20 Women Who Drove the Culture in 2013

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So: not that the measure is scientific, but women had a weird year in the culture in 2013. For every ascendant pop diva, there was the inevitable fallout period where people argued endlessly about whether Miley/Beyoncé/etc. were too slutty or too unfeminist or too untalented. The taste left behind was, therefore, mixed. And as I went through to select women who answered to the “women driving the culture” rubric, I realized that to a large extent these women were still fighting to gain a place of leadership. Many of them are making their names in part on the ongoing debate about why it is, in 2013, that women still don’t get a fair shake in most cultural spheres — and this even as they tend to drive the money in this business.

My criteria for choosing these 20 women are, thus, these: they need not be the “most famous,” nor the biggest moneymakers, nor even the most newsmaking. But they have to be the people we find ourselves talking about. Obviously I’m exercising some measure of personal taste, but there’s plenty of people on this list whose work is… not for me. But that doesn’t matter, what I like. What matters is that these women — mostly for the better — are starting to drive a lot of the cultural conversation. In no particular order…

Jennifer Lawrence

First on the list is an obligatory inclusion: JLaw. I find her more interesting for what she represents than for what she actually does. She is so charming that she’s hard to criticize, though of late people have astutely observed that she is becoming a sort of Cool Everygirl, which is to say a bit too easygoing and charming to seem like an actual person. Perhaps a backlash is nigh. But in the meantime she’s the alpha, the one other stars have to react against.

Alice Munro

The year that you win the Nobel and not one person manages to raise any real objection to it is a very, very good year in the life of a Canadian short story writer! Kudos to her for not answering the phone when the Nobel Committee called — there’s something so fitting about that. She was only the 13th woman to win, but she was too busy living her life to keep up with the prize races.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The author of Americanah got a year-end boost from none other than Beyoncé herself, but I think I would have included her regardless. She has written some of the best books of the last decade, but Americanah is my favourite so far, with its hilarious and well-drawn protagonist Ifemelu. She is also a wonderful speaker on all issues feminist and otherwise. I notice Amazon went out of stock of the book on the weekend, which I’m calling the Beyoncé Effect.

Lena Dunham

Well, you knew this inclusion had to happen. The world still reacted with a thousand personal essays to every one episode of Dunham’s zeitgeisty — if aesthetically uneven — Girls. Whatever you think of Dunham or her show or her politics, you cannot deny that she’s a conversation-leader.

Shonda Rhimes

With Scandal being the show that everyone is excited to discuss every week, network television is Shonda’s world and the rest of us just live in it. There’s no other female network showrunner who comes even close to her auteur cred at this point.

Donna Tartt

With the release of this year’s literary smash The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt cemented her status as a respected novelist who could also really sell some books. Not that Tartt hasn’t always had a cult of sorts, but after a lukewarm reception to her last book, The Little Friend, there was a chance she was more of a one-hit wonder. I have some theories we could talk about about why she’s successful in this specific way — someone needs to write the great piece on her interest in male psyches over female ones — but like let’s face it: Tartt’s pretty much cleaning up this year.

Greta Gerwig

Were I basing this list on personal taste, I would be reluctant to include Gerwig because I am a dissenter in the matter of Frances Ha. I mean, on paper, it sounded like it could have been great, but there was just a soupçon of perfection about the central character that turned me off. But everyone else of my acquaintance was so besotted by her fever dream of women dancing around fountains that it’s like the whole critique of Manic Pixie Dream Girls never happened. Or maybe it’s that it’s okay to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if you just generally believe in the trope. Anyway, she deserves to be on the list in spite of my obsessive dislike of her film, sure.

Lupita N’yongo

The breakout star of 12 Years a Slave is the best reason to watch that film, IMHO. I find myself thinking, months after having seen the film, about the way her Patsey carries so much of the violent burdens of slavery in the film without, somehow, being given the courtesy of actually being the story’s protagonist. This year’s “big movies” are a particularly male-driven crop, but this is the one female performance in them that I think circles from behind and ends up dominating the piece. So she gets a spot on this list, too.

