Girl Power: Feminist Music of the 1990s

By: Alex Sutton


The 1990s saw the resurgence of the feminist movement, often referred to as the third wave of feminism. Emerging in the mid-1990s, the third wave was a reaction and opposition to the stereotypical images of women as passive, weak, and virginal figures. Rebecca Walker is credited with coining the term the third wave in her 1992 article, “Becoming the Third Wave.” Writing in reaction to the testimony of Anita Hill, in which she accused Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States, of sexual harassment, Walker sought to accomplish what the previous two waves of feminism had not. “So I write this as a plea to all women, especially the women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to re-mind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger” (Walker). In her article, Walker also stressed the idea that the third wave of feminism was not only a reaction, but a movement in itself, “I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave” (Walker).

The third wave of feminism aimed to change the traditional view of women in society by redefining both women and girls as assertive, powerful, and in control of their own sexuality. The third wave paved the way for important social progress in the treatment of women and established the idea of girl power, which came to  permeate all types of media, particularly music. The music of female artists in the 1990s came to embody the third wave of feminism. With songs that challenged and confronted the traditional stereotypes of women, female artists played a key role in redefining what it meant to be a woman. “In this realm, female artists have ventured to celebrate girlhood as a means of fostering female youth subculture and of constructing narratives that disrupt patriarchal discourse withing traditionally male rock subcultures” (Wald, 588). The feminist music of the 1990s allowed for women to reject conventional stereotypes, take control of their sexuality, and challenge the patriarchy in American society. (“In Praise”).


 

4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up?”, 1993, dir. Morgan Lawley. 

The song, “What’s Up?”, by the band 4 Non Blondes was released in 1993. Since its release, the song has become an anthem for women against patriarchal oppression. In the song, the female narrator speaks of her struggle to succeed in a world dominated by men. The second verse of the song states, “I realized quickly when I knew I should that the world was made up of this brotherhood of man, for whatever that means.” The narrator of the song calls attention to the fact that males are the dominant gender in society, holding the power in their “brotherhood” while women are largely excluded. The song continues to narrate the challenges women face in trying to thrive in a world created for men, “I try all the time, in this institution. And I pray, oh my god do I pray. I pray every single day for a revolution.” This verse illuminates the song’s feminist-perspective and the hope for equality; the narrator prays each day that there will be a revolution to make a society where both genders are equal. Additionally, the use of institution implies that the way women are treated is systematic, and that the system is stacked against them.

The chorus of the song brings into question the futility of women’s struggle against the patriarchy, “and so I wake in the morning and I step outside and I take a deep breath and I get real high, and I scream from the top of my lungs what’s going on?”. In the chorus, the narrator releases her pent-up emotions and grapples with the question of what is going on in society. In this song, the 4 Non Blondes brazenly call out the patriarchy and the constraints it places on women. They also highlight the question of what women are to do about this issue and the ultimate futility of their actions.


No Doubt, “Just A Girl,” 1995, dir. Mark Kohr.

One of the most icon feminist songs of the 1990s was “Just A Girl,” by No Doubt.  Gwen Stefani, No Doubt’s front-woman, lead the band of men, promoting the cultural visibility of women within rock music. “Just A Girl” questions the antiquated gender roles that continued to torment women in the 1990s and the idea of girlhood.  In the song, Stefani takes on the persona of a “little girl” who needs protection, mocking the conventions of patriarchal girlhood. Sarcasm is employed throughout the song as a feminist strategy to combat the view of women as helpless and innocent. The chorus of the song states, “cause I’m just a girl, oh little old me. Don’t let me out of your sight. I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite, so don’t let me have any rights.” While highlighting the idea that women need to be protected, the song brings into question the cost of this safety. In order for girlhood to be protected, women must forfeit their rights and be subordinate to men. One of the reoccurring lines throughout the song is, “oh, I’ve had it up to here.” Stefani, representative of most women, is exasperated with conventional female stereotypes and is openly deconstructing them. (Wald).

