Popular culture and the Women's Liberation Movement

Women in popular culture

Feminists in the Women’s Liberation Movement set out to tackle prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination in popular culture. How did they affect a change in the ways women were represented?

Many feminists discovered and believed that while culture was a powerful arena, it perpetuated and created sexist ideas and representations. Sexism is prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex. Feminist struggles with the sexist aspects of mass culture and popular culture (in a contemporary setting this includes new media) are based on this belief.

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National campaigns

Women set up national groups to support women working in film, artists and poets among others. Women in Media, for example, was set up in 1970 by women journalists, features editors and designers to tackle gender inequalities within the industry, and to change the ways in which women were represented. It not only offered professional support to women working in the industry, but also campaigned for equal pay, abortion rights and an end to sex discrimination.

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Politics of spectacle

The 1960s had seen new ideas about the politics of spectacle emerge. As the new mass media grew increasingly rich and politically powerful, feminists thought of ways in which its visual force and power could be harnessed to promote feminist ideas. For example, in 1971, when Bob Hope returned from tours of American troops in Vietnam to introduce the Miss World competition, feminists seized the moment to disrupt the proceedings by demonstrating outside, flour-bombing the stage (although not the competitors), and throwing fruit and vegetables at the press. The programme and demonstration were televised, shocking the nation and provoking some women living close by to rush to the Albert Hall in Kensington to join the demo.

You can find out more about the Miss World protest in Bodies, Minds and Spirits and Activism.

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Direct action

Direct actions such as the Miss World demo aimed to change mass taste and opinion. Another such campaign was the anti-pornography movement, spearheaded by radical feminists, who made a concerted effort to demonstrate outside sex shops and remove pornographic material from newsagents. Their analysis was that pornography was both a violent act in itself and also a symbol of male violence in general. These campaigns were divisive; they have often been accused of being over-simplistic, of violating the principle of free speech and of perpetuating puritan attitudes towards sexuality. Some of the many publications that came out of the debates on pornography included Gail Chester and Julienne Dicky’s Feminism and Censorship: The Current Debate (London: Prism Press,1988), Lynne Segal and Mary McIntosh’s Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (London: Virago Press, 1992) and The Pornography of Representation by Susanne Kappeler (Cambridge: Polity Press,1986). As the Internet increases the output of and access to pornographic material, in particular among young and vulnerable children, the problem of finding a liberating and liberated way through this material becomes more urgent. The current Birmingham campaign Off the Shelf and the London-based Object are two examples of current direct action anti-pornography campaigns. Grace Lau however gives an alternative view, in suggesting that the best way forward is to create alternative, more varied imagery and to work with the pornography industry in doing so.

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The contemporary scene

Women now occupy many prominent positions in all forms of mass culture and media. It is difficult to assess how powerful different cultural forms are in an age of digital media. Many younger feminists are excited about the potential for new social media to act as a platform for activism and challenging ongoing limiting representations of women, men and the increasingly visible queer and transgender community. Angela McRobbie has recently written about the complexity of cultural politics in The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (London: Sage, 2008).

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.