popular feminism within the reception of Britney Spears and Hildegard of Bingen part 1

“There are two kinds of woman,” Michael, who worked grill in the kitchen started, “The woman, and the ho.” I was twenty years old, working at a small burger joint when my co-worker introduced me to Sigmund Freud’s idea of psychic impotence better known as the Madonna-Whore-Dichotomy (MWD). Though I doubt Michael was directly referring to Freud’s idea, he was at least reenforcing the permanence of the idea in culture today. I quickly retorted to  Michael’s original statement and he defended himself, but I pocketed the moment in a long list of sexist grievances I carry around. To what end? To recount to family who did not believe that sexism exists. To post in solidarity on social media. To carry on the work of making the unseen nature of misogyny visible. This is the work of popular feminism as described by Sarah Banet-Weiser in Empowered. Popular feminism works to restore individual women to their full capacity by bringing to light the constant injury of sexism to them.[1][BW1] 

Hildegard of Bingen and Britney Spears are both musicians and celebrities in their own right who have inspired discourse and feminist thought. Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century Benedictine nun, composer, and artist who was canonized in 2012 by Pope Bendict XVI.[2] Britney Spears is a musician, singer and popstar known for the ways in which she stirred controversy regarding sexuality, often playing the part of the “whore.”[3] What can comparing the recent reception of Britney Spears to that of Hildegard[BW2] [LA3]  of Bingen, two women standing on opposite sides of the MWD, [BW4] reveal about the ways in which popular feminism operates? For the sake of brevity, I will be focusing on one major vein of discourse for each musician[BW5] . For Spears, I will deliberate on the recent documentaries on her conservatorship.  ForHildegard I will focus on Jennifer Bain’s work that discusses Hildegard’s reception over many years. Because of each of these figure’s visibility as artists they have amassed quite a trove of discourse and argument about their implications as cultural figures[BW6]  and the implications of their reception.

This work in no way will cover the entirety of feminist thought surrounding Hildegard and Spears. My aim is to underline the primary value system embedded in the feminism that is most circulated in 21st century life, or rather—popular feminism. I will argue that popular feminism aims to empower women in two ways. First, as in Britney Spears case, it intends to bring visibility to the injury against her. Second, as in Hildegard of Bingen’s case, it seeks to add a woman “to the table”, or in this case the canon. While both of these are necessary acts, what does this solve? This paper is structured in four parts: first, an introduction to popular feminism, then a brief comparison of Hildegard and Spears’ reception, then two examples of popular feminist vision in the discourse of Britney Spears and Hildegard. Through comparing these two musicians, I hope to highlight the ways in which popular feminism focuses on visibility rather than structural changes[BW7]  and consider of the efficacy of this aspiration.

When I discuss popular feminism, I will be referring to Banet-Weiser’s idea of popular feminism. Popular feminism refers to feminist ideas that are circulated on popular media. It is also important to note that popular refers to a place of struggle, two groups fighting for popularity, and popularity as an act a person performs to be liked.[4] It seems obvious to say, but popular feminism is the feminism that we see most often in American culture today, and it is now popular to be a feminist. This needs to be noted because it begs the question: what happens when a movement’s primary focus is not achieving a goal but rather being respected among peers?

[1] Sarah Banet-Weiser. “Empowered : Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny.” Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. 4.

[2] Alicia Von Stamwitz. “St. Hildegard of Bingen: 12th-Century Feminist.” St. Anthony Messenger 122, no. 2 (2014): 1.

[3] C.R. Smit. The Exile of Britney Spears: A Tale of 21st Century Consumption. Intellect Books Limited, 2011. https://books.google.es/books?id=pbmrDwAAQBAJ. 26.

[4] Banet-Weiser, Empowered, 1.