Monday, August 8

Hannah Montana is feminist propaganda (in a good way)

Matilda Krinks

In turbulent times, I have learnt to reach for things that make me feel empowered and strong, in order to convince myself that I can push through whatever is happening, no matter what. In a year like this one, whose turbulence could only be compared to a crashing Boeing 747 being attacked by fighter jets, which also just so happens to be flying over an erupting volcano, it’s safe to say I needed to feel empowered. Recently, for me, Hannah Montana’s music has been a huge source of power, and as I made my way through her discography, I wondered: did anyone ever notice how overtly feminist this music was in the early 2000s

The 2000s were a transitional period for feminism. Women had won basic rights, but our fight was far from over. Women who embraced their sexuality were branded ‘sl*ts’; working women were paid around 20% less than their male counterparts; and, in 2001, 1 in 4 women were victims of non-sexual violence in the UK. The phrase ‘feminazi’ emerged, to dissuade women from being vocal about their opinions. “I believe in equal rights, obviously, but I’m not a feminist” is the speech that closeted feminists feel obliged to reel off, after being taught that feminism is a dirty word. They cannot associate with the word, even if they align with feminism, in fear of being labelled a ‘preachy b**ch’. ‘Ideal’ women were still seen as compliant, pure and submissive. In this time period, it was a strange existence. I was caught between the results of second wave feminism and society’s continuing repressive ideas about women. The messages were mixed. 

And then, in 2006, came Hannah Montana. A show with an entire premise based around a teenage girl who refused to compromise who she was in order to make money and created a new persona to establish control over her sense of self. It seemed different and new and, today, I firmly believe it has contributed to how I see myself as a woman in society. 

Some of the most prominent songs from the series have a strong feminist message. Who Said is amongst the most recognisable songs. The lyrics ask “who said I can’t be Superman?” and Hannah answers, “I say that I know I can”. She firmly declares that “every girl has a choice, to lead her own parade”. The subject of choice within this song is particularly powerful, as a song produced during the third wave of feminism. 

Third wave feminism, which arose in the 1990s and continued through to the 2010s, was highly concerned with reproductive rights and sexual liberation, as well as intersectionality. To put it simply, the feminist movement had evolved from the second wave’s central fight for equality within the workforce, to the third wave’s campaign for women to be in charge of all aspects of their life: to choose. Third wave feminism was so defined by the desire for women to carve their own way of being that it is hard to see Who Said as anything but aligning itself with these ideals. Hannah explicitly states that she knows she can be anyone or anything, because all girls can choose exactly who they want to be. Later on in the song, she sings, “you control the game, so let them know your name”. This song’s messaging is consistent and clear. Women have the right to control their own lives, make their own choices and be autonomous. Who Said feels like a direct refusal of the oppressive, conservative ideals of the time. 

Another song that struck me upon re-listening was I Got Nerve. This is presented as a generic romantic ‘want’ song, about a girl who is waiting for someone to realise they love her, but it poses important questions about the attitudes we should adopt as women. The lyrics read “I know who I am, I know where I stand, I would never run away when life gets bad”, later stating that “I know what you like, I know what you think, not afraid to stare you down until you blink”. I Got Nerve actively works against the idea that traits such as being opinionated and direct are undesirable in women. The idea of the ‘feminazi’ grew from the public’s distaste for strong willed women, the kind of women that, in Hannah’s words, would “stare you down until you blink”. Florence Given notes, in her book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, “Patriarchy hates progressive conversations and disruptive people because it’s a parasite that feeds on silence and fear.” In essence, loud and direct women have always been shamed and looked down upon because they overthrow the ‘natural order’ which dictates that men should be in charge of them. I Got Nerve is a feminist anthem, a song about female strength. It praises the ability to be direct and upfront, instead of criticizing women for ‘being too loud’. Hannah sings about “get[ting] what I deserve” and actively commends women for their decisiveness and unwavering ability to say exactly what they want, in love and in life.  

As a child who listened to this music constantly, knew all the words to all the songs and adored Hannah, this messaging was huge for my development. From six years old, Hannah Montana taught me that I was a powerful woman, who could make her own choices and assert her dominance however she pleased. She provided a unique opportunity for children to explore feminism in a way that was much more explicit and accessible than any other feminist media at the time. It meant I subconsciously knew what feminism was, before I’d even heard the word. She was rebellion dressed in a blonde wig and cowboy boots. I cannot think of any other media I consumed as a child that was so unashamedly pro-feminist and, I’m happy to say, Hannah Montana created the feminist I am today.