In the music video for the song,  the band members arrive at a building where Stefani enters the ladies’ bathroom, while the rest of the band enters the men’s bathroom. The ladies’ room is clean, bright, and well decorated, with two older female attendants. In contrast, the men’s room is dirty, dark, and lacks any decorations. Stefani begins to sing in the ladies’ room while the men play their instruments in their bathroom. Other men and women begin to enter their respective bathrooms, with the men using the urinals and the women checking their makeup. The setup of the music video is illustrative of the gender divide in society. Women are kept separate from men in a dainty bathroom with attendants, seen applying makeup, a traditional stereotype about women’s femininity. 

Later in the video, the men make their way into the female bathroom, where everyone then begins to dance together. The fact that it is the men that are able to travel to the other bathroom is extremely important; it highlights the issue of women’s imprisonment and lack of mobility. The women were unable and restricted from moving around freely, however, the men were able to go wherever they pleased, illustrating the societal constraints placed on women’s freedom. Additionally, in the music video Stefani is seen defying the image of an innocent girl by wearing a cropped shirt and baring her midriff. Her decision to wear an outfit that is “sexual” gives Stefani control over her own sexuality and sexual agency, demonstrating that women are not simply virginal figures devoid of sexuality.


Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know,” 1995, dir. Nick Egan. 

Released in 1995, Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill was a cultural earthquake. One of the singles from the album, “You Oughta Know,” was an aggressive, hard-rock song portraying Morissette as a vindictive and scorned ex.  In the song, Morissette is  bold and unapologetic, calling out her ex-boyfriend for his mistreatment of her and the fallout of their breakup. She asserts herself and does it bravely, defying the conventional stereotype that women are weak and passive figures.  The song is notable for the raw emotion that Morissette expresses. Unlike other female artists of the time that had feminine, gentle voices and sang melodic ballads, Morissette’s voice broke the mold. Her voice was unique and unpolished, full of energy and sincerity that more resembled bands such as Nirvana than traditional female singers. (Zaleksi). 

“You Oughta Know” was Morissette’s ballad that spoke out about and fought back against sexism and societal oppression. Instead of being portrayed as the passive scorned ex-girlfriend, Morissette unabashedly called out her ex, and men in general, “and I’m here, to remind you of the mess you left when you went away. It’s not fair, to deny me of the cross I bear that you gave to me.” Instead of letting her ex-boyfriend get away with his actions, Morissette openly admits that she was broken after their breakup, however, her boyfriend did not care. Throughout the song, Morissette wonders how important she was to her ex. Questioning how women are often treated as insignificant to men, Morissette sings “cause the joke that you laid in the bed that was me and I’m not gonna fade as soon as you close your eyes, and you know it.” Morissette makes it clear that she will not allow her ex-boyfriend to make a joke out of her, rather she will hold him accountable for what he has done. Rebelling against the stereotype of women as weak and passive, Morissette proves that women can be assertive and powerful, giving women a loud and proud voice.

Additionally,  Morissette is unapologetically in control of her sexuality.  Throughout the song there are several sexual explicit lines, “is she perverted like me? Would she go down on you in a theater?”. In opposition to the idea that women are non-sexual beings, Morissette unashamedly takes control of her sexuality and owns it. “You Oughta Know” demonstrates that women, like men, have sexual desires and needs, tearing down the sexual constraints placed on women at the time. Instead of being sexualized by men, Morissette, like other feminist artists of the time, took control of her sexual agency and proved that women were not the virginal figures they were perceived to be.

 


Additional Sources:

“In Praise of ‘90s Feminism That Was Before Its Time,” Huffington Post,  17 May 2015.

Wald, Gayle, “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth,” Signs, vol. 23, no. 3, 1998, pp. 585–610. 

Walker, Rebecca, Becoming the Third Wave,” Ms. Magazine, Jan. 1992, pp. 39-41. 

Zaleski, Annie, “Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was a Powerful, DIY Feminist Statement,” AV Club, 5 May 2015.

 

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