Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. It’s hard to pinpoint cultural turning points until you have the benefit of several year’s distance. But occasionally things change at such a prominent and rapid pace that they force themselves into plain sight. 2017 feels a little like one of those points in time.
Just a glance at the highest-grossing films of this year reveal that strong female leads are very much in fashion. Beauty and the Beast, released in February, is not only at the top of this list but also the tenth highest-grossing film of all time. Granted, the story is a modern retelling of a classic girl-meets-prince fairy-tale. But Emma Watson is unlike any other princess. After turning down the role of Cinderella because the character was too ‘passive’ for her and refusing to wear a corset with the iconic yellow dress, the 2014 UN Women goodwill ambassador gave us not just Belle, but bell hooks. Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi also made the top ten, both films in which the female characters are well-rounded and at the forefront of action. Contrary to outdated belief, these cinematic enterprises cement the idea that women belong in superhero and sci-fi genres as much as men.
It is not just on screen that women have been stirring the patriarchal pot. The Power – in which Naomi Alderman imagines an alternate matriarchal world – won the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction earlier this year. We have also seen the publication of several modern feminist manifestos. Mary Beard’s Women and Power observes the roots of misogyny from classical civilization to present day, arguing that in order to incite change, it is our conception of power that must be re-thought. Rebecca Solnit’s latest collection of essays, The Mother of all Questions, argues that female history comes hand in hand with the history of silencing. She could not have known that its publication in November would come straight after the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, but the timing was almost fateful. Here were stories of sexual assault from women all over the world, and here was a book that provided at least a part of the answer, proposing a new feminism that’s open and accessible to all.
This cultural wave of feminism, which has felt as though it gathered speed as the year progressed, has touched everything. Cardi B topped the Billboard Hot 100 with her solo song, Bodak Yellow – the first time a female artist has done so since Lauryn Hill. Viola Davis became the first black actress to win the “Triple Crown” of acting. TV shows Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale swept the board at The Emmys.
The relationship between pop culture and politics is a complicated one, and there is doubtless influence that goes both ways. This defiant feminist movement that we are seeing seems, at least in part, reflective of important changes happening across the globe politically. The Women’s March on 21 January became the largest single day protest in U.S history with over 4,000,000 marchers estimated. In June, Britain elected more than 200 female MPs for the first time.
Girls may not yet be running the world as Alderman envisioned, but they’re finally having more of a say in it. It’s been a year in which women have risen up, all over the world, fictional and non-fictional. We still have a long way to come – UN women defined the year 2030 as the expiration date for gender inequality – and it would be naive to think that changes in pop culture have an automatic knock-on effect in the real world. But the more women we have on our screens, in the pages of the books we read and in the music we listen to, the more they will become impossible to ignore. The progress that 2017 has seen should set a precedent for the years to come.