Miley Cyrus

Miley knows what she did.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

The star of Veep won all those awards and now we can’t get enough of her. If only we could get a woman in the actual White House, life would be a dream.

Claire Messud

Messud’s excellent novel The Woman Upstairs was a conversation-starter chiefly because she got a little crusty (and I use the term admiringly) in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly before the thing came out. The interviewer wanted to know if she’d be “friends” with her main character, to which Messud quite rightly replied, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”

Beyoncé

At the moment this needs no real explanation. I haven’t listened to the album yet (I tend to be a bit behind on music) and in truth am probably unqualified to comment very deeply on the vision she articulates in it even if I had, but anything a giant pop star does that provokes an avalanche of thoughtful commentary on feminism, race, and class is fine by me.

Sarah Polley

Stories We Tell is the little film that could this year. Documentaries, even the most affecting, don’t tend to make a lot of noise in the culture; I don’t really know why, since I have a lot of friends who seem to think a Netflix binge on them passes for a really great Saturday night. (I am perhaps a nerd.) Anyway, this one had the compelling personal hook of Polley’s… unconventional parentage to draw viewers in, and it is really a delight, particularly its last five or so seconds, which do exactly the kind of 180-degree turn on matters of truth and certainty I love in the best books and movies.

Jenji Kohan

Orange Is the New Black was a breakout hit, and even the subsequent (and let me clear, somewhat deserved though in my estimation not totally deserved) backlash to its white-girl-in-prison frame didn’t manage to take the lustre off it. There aren’t a lot of shows that spend deep screen time on establishing backstories and context for the sheer number of characters that OITNB does. Whatever you think of how the politics comes out in the ultimate calculation, this show was a critical part of our year.

Lorde

Another obvious inclusion for the woman who beat Sofia Coppola out — has anyone ever mentioned The Bling Ring again? — to make the catchiest statement on young women’s reaction to material culture this year.

Adelle Waldman

I feel both uncomfortable and proud including someone I actually know on this list. But it’s just a pure statement of fact that her debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., caused a small furor for the chattering classes. Why, just this week, a deeply stupid Ross Douthat column appeared in which he tried to argue that the novel was proof women should withhold sex until marriage, Jesus God. His interpretive acrobatics notwithstanding, Waldman’s funny and affecting portrait of a certan kind of dating scene has become a kind of touchstone reference in cultural commentary already, and it’s barely been available six months.

Kacey Musgraves

Let’s get real a second: country music doesn’t exactly have a reputation for cleverness. They’re either achey-breaky-hearting it out or honkytonking or some other made up word. Or, in the worst cases, being unrepentant public racists. Kacey Musgraves, with her successful pop-country album, changed that. I love the song about going to the KOA best, as someone who was dragged to countless KOAs as a child and has then endured, as an adult, the blank stares of privileged children who only took vacations on the Island of Capri or something.

Jesmyn Ward

I continue to wax rhapsodic about Ward’s Men We Reaped at every available opportunity because it’s beautiful and because Ward is a great, great writer. But I also think she’s addressing a topic everyone was talking about this year — that topic being the entanglement of state power with the suffering of young black men in America — which you also saw surface in films like Fruitvale Station. It’s sort of amazing that in 2013 we’re still having to talk up books like Ward’s to get them heard. But once you read it, you’ll see how it stays with you.

Haim

I have spent all goddamn fall listening to their Fleetwood-Mac-by-way-of-Orange-County album and I am hooked. Plus, they are everywhere, even if some people on Twitter were confused to see them on SNL.

Nicole Holofcener

Before Enough Said, I felt like Holofcener was a bit of a private secret, the kind of gem women traded around to each other. “Here,” we said, “you will love her movies. She doesn’t get enough street cred because she is a woman, but you’ll like her a lot better than many of the emo-males who have been dominating the big screen lately.” And then Enough Said came out, and suddenly the tides seem to have changed. I literally could not be more thrilled about her new ascension. I’d give her the Oscar this second if I could.