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The past week has been a-buzz with Katy Perry’s proclamation in her acceptance speech of Billboard’s Woman of The Year Award that she is “not a feminist” followed up by Camille Paglia’s scathing article in The Hollywood Reporter blaming Perry, Taylor Swift and Hollywood for ruining women. While I felt disappointed that Perry made it a point to distance herself from being a “feminist,” I also felt the outrage over her decision to do so had been unfairly disproportionate to the act and perhaps more destructive to “the movement” than Perry’s statement.
Perry’s songs speak for themselves. I don’t question if she believes women should have equal rights. I don’t question if Perry believes she should earn less than a man or disagrees with the illegalization of marital rape or more specifically, the legalization of no-fault divorce. What I question is what has happened to the feminist movement that Billboard’s Woman of The Year did not want to be associated with it, while also qualifying herself as someone who does “believe in the strength of women.” In that same speech, Perry says, “I don’t really like to call myself a role model for my fans, but I hope that I am an inspiration.” What Perry attests to is something bigger than perhaps, say, branding herself a feminist. She does not want to be a symbol, a representation, or a mouthpiece for her gender. Katy just believes in Katy. She stated that her mantra for her film was, “If you believe in yourself you can be anything.” Some may argue that without the feminist movement, Katy could not have been anything. But why isn’t Katy believing in herself and spreading that message enough? Why are successful female celebrities expected to carry the torch for “their team” and mercilessly ridiculed when they politely decline? And would it have not raised controversy for Katy if she declared she was a feminist? Surely her “good-girl mask over trash and flash” as Paglia coined it, would be called into question.
Paglia goes after Swift with just as much vitriol, attacking her “golly, gee whiz” persona and her “monotonous vocal style” ultimately to say that she is disappointed in the 22-year old singer-songwriter for writing songs about boys. She calls out Perry’s “yawning chasm between her fresh, flawless 1950s girliness” and “the overt raunch of her lyrics” as also reflecting the feelings of her base audience: “nice white girls from comfortable bourgeois homes.” But this begs the question: So what?
In 2010 I was driving through Brooklyn by myself when Katy Perry’s “Firework” came on the radio. My instinct was to turn it off. This was exactly the kind of pop music that I loathed. I thought of Perry as another Britney – selling sex dressed as a schoolgirl, co-opting the sexual revolution part of the second-wave feminism movement and leaving out the rest. But then something happened; I actually heard the lyrics: ignite the light and let it shine. I was by myself, the windows were rolled up, I could get away with listening to just a little bit more. Slowly I increased the volume, lyric by lyric until I found myself with the volume pumped all the way up and me, singing my heart out. Even though I was ten pounds overweight, fighting depression, and headed back to a 450 square-foot apartment I could still barely afford, in that moment I was a firework.
Something shifted for me that night. I had found inspiration from an artist I had once judged as “stupid". Maybe it was okay to like pop music even if I didn’t always agree with what the artist represented. Much like I could dance with abandonment to James Brown despite despising how he beat up women, maybe it was okay to sing along to someone like Britney Spears even though she wasn’t exactly a role model. And more importantly why had it been easier to separate the art from the artists when it came to men and seemed treacherous to do so when it came to women? But Perry’s "Firework" was something I could feel good about enjoying. Who wouldn’t agree with what Perry was selling in that song? She was selling more than a catchy tune about empowerment; she was selling the divine.
For me, raised by a single dad surrounded by a younger brother and four male cousins I saw daily, I became an unflinching tomboy who looked down on anything girly, which at the time was quite possibly a way to feel like one of them. Somewhere in my mind “girly” meant to be weak, less than. To be a tomboy meant you were just as tough as the boys. Tomboys could play soccer in the rain and mud. Tomboys could steal the basketball away from their older male cousin. Tomboys could get scraped and bruised and not shed a tear because worse than the insult, “you play like a girl” was the insult “you are such a drama queen.” That tomboy-mindedness developed into feminism and combat boots in college. I had been raised with men and treated no differently than the boys, while also never skipping a beat alongside them. I was an equal. But why had anything “feminine” become something I refused to associate with? Why couldn’t I imagine myself as a strong woman who also wore lipstick and heels? Why was that image bad and combat boots and wearing no make-up better?
