How the Commercialization of Feminism Equals Activism In the Millennial Age

17 minutes to read
Miah Ke-leigh

The research question that I am proposing is to what extent does the commercialization of feminism equal activism in the millennial age? I aim to explore whether the commercialization of feminism aids or abuses the feminist movement as it is currently largely unanswered.  For this, I will be using the high-profile celebrity figure, Beyoncé, as an example. In recent years, Beyoncé has asserted herself as a straight, black feminist who seeks to promote intersectionality and inclusivity. She promotes her message of feminism with popular songs that include references to black American culture, women empowerment, and gender roles. I will also discuss hashtag activism's impacts in the offline world, using the American networking site Twitter as an information source. The reasoning behind this is that there are numerous online feminist and queer accounts with a substantial following, especially on popular social media platforms and networking sites such as Instagram and Twitter. Within these viral communities, many of the posts that are uploaded often include quotes about equality and encourage the idolization of popular artists and public figures with the likes of Beyoncé and Emma Watson. They also include hashtags related to celebrity feminism. As a result, I will discuss the relevance of these hashtags to feminism and how celebrity figures use them to endorse themselves further.

To get an understanding of what feminist art in the digital sphere entails and how the commercialization of feminism and feminist artwork has impacted the millennial age in regard to activism, it is necessary to first understand how and why it began. The first liberation movement of feminism started with the Women's Suffrage Movement, which progressed until women were able to vote in 1920 (Frank, 2016). In the early 20th century, feminist art was barely produced because it was not allowed. However, citizens were still advocating for change and feminist art later emerged in the 1960s, during the second liberation of feminism in England and the United States (ibid). Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and provoked by Simone de Beauvoir’s claims in The Second Sex, it was clear that what had previously been regarded as ‘personal’ or ‘female issues’ was now being interpreted as a consequence of the political structure (ibid).

As a result of this, many women began to protest the political systems which ruled their lives. This meant that authoritative figures were now being questioned as women aimed to create societies that were more inclusive of them. Throughout this era, feminists were dealing with unequal representation in establishments which still largely favoured males, despite many advocating for change (Artspace, 2017). This was particularly true for art galleries and as an outcome,  feminists started to form their own communities. These establishments aimed to create space for women to showcase their contributions, often addressing topics that feminists felt needed to be identified as they had either previously been neglected or misrepresented. In order to truly connect with their audience and magnify the message that they were trying to convey, much of the feminist art utilized media and concepts that were not often used by men. This was especially popular and beneficial for women, especially in a time period where they were aiming to establish a space for female artists in a world that excluded them.

What had previously been regarded as ‘personal’ or ‘female issues’ was now being interpreted as a consequence of the political structure.

Some of the media and concepts that were utilized included items that were previously considered symbolizetypically feminine'. Along with the likes of cooking, colours, certain textiles,  and materials used for sewing were included in numerous artworks (ibid). This promoted a kind of activism that would later pave the way for female artists. As a result, it eventually allowed for them to be featured in galleries and art museums, with many female art critics, such as Linda Nochlin and Rozsika Parker, using this event to their benefit, placing emphasis on the fact that many females had been excluded by Western art (ibid). In the contemporary world, feminist artists still address issues faced by society. However, It is much different now, as the message of the artwork is able to reach a much larger audience with the help of social media as a promotional tool. One of the most popular examples of this includes singer-songwriter, Beyoncé.

How Beyoncé Became A New Wave of Feminism

In an article written by Molly Inglis from the University of Warwick, Inglis discusses how Beyoncé paves her way in the feminist world. One of the main arguments that she presents is that Beyoncé moves feminism from academic texts to ways that are more accessible and easier to understand, especially for younger audiences. This can first be traced back to 2013, the year when Beyoncé released a self-titled album and identified herself as a feminist. With this identification, Beyoncé claimed a new wave of feminism but it was not the first time Beyoncé had strived to empower females.

