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The Beyoncé Effect: The Millienial Face of Modern Feminism

Who Runs The World? Queen Bey!

If music and pop culture entertainment domination was the conclusive test, then “ALL HAIL QUEEN B!” Beyoncé Knowles, at only thirty-five years old, has claimed the number one spot in the female music industry and is one of the most talented stars of her generation. She has not only proven her brilliance as a female music artist above all other generations, but she has also established herself as an icon of feminist empowerment. Music, through the use of music artists and singers, has always been a significant platform of influence for the evolution and creation of societies, cultures, and generations throughout the history of pop culture. Pop stars and musicians, such as Beyoncé, often use their celebrity status to spread social and political messages that can change accepted societal ideology and impact mass cultural audiences (PopStarFeminist). Over the years, female pop stars have been known to play major roles as influencers, especially for young women, according to their generation.(QueenBFlawless). Not only has Beyoncé evolved into a millennial female pop star icon, but she has also earned the title as pop culture’s most influential celebrity and face of modern-day feminism. This essay will analyze Beyoncé, as an essential signifier to the pop cultural significance of feministic ideology, and will lead to a better understanding of modern feminism as a newly created culture in our 21st century society.

The History of Feminism: Feminism Comes in Waves

In order to fully understand the cultural significance of Beyoncé’s effect on the millennial young women of the 21st century, we must analyze the ideology of feminism and its societal evolution throughout the years. Understanding how feminism came to be is key to understanding how it has been received by diverse groups of women throughout history and where it is in society, today. Feminists generally divide the history of feminism as a social movement into three different periods. In historical context, Feminism has been studied and defined to come in “waves.” Just like a literal wave, as one wave moves out another comes in but still retains much of the structure of the original wave. As such, feminist movements are characterized as first, second and third waves respectively, with recent discussions happening regarding the creation of a fourth wave in our society of 21st century millennia’s. In historical context, the analogy of waves which define the cultural shift of feminism also act as a perfect illustration for the generations of women who make it up. In order to decipher the cultural significance of modern feminism, as the newly created fourth wave, we must understand the first three waves that came before and the historical impact that had on pop culture of past generations. The four “waves” model of the evolution has been used as a shorthand structuring device to organize feminist history and to track the “progress” of feminist interventions into social, political, and economic change for women (Feminist Theory and Pop Culture).

The History of Feminism: The First Wave of Feminism

In the early 18th to 19th century, female emancipation emerged out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. This period in history is referred to as the first wave of feminism (Rosanne). The goal of the first wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage. The first wave feminists were a diverse group in both their background and goals, but many of their efforts focused primarily on enfranchisement, women’s legal inequalities to men, and getting women the right to vote. For some women in the movement, this was because they wished to pursue social reform goals that were not necessarily connected to gender. Other women of the first wave had more radical goals, including sexual freedom and expanding the roles of middle-class women in the workplace (Questioning Gender). The first wave is significantly known in history as a “political movement” for feminism in society (Bustle).

Janis Joplin was a woman in a “male dominated, sexist culture,” who, in an industry where women relied heavily on male producers, developed herself as an artist and historical feminist first wave figure of pop culture significance. Janis Joplin is considered not only not be among the greatest women rock artists, but a strong contender as one of the greatest rock artists in history, regardless of her gender. She is a first wave signifier, remembered as “the sixties’ most liberated chick.” Time refers to her as “the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement,” Rolling Stone calls her “one of the biggest female rock stars of her time,” and Vogue dubs her “the most staggering leading woman in rock” (Sweet Scars of Paradise). Janis Joplin holds her place as a revolutionary of women’s role in popular music by establishing herself as an equal to, or even superior to her male peers, both in her musical performance, and in her liberated sexuality; her influence extended through her music into the suburbs of America to challenge preconceived notions of womanhood (Janis Joplin).

The History of Feminism: The Second Wave of Feminism

The second wave of feminism began in the 1960s and continued through the 1980’s. This period is described feminism and broadened the discussion to include workplace safety, pay equality, reproductive rights, domestic abuse, rape and set new expectations for the moral compass of our gender relations (Four Waves of Feminism). The second wave is considered the “social movement” for feminism, as this particular period encompassed issues of injustice around such social inequalities (Bustle).

