Kesha and the Total Mainstreaming of Feminism

Mainstream stars like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Lily Allen, Lorde, JoJo, Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato are taking a feminist stand. It’s a watershed moment


Even if you were never into the songs “Tik Tok” or “Die Young,” you’ve probably become very familiar with the pop star Kesha over the past few weeks. For the past two years she’s been trying to get out of the six-album deal she signed with Sony Music Entertainment at the start of her career, and on Feb. 19, a judge declined to free her from contractual obligations to super-producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottswald.

Dr. Luke, without a doubt, invented Kesha as a pop music force. She even sits on the Sony roster as part of Gottswald’s imprint, Kemosabe Records. But according to the singer, who has not produced a new album since 2014, Dr. Luke raped and abused her for years, leaving her emotionally unwilling and physically unable to work with him again. (He has denied all the allegations.)

When New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich passed down her verdict, photos of Kesha sobbing in the back of the courtroom lit up the Internet along with the hashtag #FreeKesha.

Artists like Miley Cyrus, Sky Ferreira, Lady Gaga, Lily Allen, Lorde, JoJo and more took to their social accounts and voiced outrage and support for Kesha. Lena Dunham penned an essay in her newsletter. Taylor Swift gave Kesha $250,000 as a “show of support.” And for her part, Demi Lovato took to Twitter and laid out what women’s empowerment means to her, eventually saying, “Take something to Capitol Hill or actually speak out about something and then I’ll be impressed.

Some Swift fans interpreted that last tweet as Lovato throwing shade at Swift for tossing money at the problem instead of using her voice to affect real change. This prompted Lovato to defend her comments in a follow-up Instagram post, saying, “Everyone has their own way of giving support to others, and at the end of the day, helping victims is all that matters.”

The cheap thing to do in this situation would be to focus on the celebrity squabbling. The “cat fight.” But what we are actually witnessing is young, media-savvy and incredibly popular female stars challenging each other to become “better feminists.” This isn’t you and your friends talking over coffee after your 400-level women’s studies class. This isn’t a live reading of “The Feminine Mystique” in a local bookstore.

This a growing chorus of celebrities with nations-worth of followers behind them shouting that women — and in this case, women who have possibly suffered sexual abuse — will no longer tolerate a power structure that frequently either ignores or outright admonishes them for “living while female.” This is the complete mainstreaming of feminism.

In 2008, Dr. Martha Rampton, a history professor and director of the Pacific University Center for Gender Equity, wrote an article called “Four Waves of Feminism” in which she explained the evolution of the movement from suffrage in the early 20th century (first wave), to the theorizing and bra-burning of the 1960s and 1970s (second wave), to the Riot Grrrls of the 1990s (third wave) and up to our present moment (the fourth wave) in which “feminist” has, for the first time, become a truly populist battle cry.

“Feminism is now moving from the academy and back into the realm of public discourse,” wrote Rampton. “Issues that were central to the earliest phases of the women’s movement are receiving national and international attention by mainstream press and politicians.”

The fight for women’s rights and equality in America is, of course, more than a hundred years old. Legendary figures like Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Bell Hooks pushed and protested for young women like Cyrus to be able to call themselves “one of the biggest feminists” without fear of crippling damage to their careers. But just because the word “feminism” is being uttered more frequently in the highest echelons of pop culture does not mean everyone fighting the good fight is happy.

In an article titled “Emma Watson? Jennifer Lawrence? These Aren’t The Feminists You’re Looking For,” author and cultural commentator Roxane Gay argued that designating attractive women in pretty packaging as the face of feminism waters down the message by prioritizing mass appeal and soundbite activism over real education about the historical meaning and intentions of the cause.

“Too many people are willfully ignorant about what the word means and what the movement aims to achieve,” Gay wrote for The Guardian in October 2014. “But when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism, all of a sudden, that broad ignorance disappears or is set aside because, at last, we have a more tolerable voice proclaiming the very messages feminism has been trying to impart for so damn long.”

Of course, Gay, a brilliant and important cultural critic, is not wrong. Emma Watson giving a speech to the United Nations about “He for She” is not enough. And neither is Instagramming your girl squad. But considering the reach celebrities like Watson, Swift and Lovato have, those tiny acts of rebellion aren’t bad places to start, either.

The fact that feminism has emerged from the halls of academia and migrated from the counterculture into the mainstream is a very, very good thing. And if you aggregate enough speeches and tweets and Instagrams and Tumblr posts, suddenly you have something like a modern canon of introductory feminist thought.

Gay says outright in her Guardian article: “I don’t care about making feminism more accessible to anyone.” But alienation and exclusion have rarely been winning strategies for civil rights movements, and a 13-year-old hearing one of her idols proclaim herself a feminist is a lot more likely to lead them to Googling “Gloria Steinem” than polemical speeches reprimanding them to fuck off and get woke. (Lovato could even be a gateway drug to Gay herself.)

In response to the trend of feminist branding that has emerged, Ann Friedman recently wrote a perfectly titled article for New York Magazine called, “So You’re A Celebrity Who Calls Yourself a Feminist. Now What?” Friedman astutely assesses the walk along the knife’s edge that is mass-appeal feminism for pop stars who are just coming to political consciousness in their own lives, as they try to cogently share those thoughts with millions of followers.

“The stakes are higher for celebrity feminists,” Friedman wrote. “We’re watching the first generation of mainstream-famous feminists figure out how to live their politics in real time. Of course it’s going to be conflicted and messy, heavy on the rhetoric and light on the action. That’s how it was for me as a newly minted feminist, and I’m grateful that there is no tweet-trail of my evolution.”

No, the form of activism embodied by the Gagas and the Dunhams of the world is not perfect, and no, it is not complete. But a revolution in its fourth wave must evolve to thrive within current cultural mores lest it fade into irrelevance thanks to proud stagnation. Beyoncé standing in front a screen blaring out “FEMINISM” may seem superficial, but Queen Bey probably gets a lot more hits online than Naomi Wolf in a given day.

Pop feminism isn’t the entire solution, but in 2016 it is an undeniably important part of it. The legal battle for Kesha’s existential freedom is not over, and there is certainly no silver lining to seeing someone so publicly in pain. But if this cultural moment has proven the willingness of a younger generation of women to stand up for their bodies and for each other in such a grand public fashion, it can at least serve as an encouraging reminder that the disenfranchised in our society need not struggle in isolation any longer.

“Feminism no longer just refers to the struggles of women; it is a clarion call for gender equity,” says Rampton. “The beauty of the fourth wave is that there is a place in it for all — together.”