Lady pop stars and feminist representation: Redirecting an annoying conversation

Mainstream female pop stars periodically declare their non-feminist status and as a result, often garner significant attention from leading feminist news outlets. Consider Katy Perry’s not-too-long ago acceptance of the Billboard award for Woman of the Year. Upon acceptance of her award, KP asserted that while she does believe in the strength of women, she is “not a feminist.” The popular blog Jezebel was quick to the punch, expressing their annoyance and grief about another pop star fearing the feminist label. After lamenting Katy Perry’s denial of feminism, the conversation then pointed a critical eye at Katy Perry’s worthiness of even owning that label. A Jezebel blogger wrote, “Never, in any of my times listening to Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection have I thought “What a powerful message of feminism!” And maybe that’s because Katy Perry — unfortunately — is not a feminist.” Debates concerning whether or not a lady pop star is and/or identifies as a feminist are not only commonly drawn-out, they do little more than to serve as a general bummer.

Does Katy Perry saying “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women” indicate that she is somehow on the cusp of being a gender equality champion, if only she would just accept the word? Or, even if Katy Perry chose to associate herself with the label, does she have “the right” to, considering that she wears bras that shoot whipped cream from her boobs?

It goes without saying that society gravitates towards designating certain individuals, actors, musicians, reality TV stars, as idols — people we can fawn over and criticize like there’s no tomorrow. The aforementioned ladies would obviously not be making the big bucks if this wasn’t the case. Still, I find the popular feminist response to mainstream female musician’s relationship to feminism troubling. The conversation around this issue feels like an insufferable waiting game, where feminist voices convey a certain bitterness and irritation because pop queens are not “coming around” to the camp of raised consciousnesses and even if the starlets decided to make that switch, whatever outfits they wear or lyrics they sing would not reflect “true” feminist values. 

So, why are we focusing on mainstream artists refusal to do something that is very non-mainstream? And how are our criticisms of female pop stars both representing feminism and furthering a dialogue concerning sexism in music?

I understand how significant the influence would be upon the general population’s attitude towards feminism if Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and company were to declare themselves feminists. But, the music industry is a manifestation of our culture’s systemic oppression and in order to keep it running and well-oiled, participants in that industry need to abide by its rules. An acceptance of feminism and the rejection of objectification, tokenization, and so on would throw a real monkey wrench in music mogul’s profit margins. As that machine produces watered-down and scantily-clad expressions of “female sexual empowerment”, K-Perry putting a foot down on the whole music industry sexism thing would be a radical act. And we shouldn’t be waiting for participants in a conformist industry to be radical.

On the one hand, we are hoping for mainstream acts to tote uncharacteristically progressive politics. On the other hand, we are saying that their actions, choice of dress, lyrics, etc. should potentially deny them entry to the feminist club. Not only is dreaming about lady pop stars feminist conversion an exercise in futility, promoting a rigidity of feminist terms and conditions (i.e. she can’t wear that, say that, do that, screw that) portrays feminists as exclusionary and haughty. Although I recognize the validity and passionately support thoughtful analysis of female pop stardom, I take issue with where popular conversations about feminism’s relationship to mainstream music have led us. We position ourselves in a very unproductive space when we solely emphasize and extensively bemoan the individual female musician’s actions, or lack thereof, without viewing those actions through the lens of systemic oppression inherent to an industry, such as the music business.

Let’s redirect this conversation. Let’s talk about why declaring allegiance to feminism, why simply vocalizing one’s support for equality, is such a “radical” act. Let’s discuss what we think makes someone a feminist musician. And let’s turn an eye towards what examples of non-mainstream lady music out there is serving as a genuine critique of systemic oppression.

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 6, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I definitely don’t think that squirting stuff from your boobs or whatever in any way means the person can’t be feminist. Nor does walking around half naked or singing about men or anything else. You can be a feminist and do these things.

    I do however always get so surprised that so many commentators seem to EXPECT or be surprised that these stars wouldn’t identify with femimism.

    In my experience MOST women don’t identify with feminism in general so why should these stars be any different? Especially since they aren’t nearly as impacted by inequality as the general population and in fact actually benefit from many of the current systems. so why be surprised if they don’t identify?

    I mean, it’s safe to say that if you did a survey of women the majority wouldn’t identify as feminist and these are normal women. I don’t see why stars would be any different.

    Now of course you can argue some of these are feminists and just don’t want to claim the label. This is certainly true. But there are also lots of women who legimately don’t agree with alot of what feminists think and believe. Sure they agree men and women should be paid the same, etc. – who doesn’t – but feminism is so much more then that. I.e., today it includes everything from being against objectification, to supporting trans-rights, to (mostly) being against make-up/fashion/etc., to hating princesses, to pushing gender non-comformity and encouraging women to stop doing / liking / buying traditionally feminine things such as things that are pink.

    Alot of women actually like and/or don’t agree with these things. I struggle with many of them myself (and so do alot of other feminists I know) so I’m not surprised those who are even less enlightened and familiar with these topics wouldn’t support them.

    I think alot of feminists need a reality check as to what the majority of people actually believe and support. There are some issues where almost everyone is on-board but many others where I think only a small percentage of women actually agree/believe in it. In fact most of the biggest gender policers I know are women.

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