In 2011, she released a song called Who Run The World (Girls) where she promoted feminism in contemporary celebrity culture (Pischer, 2019). The song showcases female empowerment but there is an interesting duality between Beyoncé’s portrayal of femininity and masculinity. Throughout the music video, Beyoncé maintains an outer feminine appearance but asserts masculinity through her personality. Masculinity is a concept often associated with power and is normally known as a masculine trait, which is why it is interesting to observe her lyric, “Girls, we run this Mother”, indicating that women have always been in charge but the credit has always been given to men. In other lyrics, she continues this rhetoric by stating, “My persuasion can build a nation / endless power our love can devour”. Here, Beyoncé is still asserting herself as a powerful woman, but she is also expressing a typically more feminine side by subtly stating that when it comes to love, women have all the power as expressing femininity through sensuality is often enough to distract men. She further goes on to explain that women are capable of having families and working at the same time with the lyric, “Strong enough to bear the children / Then get back to bidness”. With this lyric, Beyoncé is aiming to empower women by saying that women are not only strong enough to bring new life into this world, start and maintain families, but they are equally as strong as men as a female is able to get back to business. However, the “business” that Beyoncé is referring to differs between a man and a woman. She argues that not only can a woman do a man’s job, but women are expected to have their own jobs as mothers as they also have to look after their families (ibid). The song centers around (financial) independence, ambition and telling females to earn their education in order to have a career. She does so through the lyrics, “I’m repping for the girls / that’s taking over the world / help me raise a glass / for the college grads” and later in the song, “I work my nine to five / better cut my check”. Beyoncé uses her lyrics to discuss how she is standing in solidarity with other females and she is celebrating dedicated women who have graduated from college and are working to get what they want. For Beyoncé, this is a successful, empowered female; someone who is feminine but is able to incorporate the ‘masculine’ traits that are necessary in order to succeed in theworld that seemingly favours men. She is ultimately saying that women can play both roles to their benefit, by working hard to achieve what they want.

Hashtag Activism

This type of “Beyoncé Feminism” has become a way for many young females to interpret feminism as being a powerful, independent woman who supports other females (Inglis, 2017). The attention to Beyoncé’s feminism can be traced back to the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. It was here when Beyoncé stood in front of a gigantic screen with the word ‘Feminist’ lit up in the background. This moment was a spectacle, as Beyoncé was asserting both her gender and her blackness as intersectional symbols of power.  Consequently, Google searches for the word ‘feminist’ skyrocketed from August 24th to August 30th of 2014 - the same week as Beyoncé’s MTV performance (Kiene, 2016). There was also a rise in feminist art, as some of Beyoncé’s most powerful and empowering lyrics were now sold on T-shirts and posters (Farmilo, 2018). In addition, hashtags were also created in favour of Beyoncé, illustrating just how powerful her endorsement of feminism had become. As a result of this, hashtag activism is also to be explored.

Hashtag activism is a term coined by media outlets which often refers to the use of the popular social media platform Twitter and its use of hashtags in order to endorse social activism online (Mbabazi, 2018). The term is also commonly referred to the act of showing support for a cause through a like, commenting on a post or sharing it on other social media platforms, such as Facebook. The hashtags I will be exploring relate to Beyoncé’s music and lyrics about female empowerment, feminism and asserting blackness as an intersectional symbol of power. To do so, we first need to define these three terms and relate them to Beyoncé’s music, which in itself is an act of commercialization. The first term, female empowerment (or women empowerment), has no defined definition but the definition I’ll be using comes from the European Institute for Gender Equality. They define female empowerment as a “process by which women gain power and control over their own lives and acquire the ability to make strategic choices” (EIGE, 2019). We have previously explored this definition through Beyoncé’s song Who Run The World (Girls).  The hashtags that followed the release of the song included #runtheworld, as seen in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1

The hashtag is accompanied by a visual text image that reads, ‘You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé.’ The image speaks of how individuals, most likely females, can achieve as much as Beyoncé does and can be as successful as she is because they have the same amount of time in a day. This post could also be referring to a Tweet that has recently gone viral after the release of Beyoncé’s Netflix show called Homecoming, as is addressed in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2

The tweet refers to how Beyoncé worked for 8 months in order to create a spectacular 2-hour performance that would be featured on Netflix. The user, Tyler McCall, states that individuals reading his post should “think about that next time [they] want something in [their] business to work right away”. Ultimately, to be successful, you need to earn it and this is the same ideology Beyoncé has continually promoted through her song Who Run The World (Girls). The song became a viral phenomenon and a reference to leadership and motherhood, acknowledging the strength of women and the lack of representation in Hollywood when it comes to female characters and in particular, superheroes.

