Why We Can’t Have Black Feminist Pop Icons.

(Lesli-Ann Lewis is a small, queer and brown invader of homogeneous spaces. Fancying herself a burgeoning writer, this is her first piece for Hood Feminism. She can be found on Twitter, all too often: @lesellele.)

The "new faces of feminism" look a lot like the old ones.

The “new faces of feminism” look a lot like the old ones.


Remember several weeks ago when blogger and writer Jincey Lumpkin called Miley Cyrus a feminist icon? Outspoken Black feminists took her to task for ignoring Miley’s exploitation of Black women. The backlash was so fierce that Jincey apologized.

Fast forward to November 13th, an ordinary day made extraordinary by the declaration of Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” as a feminist anthem and her video as a “genius” satire of pop videos. The video swerves into Miley’s lane featuring a relatively covered pop singer surrounded by scantily clad Black women. It features close-ups of Black women twerking, a long-standing hip hop dance for which has bizarrely been given credit Miley Cyrus. Lily Allen herself claims it’s satire but, given her iffy take on the black female body during a spat with Azlia Banks and the lyric “I don’t need to shake my ass for you because I have a brain,” timed right as one of her Black dancers bends over, it’s unclear what she’s satirizing, exactly. What is clear is that Jincey should have never apologized. Miley Cyrus IS a feminist icon and now, so is Lily Allen. They are feminist icons, and that feminism is White, cis, well-to-do and disingenuous.

Black women have been fighting for space in feminism since Sojourner asked anti-abolitionist suffragists “Ain’t I a woman?” There is a long, sad, and complicated history of white women being active participants in the (ongoing) colonization and exploitation of Black and brown women the world over.  Funnily enough, Lily Allen sings in her slut-shaming “feminist” anthem “We’ve come a long way, and if you don’t see the sarcasm in that, you’re missing the point.”

We see this history come out to play when mainstream feminism shuns Black celebrities for the very things they laud their White peers for. So far, the list who gets the feminist badge looks very Caucasian and contradictory. Miley Cyrus is a feminist icon for getting naked. Lily Allen is a feminist for slut-shaming Miley Cyrus.
With this happening so frequently, it begs the question: what is the standard for mainstream feminism when it comes to claiming pop singers and celebrities?

It seems that any white celebrity who is both successful and female gets branded as some sort of feminist whether or not she has even called herself one. Looking at the low standard for who gets to be a feminist pop icon, I’m left wondering why Rihanna hasn’t gotten her badge yet. Rihanna has done more work in the field of feminism than any of the pop stars in her age group. She quite eloquently discussed rape and rape culture in her Man Down video. She chose to address domestic violence in her “We Found Love Video.” Most recently she centered the female gaze AND celebrated the athleticism of strippers in her Pour It Up video. Since the infamous domestic violence incident, Rihanna has made a commitment to live her life on her terms. It permeates her every choice, especially the ones we, the public, do not like. That alone is a powerful statement to other survivors of domestic violence, like myself.

All Miley had to do was sit on a wrecking ball, naked.

While almost every White pop star gets rewarded a feminist badge, the list of who mainstream feminism has declared “bad for the movement” looks quite uniform and Black. Beyonce suffers from internalized misogyny. Nicki Minaj is oversexed and suffers from internalized misogyny. Rihanna is a confused, oversexed victim…who suffers from internalized misogyny.

The fact is, Rihanna doesn’t get dubbed as a feminist icon for the very same reasons her white peers do: the black female body is deemed as overtly sexual. So much so Miley Cyrus can derive a sexual identity just by associating with Blackness and Lily Allen can make a critique of hyper sexuality on our backs. Rihanna being Black and female must work from proving she isn’t just a sex object. Miley gets to be naked and feminist because it is presumed that she is “innocent” and that enjoying sex—for White women like her—isn’t the norm, but a revolutionary act. This was the justification for the rape of Black women, the very reason Saartjie’s genitals were carved from her body, to prove our inherently sexual nature and to prove the White woman’s asexual (and therefore, pure) one.

When pop stars are declared to be shining examples of feminism while continuing a legacy of shaming and sexualizing black bodies, mainstream feminism is sending a clear message: we still ain’t women.


  1. michonnemicheaux · December 6, 2013

    Reblogged this on Michonne Micheaux.

  2. Lucy · December 6, 2013

    Hey guys I have a question about Nicki Minaj as a feminist that I’m hoping (not demanding) anyone who reads or writes for Hoodfeminism would be interested in discussing.

    I understand that given the low standards for white female celebrities it would only be fair for Nicki to also be considered a feminist. However I have trouble considering her a feminist because no matter how much she talks about patriarchy she still seems to value white supremacy (skin bleaching, blue eyes, white nose job, literally transforming into the ideal white Barbie) and promoting the white barbie look. Am I reasserting the exclusionary nature of white mainstream feminism for critiquing Nicki Minaj for this? Should I just ignore that aspect of Nicki Minaj as a celebrity and value her for speaking up against patriarchy?