Growing up my musical heroes were leaders of the grunge era -Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Scott Weiland- and then the angry women came -Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love -rounding it out were the heart wrenching soloists Tori Amos and Fiona Apple – all rock stars who sang about substance, poetry and were anything but “girly.”
When the pop-star movement cartwheeled into the late 90s bringing their fluff lyrics and bare midriffs, unlike several of my girlfriends, I refused to join. I made fun of all of it, particularly Britney who Lolita-ized girls in the music industry for generations to come. Perhaps Britney was our contemporary reaction to Madonna. But where Madonna used her sexuality for empowerment at the height of her fame, Britney capitalized on the damsel in distress, making an empire by embracing the subordinate female with songs like "Baby One More Time", "Born To Make You Happy", "I’m Not A Girl Not Yet A Woman", "Toxic", and "I’m a Slave 4 U". To this day Britney remains the second highest paid woman in Hollywood but unlike Madonna who has created a living legacy, Britney struggles to stay relevant and is watching the new girls like Katy, Taylor, and Rihanna quickly rise at the backs of her heels. Are the girls who grew up watching Madonna writhe around in her underwear now empowered women? What does it mean when a woman who grew up watching Madonna guest stars on Sesame Street wearing a bustier? Are girls who grew up with 16 year-old Britney’s Rolling Stones cover papering their bedroom walls worse for wear? In my experience -- I should note my middleclass white girl experience -- whether Madonna or Britney or Alanis was on your wall, being a teenage girl was still just as difficult. Maybe feminism has left us all confused. But if we were inspired by the Madonna years and survived the Britney years, maybe we can actually flourish in the Katy Perry and Taylor Swift years.
Much like Eminem gave a voice to poor, angry white boys, Perry and Swift are giving a voice to middle class white girls who are dealing with the very things they sing about – finding strength. As for Perry’s songs about the partying habits of young girls, it teases the old chicken and egg question. In this case, the culture of party-til-you-drop came way before Katy Perry "Kissed A Girl" and while Swift is not breaking any poetic grounds with her lyrics, is it so bad to hear a fourteen year old girl singing her heart out to the words, We are never- ever- ever getting back together? At my wedding a little over a month ago, the song that was on the top of my must play-list was the song that brought everyone to the dance floor - young and old, white and people of color, men and women – in a soul-revealing sing-along burst with arms in the air and hugs. The song was "Firework".
As far as Hollywood goes, I agree with Paglia that the aging woman has indeed become invisible and that Tinsel Town does a disservice to women but mostly to themselves. If you write the roles, if you cast the women, the audiences will come. But why are we crucifying the women who choose to delay that aging process? I recently was part of a conversation with two of my drop-dead gorgeous friends who were weighing the pros and cons of Botox injections at the age of 31. When I asked one of them about the fear of aging she responded, “I’m not afraid of aging. I just don’t want a line on my forehead.” If the spearhead of the feminist movement was about having more choice, is it possible to look at something like the prevalent use of Botox injections among Hollywood actresses as a woman’s personal choice for how she chooses to look? Maybe for some there is a genuine fear of aging. Certainly, there is something to be said about the power we associate with youth and beauty and how that gets overestimated and then reaffirmed every day in the media. But while Botox might keep us from evolving both literally and metaphorically, condemning a woman for making that choice chips away at our humanity.
All of this is to say, Ladies, where is the love? Perhaps it is not Perry and Swift who are ruining women, but feminists who tear down women who might want step outside or even above the baggage now associated with that label. To say Perry and Swift are ruining women makes me wonder, according to whom? Is it possible that Perry and Swift belong to a different kind of feminism, one that encourages love of self, captures the struggle to find strength, and is elevated beyond the confines of an 8-letter word? Is it possible that the reason the feminist movement is stalled or even losing ground with young female celebrities is that the movement gets pissed when they speak outside of what they would like them to say? Maybe if we remembered the fight the feminist movement was originally based on – the right to have a voice- we could set aside labels, and expectations and interpretations and elevate the movement into something powerful young women wanted to be a part of.
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