee-jerk reaction! Now that I’m older, I’m more understanding of why a lot of women wouldn’t call themselves feminists. On the other hand, I admit to still feeling a little stab in the heart when people from a position of relative power dismiss feminism without knowing what it is, or what it’s struggling to be (feminism is, after all, made up of imperfect humans). It’s very easy to make those false equivalencies in a way that ignores injustices. And, at the same time, I realize that everyone comes to things in their own time and in different ways (like Taylor Swift, for example). I don’t want to tear anyone down, but to give people room to understand that these things are connected.
Annie Lennox called Beyoncé "feminist lite" (and then apologized), but Beyoncé's feminist sign at the MTV Video Music Awards was kind of undeniably powerful, no?
Lauren: I have been caught in an endless thought spiral about the Annie Lennox comments on Beyoncé, to be honest. Everyone has the right to an opinion and no one woman’s feminism is the same as another’s. But I just don’t feel like women should be berating other women about whether they are “good” or “bad” feminists. Whether we agree with how someone like Beyoncé presents herself as a female, as an artist, or as a businesswoman, the fact that such high-profile people are now unashamedly using the word “feminist” is a big deal in my view, especially when they are communicating with a young audience whose ideas on these things are still forming.
Meredith: When I see women critiquing other women’s politics, I generally just regard it as reactionary behavior patterns developed as a result of being raised in a culture that hates women. Doesn’t make it right, though—and also, I laugh in the face of anyone who critiques Beyoncé because...Jesus. Why?
Elizabeth: With Beyoncé’s critics, I think the thing that strikes me the most is the racial component. It’s huuuuuge that Beyoncé, as an African-American woman with a giant fan base, is willing to publicly identify as a feminist. But it seems like every time she does something, she gets slammed for being not “real” enough. It was even more obvious in the Beyoncé vs. Beck conversation, which, ugh, don’t get me started on how people did the white, male auteur thing to say he deserved the Grammy over Beyoncé (who, you know, had producers and collaborators).
Juliana: I’m excited that Beyoncé and bigger artists are using the term “feminism,” but I find myself asking, “What are they representing/claiming?” I worry about the idea that feminism is about just doing what you want with no sense of consciousness or awareness of political realities, etc. There’s this odd moment where the focus of public discussions on feminism is about twerking and Beyoncé? It’s like, the Equal Pay Act was repealed, there is a literal war on abortion access in so much of the country, trans women are being murdered at insane rates even as we become more “visible”...and the biggest focus of feminism is on pop-cultural moments that, to me, do nothing for advancing a feminist agenda.
Question for the musicians: Have you incorporated your beliefs on equality into your own music, and if so, how did that play out?
Meredith: I incorporate my beliefs into everything I do in some way. Even though the word “feminism” never appears in our lyrics, I think the themes I deal with—along with the fact that I’m making vulnerable, sensitive, violent hardcore (a generally male-dominated genre) about the trauma I’ve experienced at the hands of men—translate just fine.
Juliana: I try to incorporate feminism into my practice as a DJ by being conscious of the play between pleasure and the way that politics are disseminated in music. So I like to play women and queer artists a lot, find female versions of songs when it's difficult to stomach the male-written and -performed lyrics. It's nuanced because there's a sense of racial and global awareness that I bring. I also support female, gender-nonconforming, and POC performers when I do showcases and in my mixes.
Women have been making music for as long as men have, but it seems like there are more bands being started by women these days. Are organizations like Girls Rock Camps to thank? What else?
Peaches: I love how women with power are taking control. Meryl Streep just announced screenwriter workshops for women over 40! Robyn is starting a festival to promote women in technology. Right now I am obsessed with female comedians dishing it out with the same venom as macho rappers. I don’t hate macho rappers. It sickens me and fascinates me and fuels me to continue what I do. But female comedians are unabashedly cutting through and cutting it down. Broad City is a post-gender world! Adrienne Truscott and her incredibly funny Asking for It one-woman show about rape. These are issues that only women can bring forth and, done well, can change attitudes. The vulnerable but strong breakup albums of Björk and Nicki Minaj. The powerful breakup book of Kim Gordon [Girl in a Band]. I would like to mention that my predictive text did not recognize the word intersex. It recognizes testosterone but not estrogen. I had to teach it these words. “Manopause” and Viagra are getting funding, but information about menopause is still a silent issue. How are we still dealing with these issues in 2015? But we are, and we cannot forget it.