    • Shereen · December 8, 2013

      I would not say Nicki “values” white supremacy simply because she appears to give in to its beauty standards. That seems to blame her for the perpetuation of those standards and not the broader structures of white supremacy, including the media, in which she works. Beyonce does similar things with regard to her appearance; many Indian actresses do as well, as we all know how popular skin bleaching is in India. Meanwhile, tons of white women get plastic surgery and wear make-up and heels and do all sorts of things that fall into prescribed gender performance/beauty standards or purposefully seek to fulfill them, but that would not make their feminism (if they claim to espouse feminism) more problematic. What would be problematic is if they went around telling other women and girls to be like that—that this is what it requires to be beautiful or worthy. Simply existing like that, or cultivating that look, is not itself somehow oppressive and anti-feminist, just like I (as a brown woman, btw) am not suddenly a worse feminist when I grow my hair long or wear lipstick or dye my hair.

    • kaitlinpineda6 · December 23, 2013

      I think her choices in making herself look like a barbie are not to be analyzed as endorsing white supremacy. In this case, the odd colors, changing her overall look is establishing her own rules. She does what makes her happy and what she wants. It’s strange because we may see a lot of white women doing similar things, but, similar to Rihanna, she’s establishing herself in the industry the way she wants to. It’s weird but I don’t see it as her embracing white supremacy.

  3. Inda Lauryn · December 7, 2013

    Reblogged this on Corner Store Press.

    • Kkrattiger · December 11, 2013

      Do you think it makes the message more accessible? Perhaps the “product-packaging” looking the same serves a purpose. Whatever Lily Allen’s intended message is, the video does at least show champagne poppin rim acqirin rampant materialism (and sexism?) in a way which may lead to some consumers of music videos, like impressionable naive youth, coming to a realization. A kid developing critical thinking and questioning what they’re told, concludes that on the one hand, rap/hiphop videos are entertainment & productions, not a lifestyle to emulate, & on the other, music is an artform which like other artforms, is only REALLY interesting if it’s something to which some take offense or find uncomfortable, or even just really really dislike.

      • Kkrattiger · December 11, 2013

        Neglected to include the point on “product-packaging” being the same: the video mimicking 1 of the key parts of the visual culture it’s criticizing, may be a way to deliver the message to some people. Who wouldn’t pay attention otherwise.

      • Zanna · December 21, 2013

        Who benefits? White feminists have a good laugh and pat ourselves on the back for getting the ‘irony’. Sexist men lap up expert ass shakin… YP think ‘oh maybe pop stars are not all brainless sluts!’, buys more brainy Lily Allen product? Where’s the payoff for Black women in all this thinking and attention-paying? I don’t see it.

  4. Pingback: As a black feminist, I see how the wider movement fails women like my mother | colouredjustice.wordpress.com
  5. nena · December 11, 2013

    Also, Rihanna’s “Stay” features her with what seems to be no make-up, it’s strangely reassuring to see the close-up pores, lines and imperfect tones on the face of a famous young woman.

  6. Trudy · December 15, 2013

    Brilliant essay. And I think this taps into something else. Mediocrity. The standard that applies to Whiteness is always lower. They pretend it’s higher because of how White privilege works in their favor via standards created by White supremacy, but overall, the relative mediocrity in everything that they do is overly rewarded because of White supremacy. This is why people think it acceptable for Macklemore and Jay-Z to share a stage. Why they try to parallel Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé. Why Black people have to be twice as good to have 1/2 as much. White feminists seem to require a pulse for White women to claim feminism and to be bell hooks for Black women to do the same.

  7. a · December 15, 2013

    I find it interesting that you mention Sojourner Truth. Truth is certainly an important woman who made many powerful speeches, and she even encouraged some mythical representations of her, but I do think it is important that we look critically at Frances Gage’s representation of her which has been so popularized by modern feminism. It has been suggested that Gage adapted Truth’s speech and inserted the phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?” and other inaccuracies to construct Truth as a character that furthered her own interests when she published her account 12 years after the speech happened. You’re completely right–white women have always been exploiting black women in the name of feminism.

  8. Missing · December 16, 2013

    Janelle Monae

  9. Katie Hoffmann · December 16, 2013

    I’ve always felt that Missy Elliot is one of pop culture’s great feminist icons.

  10. Pingback: Tunes for Tuesday: Beyoncé’s “Beyoncé” II | I Should Have Been A Blogger
  11. Pingback: Friday Funday Links–The Beyonce Edition | Real Life Athena
  12. shiroh66 · January 1, 2014

    Reblogged this on The Holland Song and commented:
    Why We Can’t have Black Feminist Pop Icons

  13. El Guapo · January 3, 2014

    Who is it that declares that they are feminists?
    Shouldn’t the standard and the inspiration be women (of any type) who live their lives as they see fit, regardless of what boxes others try to put them in?