Figure 3

As seen in Figure 3 above, the hashtag in a post of a photograph of female superheroes to promote the famous Marvel movie Endgame. Not only does hashtag activism symbolize female empowerment through various forms and shows how powerful a hashtag can be as it creates social awareness and activism in the digital sphere. In the case of the Marvel film and Beyoncé’s documentary on Netflix, this kind of activism is also utilized as a tool for commercialization, as it is also promoting an agenda that will inevitably generate an income for celebrity figures to later profit from.

The next definition is a feminist and it is one Beyoncé has already defined for us in her popular song Flawless. In this song, Beyoncé utilized the voice of award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The song samples a TEDx Talk called We Should All Be Feminists written by Ngozi Adichie, where she defines a feminist as "a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes."  Nicola Rivers, author of Postfeminism(s) and the Arrival of the Fourth Wave: Turning Tides states that "legitimate questions and concerns can be raised over whether the increased presence of feminism in the media, or indeed women in politics, can actually affect a broader cultural change towards feminist principles, or whether this represents a furthering of a postfeminist agenda whereby feminism is continually and simultaneously celebrated and undone."Rivers is ultimately arguing that feminism is a concept that has become central to a celebrity’s brand as it is now also constructed to the celebrity’s public persona, as is the case with Beyoncé. In other words, Beyoncé and celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, are asserting themselves as role models for mostly female fans, but their fan base is capitalized as they use the language of feminism to endorse their own individual successes (McRobbie, 2009).

The third and last hashtag to be explored relates to how Beyoncé has asserted herself as not only a woman but as a celebrity who is comfortable with her blackness in a predominantly white industry. She is marketing the idea of feminism and black empowerment to her audience through the utilization of the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic. The hashtag aims to celebrate the achievements of black women across the globe and initially started trending when Beyoncé’s album, Lemonade, was released (Ramsden, 2016). The album’s references to America’s conservative South, black femininity and Southern cultural history intensified and examined the experiences of black American females.

The album served as a reminder that even though the world often underestimates black citizens, (women in particular) and despite the fact that females are expected to turn the other cheek when it comes to tension in a relationship in order to keep their husbands satisfied or happy, women are still strong and black females need to confront their heritage, take ownership of their African ancestry and embrace their beauty because the world will not do it for them (ibid). Hashtags such as these embrace feminist attitudes within mass media and popular culture, placing emphasis on the positive impact celebrities have on feminism (Rivers, 2017). Celebrity endorsement is aiding the movement as many celebrity figures pave the way for equality in different ways. Such examples of celebrities include actress Emma Watson who is actively taking a stand against sexism with the HeForShe movement, actress Angelina Jolie working alongside the United Nations to focus on women’s issues in war-ridden countries and activist and actress Amandla Stenberg who continuously addresses cultural appropriation, racial pay gaps and internalized homophobia within the media (Ramsden, 2016).

Black females need to confront their heritage, take ownership of their African ancestry and embrace their beauty - because the world will not do it for them.

The Fourth Wave

Simultaneously, there has also been a lot of criticism. Celebrities are accused of depoliticizing feminism and using it to endorse their own success in order to continue building their brand. Rivers states that "very little space is given within these articulations of feminism to address the differing socio-political or cultural barriers women may face." Rivers’ statement is supported by British sociologist, Beverley Skeggs, who argues that the position of a celebrity informs their response to feminism (Skeggs, 1997). She continues by saying that the focus on such a brand as feminism is based almost entirely on an individual female’s potential, rather than concentrating on what may limit or strictly said potential (ibid). This suggests that while celebrity feminism is seemingly promoting an understanding of women’s success and feminism, its homogenized understanding of this success actually devalues the experiences of women who don’t fit into the definition of celebrity feminism as success is often accompanied by labels such as ‘strong’, ‘independent’ and ‘financially independent’.

At the same time, these women must not be too independent, in fear of them being labeled as ‘man-hating feminists’ (Rivers, 2017), a term often associated with feminists in the past and a term used when accusing women of misandry today.  The type of feminism that is promoted by celebrities today emphasizes intersectionality and the support for ‘everywoman’. There is somewhat of an expectation [for women] to love themselves, accept imperfections, and continuously do better for themselves financially. The use of hashtag activism associated with Beyoncé and other high-profile celebrities who assert themselves as feminists and who stand in solidarity with other females is a new wave of feminism within the millennial age, arguably with Beyoncé as the face of the trend that has become celebrity feminism.

