Terms like “empowerment” have flooded popular culture for quite some time, often in relation to promoting consumerism as well as hypersexual self-presentation. Of late, though, a rather unlikely source employed the word “feminist” to describe herself. Last week, media sensation Miley Cyrus stated: “I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women not to be scared of anything.”

Central to Miley’s values of “not being scared of anything” is her embrace of shock value, especially as related to seemingly self-assured hypersexual posturing. As consumers of popular culture are likely familiar, she exhibited her self-confidence at the August 2013 VMAS, in which she performed a raunchy rendition of “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke. She continued her domination of the headlines by appearing nude (save for some boots) in the music video for her song “Wrecking Ball.” This sort of “empowerment” has underscored Miley’s rebranding effort from Hannah Montana to…something else more…well, “adult.”


Given that Miley’s brand of feminism feels more like Girls Gone Wild than a feminist figurehead, it’s quite interesting that she uses “feminist” as a self-descriptor. It’s notable, too, since many female celebrities, especially her contemporaries, have distanced themselves from identifying as a feminist. For example:

Katy Perry: “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”

Carrie Underwood: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am a feminist, that can come off as a negative connotation. But I am a strong female.”

Beyoncé: “That word [feminist] can be very extreme … I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality … Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman, and I love being a woman.”

The qualifications in Katy, Carrie, and Beyoncé’s communication about employing the word “feminist” reflects a longstanding conversation in feminist scholarship about why feminist has become a label that is fraught with contention. Part of the reason seems to be the history of generational conflict associated with women’s efforts to fulfill feminist aims. Along these lines, women seem to want to assert that their view of feminism is not that of their mothers or grandmothers. They want to own their feminism.

In addition, female celebrities’ ambivalence towards the term “feminist” is perhaps based on the ways in which notions of feminism have been communicated through mass media outlets over almost fifty years. As many scholars of consumer culture have identified, feminist discourse has been employed in advertisements and other media products to create a positive association between goods and the values we associate with them. This, in turn, has led to a devaluing of the language of feminism in popular culture, particularly in relation to feeling good through self-beautification. So, for instance, even though most people are aware that it’s simplistic to equate an experience of empowerment with nail polish, the constant presence of manufactured visual/verbal associations reinforces the desired meaning of the message, as in this advertisement:


While it is unlikely that wearing a nail polish called “Empowerment” will actually lead a woman to feel empowered when she wears it, it is possible that her act of carving out a space in her busy day to take care of herself and exercise an aesthetic pleasure will constitute a meaningful assertion of her power. The trouble here is that it’s not just one nail polish advertisement that links meanings of empowerment with a beauty product. The messages in this advert connect to those in other types of media texts (films, tv shows, ads/branding campaigns, celebrity images) as well as to cultural values that equate women’s work on their beauty/bodies with self-improvement. This sort of messaging about “empowerment” reinforces the idea that beauty routines are a necessity for presenting ourselves as socially acceptable and transform the pursuit of beauty into an oppressive journey of conformity.

Although feminism and feminist may currently be nebulous terms, there exists nonetheless an understanding among the public about what feminism, in essence, means. A poll conducted on People Magazine‘s website found that 92% of those who responded did not think that “Miley is, as she claims, one of the world’s biggest feminists.”

People poll

In early twenty-first century Western culture, it’s not a leap to argue that meanings and practices of feminism have become distorted and distant from their origins or that they have come to be associated with beauty-related goods and issues in consumer culture. Feminism is not a catch all for anything that involves a woman feeling good about herself, nor is it an excuse for a woman’s bad behavior. There is much feminist work to be done (see, for instance, recent studies on gender pay gaps here and here). As a culture and as individuals, we need to start thinking more about what we want feminism to be and do for women and society. Miley’s brand of feminism opened up a conversation. Let’s continue it.

Recently, 26-year old YouTube beauty guru Michelle Phan launched her cosmetics brand in collaboration with beauty giant Lancome. Just shy of 5 million subscribers, her YouTube videos have made her a millionaire and an Internet celebrity.

At the beginning of American consumer culture in the early twentieth century, women owned local service-oriented shops and shared beauty rituals as a part of “the personal cultivation of beauty – the original meaning of ‘beauty culture’” (as described by historian Kathy Peiss in her book Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture). This beauty culture was contemporaneous with the first wave of feminism, and its founders employed women in their businesses, actions that Peiss characterizes as “a form of feminism.”

