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Feminism and Pop Culture: The Third Wave, in the backlash decade

Jassimmrat Kaur 

We don’t tend to think of the 1990s as a high point for feminism. 

In fact, when we think of the 90s - human rights violations are the last thing one might think of.


The third wave of feminism mainly refers to the American movement in the 1990s, which was a reaction to the backlash from conservative media and politicians that were announcing the end of feminism or referring to ‘post-feminism’. The term ‘backlash’ was popularized by Susan Faludi in her book Backlash, The Undeclared War against Women, published in 1991, and described the negative reaction that patriarchal systems had towards women’s liberation. 

A trivial characteristic of the third wave was that it actively used media and pop culture to promote its ideas and to run activities, for example by publishing blogs or e-zines. It focused on bringing feminism closer to people’s daily lives. This was also a point in time when a number of feminist non-governmental organisations were established; these organizations were focused specific feminist issues, rather than the more vauge and general idea of feminism. The main issues that third wave feminists were concerned with included: violence against women, the pay gap between men and women, eating disorders and body image, sexual and reproductive rights, honour crimes and female genital mutilation. 


Let’s face it: the 90s was the decade of Mariah Carrey and Julia Roberts, of wondering if Ross and Rachel were on a break, of super-skinny supermodels, and highly publicized sexual misconduct in the White House. This period also saw welfare reform, the rollback of reproductive rights, and the entrenchment of the New Right in American politics—all things feminists tried and failed to stop.


If a No 1 song by a boyband from Oklahoma, inappropriately riling prepubescent girls, doesn’t sound like an obvious feminist anthem, that’s because it wasn’t. What it was, though, was an early indication that attitudes towards gender and sexuality were changing- but for the worse or for the better? The 90s and the third-wave feminism, the decade has come to be remembered for, was a contradictory experience at the time. It was, on the one hand, all about girl power and sex positivity. It was Missy Elliott bossing hip-hop, TLC, Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls, by whose time so many people were too cool to idolize women with silly names, but who delivered glossy girl power to teens and their 8 year old sisters alike. On the other hand, it was the ultimate sexualization and marketing of the female body in black hip-hop culture, in which many young girls were – by the middle of the decade – heavily immersed. White beauty norms became aligned with Kate Moss and other pale, bony models – some embodying profoundly emaciated, heroin chic – and the acceleration of unhealthy body images.


It was in response to this, perhaps, that the 90s were full of superhuman women – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Women could offer reason as well as magic. The X-Files was a defining TV experience of the decade – to this day, people recruiting women into Stem subjects talk about the “Scully effect”. The forward motion of the 90s seemed to build on the 80s, a decade of hallowed female pioneers in diverse fields. Sally Ride traveled to space. Geraldine Ferraro secured the vice presidential nomination of a major political party. Alice Walker and Toni Morrison won Pulitzer Prizes for their epic, women-centered fiction. Madonna, Beyonce and JLo smashed barriers in music, entertainment and popular culture. 

Cultural feminism in the 90s made strides, as well. The “Girl Power” movement promised that progress for women would trickle down to girls, too. Indie subcultures defined by girl-made zines, music, art and websites flourished, providing young women new platforms for self-expression. Girl culture was reclaimed and celebrated by the Riot Grrrl movement, Sassy magazine, websites like, government initiatives, subversive feminist musicians and independent films.


In the end, however, the 1990s didn’t advance women and girls; rather, the decade was marked by a shocking, accelerating effort to subordinate them. The promise of equality for women was revealed to be something between a false hope and a cruel hoax. As women gained power, or simply showed up in public, the more power was taken from them through a noxious popular culture that celebrated outright hostility toward women and commercialized their sexuality and insecurity. Society pushed back by reducing them to gruesome sexual fantasies and misogynistic stereotypes. Women’s careers, clothes, bodies, and families were skewered. Nothing was off limits. The trailblazing women of the 90s were excoriated by a deeply sexist society. 


That’s why we remember them as bi**hes, not victims of sexism.



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