The new F-word in pop culture
2013 was the year that feminism became popular in popular culture. It was also the year that this popularity opened a forum for people to speak, but I was too afraid to. Even now, it took me several days before I was comfortable with the first sentence of this article. It went a little like this in my head: Should feminism be in quotations, like “feminism”? Maybe that would make it clear that I’m referring to a more colloquial definition of feminism. But no, then it might seem like I’m belittling feminism/“feminism” or questioning its legitimacy or somehow implying that I’m not comfortable enough with the term to allow it full, unadulterated status in my sentence. And I am comfortable with the term. Except, here I am, qualifying my statement and not for the purpose of clarity. Why do I feel this need to justify, to explain? Why such caution? Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Clare Danes, Selena Gomez, and Lorde all declared themselves feminists this past year. So why do I, someone who honestly identified as a feminist before 2013, feel such hesitation?
Maybe I should retrace my steps.
Miley Cyrus’s performance in August released a controversy that could not be stopped (sorry). I remember staying up late into the night reading about her show and feeling pulled in a million directions. People were calling her a slut, they were pleading for her parents to intervene, Kate Winslet was shielding her daughter’s eyes, one writer even insisted that she must be mentally unstable and declared that she probably has an eating disorder. Sinead O’Connor eventually threw in her own two cents. White feminists promptly came running to her rescue, angrily accusing people of merciless slut-shaming. At that point, I finally felt a sense of coherency. I could agree with that. Miley should be able to do what she wants to (sorry again) with her body.
But upon re-watching the video, it began to feel sickeningly obvious that Miley was being exploited – by Robin Thicke, by the music industry, by a culture that commodifies young girls’ bodies while simultaneously nurturing a horny hatred for them. Except, what if this half-naked wriggling onstage is what Miley really wants? Who’s to say that she’s been conditioned or fooled into wanting it? Am I allowed to reject, belittle and patronize her desires by saying that she’s a simply of victim of a larger, brainwashing patriarchal structure? So which was it then? Was she empowered or exploited?
And what of her shameless, racist cultural appropriation? Her white privilege allowed her to casually put on black culture and profit it from it without suffering through and dealing with the oppression that black women must face on a regular basis. She clearly wanted to dispose of Hannah Montana and take on a more mature persona, and for some reason this required black back-up dancers and “home girls with the big butts.” Can I defend Miley from slut-shaming while also condemning how she inevitably and selfishly treated black women and black culture as sexual objects? Not to mention that she recently called herself “the biggest feminist in the world,” because she encourages people to do “whatever they want.” As one writer put it, she’s a feminist for basically “YOLO.”
Things were less blurry with “Blurred Lines”. No matter how Robin Thicke pleaded that the song was about his wife, his “good girl,” no one could persuade me from the position that the song is hugely problematic. “I know you want it” x 21 = serious victim blaming (i.e. he alludes, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not, to rape and then insists that she wants it). The parodies that followed were hilariously eloquent, but unfortunately the song played on, and in the summer it was more popular than Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Nonetheless, there was considerable backlash and those that lashed were certainly feminists that I could agree with.
Things got complicated again with Rihanna’s “Pour it Up” in October. At first glance, the music video seems to be yet another example of commodification and hyper-sexualition of women’s bodies, and in particular black women’s bodies. But when I read more and thought more and watched it a few more times, some new narratives began to emerge. There were no males in this video; their “gaze” was absent. The women didn’t appear to be dancing for any audience. So in this case, was Rihanna celebrating the strippers’ abilities as dancers, artists, and athletes? And at times, Rihanna even got to the pole – she aligned herself with those strippers. This to me seemed quite positive and empowering. But then – it came right back to the simple fact that this video, this song, this image – it was a commodity. It was a product. And thus, the objectification was inevitable. While there was no audience in the video, there was an audience watching from behind the screen. So what, then? Do I buy into Rihanna’s brand of feminism? Was it all or nothing? Was I allowed to feel so torn?
And with just a few days left in 2013, Beyoncé released a visual album she had somehow kept secret, and my twitter feed effectively lost its shit. The response, or the feminist response, led to my biggest conundrum of all. On the one hand, Beyoncé is fabulous. She sings about sex, claims ownership over her sexuality, flaunts it, celebrates it, and does not apologize for it. She challenges a culture that worships the physicality of White women. She sings passionately and movingly about our obsession with physical perfection. She even samples a TED talk from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on why we should all be feminists. She makes feminism accessible and offers a powerful idea to an audience that may not necessarily watch such talks or go to women’s studies classes or be regularly exposed to feminist discourses. Her feminism isn’t academic, it’s a down-to-earth kind of feminism that many people can relate to – that I can relate to. And her music, the story, and the visuals are gorgeous and refreshing and exciting in a world of relentlessly stale and uncreative pop music.
While denouncing our society’s obsession with physical beauty, she, almost incessantly, displays her own beauty. Sure, she can’t help being beautiful but she can help the way that beauty is presented. So is she celebrating her beauty or is she contradicting her own lyrics? And what about when Jay-Z sings: “Catch a charge, I might, beat the box up like Mike” and “Baby know I don’t play…I’m Ike Turner…now eat the cake Anna Mae.” This is a reference to Ike Turner and Tina Turner’s abusive marriage, and the incident where he Ike forced Tina (a.k.a Anna Mae) to “eat cake” by smashing it in her face. How can I possibly excuse his glorification of an abusive relationship? Can I give ignore her husband, who’s singing beside her on her own album, in an attempt to defend her view of feminism?
I believe that I have been asking the wrong questions. And most of what I have read has been declaring the wrong things. There are two conclusions I can come to:
- There are many different aspects, representations, and interpretations of feminism. It will differ based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and a whole plethora of other experiences and identities.
- So instead of rejecting or accepting or debating whether an artist is feminist, whether they should be allowed to call themselves a feminist, it may be more meaningful to instead look closely into what kind of feminism they represent. I don’t think anyone should get a “free pass” – especially not Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus. But I think I can accept and celebrate all their brands of feminism while also examining, unpacking and discussing those versions. They’re probably all right and wrong at the same time. But perhaps those are not helpful distinctions to make. They haven’t been helpful to me at least. They’ve made me afraid of being the “wrong” kind of feminist.
So let’s keep talking and questioning as we move forwards in 2014. Maybe feminism has simply become profitable which is why so many celebrities are now embracing or at least exploring those perspectives. While this may seem cynical, I still believe that it’s making space for conversation. And I don’t want to silence myself anymore from fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. I’m sure I have and will make unfair assumptions, ignore important topics, and forget to check my privilege. I am a feminist, but I am also human. I am willing and happy and wanting to engage in conversations that will help me question the culture that’s around me, while also questioning myself. And in those conversations, I hope I can both listen and speak.