  14. Leslie Loftis (@AHLondonTX) · January 14, 2014

    Replying here, first because I like this post, it describes another detail in how WoC are routinely ignored and/or used by elite feminists (excellent point on Lily Allen’s satire miss and post below on same as well), and second, my request for discussion is too long for Twitter.

    I’ve got a piece out today that says “The economic independence women are so proud of, so protective of, will slip out of reach for many of our daughters. Not the elites, of course, their daughters will be able to pay for the prestigious degrees to occupy the dwindling number of MBA positions. As usual, it will be middle class, minority, and immigrant daughters who will bear the unintended consequences of the conventional wisdom.”

    That’s all I said about the subject in this article–while writing I had topic creep and had to condense it to one major point–but I want to explore this topic more. And I figure most readers here have more personal insight into this than I do. Demographically, I should be one of the elite feminists.

    I’m looking for critical discussion. Email, comments, follow on posts, or just ping me at twitter with thoughts.

    Article here: http://thefederalist.com/2014/01/14/rational-men-irrational-women/

    • Zanna · January 27, 2014

      I didn’t read your article but since you apparently think asking Women of Colour to drop what they’re doing and gift you with material for your next is OK, I imagine I’m not missing much.

  15. Pingback: Including Black Feminist Perspectives in “Mainstream” Online Feminist Discourse | Historically US
  16. Pingback: White feminists, I’m going to need you to sit down | feminist.wife.mom
  17. April Lee · February 9, 2014

    Reblogged this on Modern Sex Culture and commented:
    This. If you read anything today, read this. Especially if the subject makes you uncomfortable. Especially if the thought had never entered your mind.. especially if you are lost about pop icons (as I am. It’s terrible because I should pay more attention to have more insight but in general I”m oblivious to pop stars.. so this one was an important one for me). So while I don’t know very much about Nicki Minaj or Lilly Allen (had to look them both up. I know, where was I?).. these are such excellent questions.

  18. Pingback: College girl life 101: Own your sexuality | The Bridge
  19. Thelx · July 22, 2014

    I’m sorry, but I think your article is super weird.
    I don’t know what kind of criticisms you heard about each singer you talk about, but personally I’ve only heard two sides: those who think that oversexualization in pop culture is indeed internalized misogyny or at least complying to the male gaze in order to earn a lot of money, and so inherently anti-feminist, whatever the skin color of the singer, and those who think that oversexualization in pop culture is “sexual liberation”, and so the most powerful feminist message you can imagine, whatever the skin color of the singer.
    I loathe Miley Cyrus. She just proves over and over that she has no brains, and I know many women who confess they are “ashamed to be a woman” when Miley Cyrus is mentioned. A lot of people I know (especially women having some feminist sense) declare: “Decades of feminism for THAT?!?!?”
    And I agree with them.
    And therefore I find it extremely insulting that you make of her a “white feminist icon”. She has nothing that I can identify with, and she’s an utter failure of every common ground. (I say “common ground”, because I think that she is very happy with the fame and the money she personally gets from oversexualizing herself, but women don’t get anything than being ridiculed and disgraced through her behavior. Even if I think that the worst is not her but the industry in the background exploiting her stupidity and broadcasting her body in every corner of the planet to let us “remember”, women, that we are only “that”.)
    If you want me to give a few names about who I could consider to be white feminist icons, I would tell you: Simone de Beauvoir, Eleanor Roosevelt, Andrea Dworkin… If you want me to find some in pop culture, I’d rather say: Joan Baez, Sinéad O’Connor, Lynda Lemay.
    And the figures who come in my mind as black feminist icons would be rather Angela Davis, Aretha Franklin, Audre Lorde. I listen more to Rokia Traoré than… Rihanna. Watching this paragon of rape culture that is her “S&M” song and video vaccinated me from trying to listen to her.
    Is it too much to ask from pop singers, white or black, to do something else than to sell their bodies to the “music” industry? Singers like Soniah Jobarteh or Ane Brun don’t seem to feel the need to introduce themselves as oversexual beings to create good music to listen. The first feminist thing to do in my eyes is stopping to think about sexuality while making music, and start to think about music itself.
    And I think that the quality of what will be created will start to be much higher once ‘pop stars’ will start to think about their job instead of thinking about their ass and from which angle their ass is looked at.
    And for the feminist audience, can it try to find its icons in shadowy corners and *make* them famous, instead of wanting necessarily to indulge in mainstream hyper-misogynistic culture owned by corporations that have no interest to promote gender and racial equality and trying to *make* them feminist in vain?

  20. Nawal Ouanani · August 29, 2014

    I don’t understand this article, because from what I’ve read, libfems embrace ALL successful women who use their naked bodies for advancement, and radfems consider ALL use of nudity and objectification is inherently patriarchal status quo.

    I’ve honestly never seen a racial double standard on this issue?

    You can go on any libfem group on FB and see Beyonce lauded as a feminist icon…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s