Andi Zeisler, co-founder of the non-profit organization Bitch Media, proposes that this newfound popularity signals a successful rebranding of the feminist movement. She refers to it as ‘marketplace-feminism’, arguing that feminism has lost some of its authenticity since it has been “decoupled from politics” and is “staunchly focused on individual experience” (Zeisler, 2016). Zeisler also links marketplace-feminism to capitalism and states that nowadays, any decision can be presented as a feminist choice, mainly because a woman chose it (ibid). using clothing with feminist slogans on it. Examples of such slogans include lyrics to Beyoncé’s songs, and quotes such as “I Blame The Patriarchy” and “GRL PWR”. These branded items of clothing may raise awareness regarding feminism and women's issues, but they fail to impact the sociopolitical issues women are facing as Zeisler argues that these forms of feminism only serve as false reassurance (ibid). Many of us (millennials) are proud owners of the feminist T-shirts and merchandise that Zeisler speaks of and it is clear to see that there has been an increase in feminist movements, hashtag activism related to feminism, and celebrity figures in our contemporary society and the public sphere (Kohn, 2017).

Many [celebrities] use feminism as a tool to push their own agendas in order to endorse themselves as a brand.

Philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer once argued that the public is seen as having reason and autonomy, a way of using the right to free speech in a world that is quite the opposite. It consists of an excess of rationality, bureaucracy and a capitalist ideology as enlightenment is now the deception of the masses due to industrially produced culture robbing people of their imagination and taking over their thinking (Horkheimer & Adorno 2017). Culture, or in this case feminism, has now become part of the industry as feminism itself has become a commodity through mass media (ibid). This is important if we look back at Beyoncé as an example because when you are a celebrity, you become the product with the intention to make money (ibid). Every person has different ideas over what being a feminist entails and many are extolling the virtues of economic success and aligning themselves with a postfeminist sentiment that promotes a feminist cause publicly (Rivers, 2017).


Celebrity feminism is a phenomenon that is too often associated with individualism and agency with powerful and high-profile celebrity figures, such as Beyoncé, at the forefront of this phenomenon. This movement strives to empower not only women but also marginalized women and create a united community of strong, successful females who stand together in solidarity. In other words, we can argue that celebrity feminism aims to create a global sisterhood that places emphasis on intersectionality, independence, and the success of females. Quotes and motivational speeches by celebrities who assert themselves as feminists, such as Emma Watson and Laverne Cox, create the idea that in a contemporary society like our current public sphere, celebrity feminism is inclusive and intersectional in its approach (Skegg, 1997). However, there has been criticism as authors such as Zeisler and Rivers have stated that, despite celebrities having the opportunity to raise awareness for socio-political and cultural barriers, many use feminism as a tool to push their own agendas in order to endorse themselves as a brand. This has a huge impact on their audience; as has been demonstrated with hashtag activism and the increase in Google searches for the definition of the word ‘feminism’, the idea of feminism has undeniably been promoted. At the same time, however, the notion of celebrity feminism, and perhaps more importantly, the feminist definition of celebrities success, are frequently rooted in a "narrow, neoliberal preoccupation with individual achievements and wealth which can fail to translate into a wider, systemic gain for women" (Rivers, 2017).

What it boils down to is that feminist content online is simply that - online content. When it goes viral, it creates awareness and this can still be a good thing. It is able to reach a much larger audience that may not necessarily discuss women’s issues, the debate about why Islam doesn’t equal terrorism or why it is necessary for men to be able to express emotion. The imbalance of power is not being challenged by what you consume. Instead, it is being purchased due to mainstream clothing companies marketing feminist slogans, and even celebrities, capitalizing off of the recent trend that is feminism (Kiene, 2016). To conclude, in order for the movement to truly be effective, it needs to gain recognition and the commercialization of it can, in fact, be beneficial (Farmilo, 2018). Despite all of this, commercialization can arguably also be considered a good thing, because it is still advocating for equality - even if the intention is only to make money.


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