YouTube beauty gurus

Now, YouTube beauty gurus cultivate community around beauty, reviewing products and demonstrating various makeup “looks” through tutorials that mostly mimic those seen on fashion runways, on celebrities, and in women’s magazines. An underlying theme in their communication indicates how much more confident they feel about their appearance when they use specific products or craft their appearance in certain ways. Such declarations of empowerment are encapsulated in a former tagline of one vlogger: “conquering the world one lipgloss at a time.”

Certainly, in an environment that places immense pressure on women to improve their appearance (through makeup, hair styling, diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, and so on), beauty vloggers have cultural cachet. Through their expertise about beauty products/techniques, they can gain subscribers and, if they develop a sufficient following, they can acquire financial power via the YouTube Partner Program, through which vloggers earn anywhere from a few thousand dollars to six figures per month. In addition, as in Phan’s case, they can leverage their online popularity/visibility to build their own beauty brand.

For many women, engaging with makeup of various colors and textures can be an aesthetic, artistic, playful, and adventurous experience. The issue becomes sticky, however, when women accept makeup as not just a means of empowerment, but as the tool for agentic self-realization. This point holds especially true when cosmetics are promoted by a beauty guru (who may be doubling as a brand ambassador for a beauty brand or for her own brand) whose primary interest aligns more with consumerism and conformity than with creativity and self-expression. In this case, beauty gurus’ expertise and their videos work more as infomercials than as vehicles for women’s inspiration via beauty, thereby benefitting corporate — instead of women’s — power.

So, then, I ask: What does the beauty expertise of vloggers and the women who watch them signal about current cultural values regarding female empowerment? Critically thinking about the role of beauty (and, specifically, the cosmetics industry) in past and present consumer culture and how these dynamics relate to women’s lives is an important place to start the conversation.

Girl w/ Pen is pleased to announced the addition of a new columnist to its team.  Dara Persis Murray is an expert in the intersections of beauty and feminism as they occur online and in consumer culture.  Her monthly column, “Mediating Beauty,” will delve into this topic. Without further ado, here’s Dara! 

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” has been heralded as the song of summer 2013. Since its release, media discourse has cited the music video for the song, in which models dance suggestively around Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell (the song’s male contributors and writers), as a blatant objectification of women. This criticism has been especially strong for the Not Safe for Work (NSFW) version of the video, in which the women are topless.

When questioned about the controversy, Thicke positioned “Blurred Lines” as “what great art does. It’s supposed to stir conversation, it’s supposed to make us talk about what’s important and what the relationship between men and women is, but if you listen to the lyrics it says ‘That man is not your maker’ — it’s actually a feminist movement within itself.”

Thicke’s perspective challenges me to ponder how meanings of feminism have become so misconstrued in popular culture that a music video depicting women in the way that “Blurred Lines” does can in any way be described as “feminist.” Which is why, when I heard recently that there was a “feminist parody” of “Blurred Lines,” I was curious to check out what themes would be drawn out from the original.

“Defined Lines,” created by a group of law students at the University of Auckland, was described by The Independent as “featur[ing] three fully dressed women responding to the attentions of scantily clad men as they sing about sexism.” After watching the video, it was evident to me that the women took issue with the lyrics in “Blurred Lines” (as new lyrics were provided) as well as with how the female body was objectified in the original (they substituted nearly naked men to make this point). Interestingly, the video offers conventionally attractive men in its effort to “objectify” them (perhaps to parallel the conventionally attractive women in “Blurred Lines”). Like so many contemporary depictions of female empowerment, though, “Defined Lines” reinforces visual codes of “acceptable” bodies in media messages. In so doing, it does not make an obvious statement about the ways in which the appearance of the women in “Blurred Lines” denotes standards of beauty that are so closely linked with the objectification of women.

Clearly, the parody’s creators wanted to “flip the script” by portraying a gender reversal of the “Blurred Lines” video. However, representations of men in (almost) the buff simply do not convey the same cultural meanings as women without clothing, as each gender’s socially, politically, and economically situated role is different. And, since beauty norms play such an important role in how women feel about their bodies and themselves, taking this issue on could have contributed to a larger conversation about the objectification of women and sexism. Instead, female “empowerment” is presented through lyrics that combat sexism in ways that pit women against men, as well as by showing women walking men on leashes or placing their stilettos on the men’s backs as the men do push-ups.

I applaud the creators of “Defined Lines” for taking “Blurred Lines” to task. Since I am writing this piece, perhaps both of these videos can be considered “art,” in that they have worked to generate conversation about media depictions of gender and messages of popular feminism. But, “objectifying” men does not help to unravel the knot between meanings of female beauty, objectification, and sexism in media messages.

leash               stilettos