Helen Reddy, a social justice activist, life-long feminist, and celebrity singer know as the “queen of housewife pop,” was the world’s top-selling female vocalist in 1973 and 1974. She is known throughout the history of music and pop culture as the celebrated woman who wrote and sang the unofficial anthem of second wave feminism (Rolling Stones). Reddy’s anthem “I Am Woman” is still considered a well-known feminist anthem as it directly and forcefully addresses issues of feminism, women’s rights, and gender equality. The song was revolutionary and considered a rallying cry for early second-wave feminists who were just opening their eyes to the ghastly state of women’s rights and beginning to fight for their equal place in society. Starting with the lines “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore”, I Am Woman was a masterly achievement. The central idea of Reddy’s song, not only changed second wave history, but also painted a picture of the quintessential second wave feminist as the long-oppressed woman burning with aggression, undaunted by the threat of pain and struggle, ready to fight and roar the truth of women’s equality to society(TheGaurdian ). Second wave feminists, such as Helen Reddy, sought to create new, more fully human and positive images of women in both pop culture and the media to fight the negative images and messages so commonly in circulation. Reddy’s ideas of feminism, which were portrayed in her music, allowed pop culture to create the new generation of second wave feminism, which was defined in adherence to the principles espoused within her music. Helen Reddy’s contribution, as a significant influencer of music in pop culture, is what makes her a second wave signifier to the evolution of feministic ideology throughout history.

The History of Feminism: The Third Wave of Feminism

Emerging around the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, third-wave feminism encompassed a diverse range of theories and orientations among both activists and academic scholars. This wave of feminism was all about including all races, ethnicities, classes, sexual identities while attempting to resolve previous issues that resulted from first and second waves of historical feminism. Third-wave feminism never found a cohesive structure because it was very deconstructionist in nature (Questioning Gender). According to Women, Music, and Culture, the third wave emphasized that there were many ways a feminist could live, and that individual choice was paramount.  Every woman could redefine feminism in her own way. This particular wave is historically known as the “individual movement” of feminism. The third wave made way for much more heterogeneous ideas on feminism, known as intersectionality. Intersectionality is the idea that identities are made up of different interrelated aspects. Feminism was no longer a uniformity that only applied to one identity; race, sexuality, class, etc, were all facets that tied an individual identity together. This was studied so that injustices were to be understood and fought on multidimensional level (Rosanne). Third wave feminists, ultimately, wanted to create a society that accepted the idea that women should be able to be themselves and do what they want, without gender stereotypes holding them back.

Third wave’s use of feminist activism in pop culture was particularly evident in much of the music in the early to mid 1990s, especially with the Riot Grrrl movement. The Riot Grrrl music scene was a grouping of bands which started in the Washington D.C. area in the early 1990s as a way for young women to participate in the male-dominated punk rock scene in the music industry. A powerful women fronted band, Bikini Kill, was a historical third wave signifier of the made music during the Riot Grrrl movement that intended to address misogyny, sexual violence, and racism to a certain degree. It was a time of empowerment, of “girls to the front,” and of a loud and in your face attitude. This punk band Bikini Kill published the “Riot Grrrl Manifesto” which began a radical feminist musical genre that took off around the world, calling out for the empowerment of women’s voices and taking up the issues of violence against women and homophobia (Bikini Kill). The “Riot Grrrl” title was conceptualized as a way to “reclaim the validity and power of youth with an added growl to replace the perceived passitivity of ‘girl’” (Sense Publisher). In historical context, Bikini Kill, is a significant signifier not only of third wave feminism, but also for the larger encompassing system of the feminism as an idea, that would not only evolve in popular culture, but also have a culturally-shifting impact on society, according to generation.

The Fourth Wave of Modern Feminism

The Fourth Wave of feminism brings us into the 21st century, as tech-savvy and gender-literate young feminists constitute the budding of the fourth wave. According to the The Beyoncé Effect, the most agreed upon aspect of the fourth wave of feminism is the use of technology and digital culture. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs are just a few of the ways contemporary feminism has taken to the internet. Activism and feminist theory present itself in the form of social media that is dedicated to addressing female gender representation in media.

One of the foundational issues of modern feminism argues that imagery in media and popular culture often degrades and objectifies women, creating unrealistic social expectations which can hurt relationships between men and women, limit women’s relationships with one another, and even distort women’s relationships to their own bodies. The fourth wave’s deployment of social media, as the modern and future platform of feminist activism, has created a digitally-driven culture for feminist’s in today’s millennial society (Baum Gardner). The new generation of women in the fourth wave are finding the idea of modern feminism in pop culture to often be reflected in celebrities or women of powerful influence whom are seen as prominent figures in the media.

 “The Bey Effect” – Beyoncé’s Brand of Feminism

By standing in front of a massive sign reading “Feminist” while performing at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé gained the praise of many millennial feminists. According to USA Today, in an image-driven culture where the six second sound bite rules and meme’s are more popular than books, the image of Beyoncé declaring her feminism to the world was considered iconic.

