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J-Lo is the feminist celebrity icon that you didn't know you had

J-Lo is the feminist celebrity icon you never knew you had

The ‘I Luh Ya Papi’ popstar has quietly and consistently reinforced a feminist model through performance and was recently appointed the UN’s first ever Global Advocate for Girls and Women

We look for feminist role models in pop culture and celebrity all the time. We question if this artist is feminist enough, if that video is reductive to women, and what more the artists and performers that we admire can be doing to champion the feminist cause. And for the most part, artists are responding, co-opting “feminism” as a buzzword to promote conversation around their releases and sell tracks and tours. But there are some who don’t shout “feminism” from the rooftops but who do happen to consistently reinforce a sincere and just as important feminist model not only through performance, but in character. Jennifer Lopez, for instance. That’s right: J.Lo might be the most overlooked feminist celebrity icon you never knew we already had.

J.Lo is quietly a feminist force, and one who doesn’t ask you to pat her on the back for it (not that there’s anything wrong with the loud and proud feminist). If you look at her musical discography, she’s been championing women for nearly two decades, and has been severely underappreciated for it. As early as 1999’s On The 6, Lopez had a succinct and demanding message about womanhood that she’s unrelentingly carried on throughout her career: that female self-sufficiency rules, she deserves a man who supports that, and supports her. “If You Had My Love”, the song that launched J.Lo into the musical world, essentially defined this premise, as she sang, “Now if I give you me, this is how it's got to be”, laying out the exact expectations she has of a man if she were to hand over her heart.

Much of J.Lo’s music adheres to the same theme, unendingly faithful to the idea that a woman is entitled to know and ask for what she wants, and expect respect and strength from her relationships in kind. She acknowledges the struggle with this in “I’m Real” (2001) where she sings, “And when I'm feelin' sexy/ Who's gonna comfort me/ My only problem is/ Their insecurity.” Lopez message was, and has since been, clear in its insistence that a woman doesn’t have to bend for love, and that when she’s giving herself wholeheartedly to a relationship, that relationship must serve her immaculately.

Where love is more of a burden than a tool, Jenny praises, “The strength to stand alone” (“Alive”, 2002), and in “I’m Gonna Be Alright” (2002) puts her own interests first when leaving a relationship – “Though it brings tears to my eyes / I can feel it And I know inside that I'm gonna be alright”, a sentiment seconded in “All I Have” (2003) where she sings “All my pride is all I have.” Unlike the widely accepted social idea that a woman’s fulfillment is based on her ability to keep a romantic relationship together, J.Lo suggests that autonomy and self-love are more important for women than enduring toxic treatment as payment for companionship.

In direct contradiction to the biggest hits around the same time like On The 6 TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills Bills Bills”, which put the onus on the male to have money rather than on the woman’s financial independence way that can be considered central to her construction of the feminine persona. In “Feelin’ So Good” (2000) she sings, “I'm feeling so good/ I knew I would/ Been taking care of myself/ Like I should,” while her anthem “Jenny From The Block” (2002) sees her “In control and loving it”.

“‘I Luh Ya Papi’ sees J.Lo taking on those masculinities: languishing in a mansion with her entourage, partying on a yacht surrounded by half-naked men, and in all senses truly flipping the gender roles generally associated with music videos”

Her liberation through financial independence sets the precedent for her to demand more from relationships in her music, and indeed, destroy the kept woman/damsel in distress paradigm that plagues so many pop representations of women. It’s all there in the title of “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” (2000), in which she sings “What I need from you is not available in stores,” or in “Do It Well” (2007) where to her romantic interest she asserts, “I ain't takin' no cash or credit, just a guarantee.” It’s something that just now is beginning to gain precedence with pop stars like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and even Kim Kardashian, who point to their financial success as a sign of independence and ownership of their identity, something J.Lo has been proclaiming, consistently and perhaps prophetically, since the late 90s.

J.Lo has also managed to upturn many notions about the “unruly” woman through her music, with a true commitment to a party that seems to be constantly going on in her world. “Let’s Get Loud” (2000), “Play” (2001)”, “Get Right” (2005), and most recently her Pitbull collaborations like “On The Floor” (2011) and “Live It Up” (2013) put her in traditionally male shoes: popping bottles and partying it up with hotties on the dance floor. The most flagrantly feminist J.Lo has ever been, in this respect, is in her video for 2014’s “I Luh Ya Papi”, which explicitly addresses the way women are hyper-sexualized in music videos, and the way men employ certain tropes in their videos in order to enhance this objectification. “I Luh Ya Papi” sees J.Lo taking on those masculinities: languishing in a mansion with her entourage, partying on a yacht surrounded by half-naked men, and in all senses truly flipping the gender roles generally associated with music videos.

From her wild and diverse acting career, portraying Selena (a woman who was claimed by the entitlement of a fan) in 1997’s Selena, to the epic misfire that was Gigli (2003), to her amazing resume of delightful romcoms (if you don’t love Maid In Manhattan/The Wedding Planner/Monster in Law where, as a woman of colour, she plays the sassy yet lovable female lead alongside white guys you otherwise would never see next to anything less than an alabaster love interest), J.Lo doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything, and has portrayed a diverse range of women across her filmography (whether or not you think she is a “good” actress is irrelevant – the woman is, if not Meryl Streep, as bold and unafraid as an Oscar winner).

Now starring in NBC’s Shades of Blue as perhaps her toughest character yet, the pull-no-punches detective Harlee Santos, Lopez is holding together a role that would otherwise be traditionally reserved for some generic white guy. Believe it or not, even in the cushiest of romcoms, her selected characters all have a degree of self-sufficiency or decisiveness that seems inextricably linked to Jennifer Lopez herself.

Most recently, Lopez was appointed as the UN’s first ever Global Advocate for Girls and Women at the UN Foundation, and you might not have known she co-founded The Lopez Family Foundation that focuses on bringing education and healthcare to women and children who might not otherwise have access to it.

At 46 and with two children, J.Lo shows no signs of slowing down. Divorced three times and now entwined with 28-year-old heartthrob Casper Smart, in her personal life, as in her musical and movie career, J.Lo is disinterested in “poor me” stereotypes of helplessness or scarlet lettering set aside for powerful women.

She’s a woman who believes women can have it all, and is her own proof. Rather than being J.Lo the popstar, or J.Lo Ben Affleck’s ex, or J.Lo the actress, or J.Lo the mother, or J.Lo the divorcee, or J.Lo the activist, Jennifer Lopez is everything she decides to be, and has created a rich new script for dynamic womanhood, one that’s increasingly echoed in the personas of today’s younger pop stars. And she does it all without presumption, proving that feminism can be just as effective on a shown, not a told, basis.