Beyoncé’s confounding mainstream persona, as one of the most powerful influencers in America, is a major key to the entertainer’s success. The success of her “flawless” public image, as an exemplar of female empowerment, has allowed her to have a significantly powerful impact on the millennia’s of the 21st generation. Many mainstream feminists of today’s society seem to think Beyoncé, often referred to as Queen B, to be the face of the fourth wave and ultimate cultural signifier of modern day feminism. As an individual signifier of such beknownst female power, she is a central component to the evolution and cultural shift of today’s modern idea of feminism. Her influence has contributed to the modern-day change in values, overall meaning, and created a newly constructed culture for modern-day female empowerment.

Beyoncé denotes a modern-day American woman, mother, pop star and one of the most influential female celebrity’s in today’s music industry. Connoted, as the millennial face and icon of modern feminism, her influence and public image in society has decoded the ideology of feminism in all political, cultural, and social dimensions of the 21st century. Through actively promoting women’s empowerment through her songs, videos, interviews, and performances, Beyoncé has made feminism an explicit part of her retrospective public image (Rosanne).  She has shown us that modern feminism, is a social behavior that can also be seen as political in the sense that it reflects such interests and values of a modern subjective group, known as “feminists,” whom express certain values and opinions of female empowerment. Beyoncé, an activist and icon of the subjective group of modern-day feminists, is an ultimate contributor to the meaning and pop cultural significance of the systematic ideology of modern feminism in today’s society. It can also be interpreted to show that society has changed in ways where, even a pop star with an apolitical facade, such as Beyoncé, can be a representation of political values that guide the social behavior of feminism in a society. This goes to show that society has conformed in which a way that often cultural, social, and political values are often concealed behind such images that do not look political at all.

Feminism as a New Millennial Culture

Situating historically iconic signifiers such as Janis Joplin, Helen Reddy, Bikini Kill, and Beyoncé within the system of related feministic phenomena, with which they can be associated and differentiated, is the essential formula for interpreting pop cultural signs of the ever-evolving system and ideology of feminism.

Each wave of feminism throughout history had similar intentions to empower women to see the importance of their gender and role in society. Since music becomes popular when enough people see something of their own identities in a song, political and issue-based music must find a way to re-open the eyes of the masses to this fact before they can re-enter what we commonly consider to be popular culture. All feminist ideas that were expressed at one time in music have become acceptable to society as such ideology has been repeated in enough songs.

While each period of feminism encouraged the similar phenomena-related concept of women’s empowerment, individual signifiers of each specified wave differentiated the ideology and cultural impact of feminism throughout history. Janis Joplin’s rock and roll of the first wave motivated the youth culture to resist arcane rules against sexuality. Helen Reddy’s music of the second wave encouraged individuals to seek personal freedom. Bikini Kill, of the third wave, accompanied by musical styles of the “Riot Grrrl” movement lent itself to feminist and anti-government ideas, which motivated individuals to oppose power and fight for change. For better or for worse, the fourth wave of modern feminism has been created because of the media’s portrayal of influential woman of power, celebrities, the Beyoncé’s of pop culture. As feminism has filtered into modern mainstream consciousness, fourth wave millennials have come of age in a time when feminist ideology is absorbed by pop culture in a way that makes Beyonce’s lyrics almost indistinguishable from the writings of Simone de Beauvoir (Feminist Theory and Pop Culture).

As we now know, the ideology of feminism in society has had a long history. The cultural phenomenon of feminism, which is made up of many overdetermined cultural signs, historical changes, and cultural shifts in such ideology, has lead to the creation of modern feminism as an even larger enveloping system. Modern feminism is the wave where feminist ideas are the great recurring theme in music and media. Thanks to the influence of modern feminist pop stars, popular culture has created a defining feminist generation according to adherence to the principles espoused in the music of such influential feminist celebrities like Beyoncé.


Beyoncé Knowles, is not only a signifier of fourth wave feminism, but also for the system of feminism as an idea. Feminism, with it’s overall evolution in popular culture and idealistic impact on society, according to generation, has lead to the construction and ultimate creation of the even larger encompassing system of 21st century modern feminism. The evolution of feminism as an idea throughout history has made feminism such a widely popular phenomenon throughout society. As we have analyzed the cultural significance of feminism in pop culture, we can conclude a better interpretation and understanding for the broad cultural significance of modern feminism in today’s millennial society. Beyoncé, as an important signifier within this system, has introduced modern feminism as the newest “wave” of feminism and cultural shift to take place in our social-media driven millennial society.

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