Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
As her blog is on my blogroll, I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already. For starters, might I recommend Annie’s piece on Megan Fox? Or this one on Nikki Finke? Or this one on the season’s starless summer?
That was fun, Annie. Thanks!
So, you may have seen yesterday’s Vulture post on the trailer for Jennifer’s Body, screenwriter Diablo Cody’s anticipated follow-up to Juno. If not, you can view it here.
1. I haven’t seen Megan Fox in anything. I’ve kind of avoided the Transformers franchise because, eh, well, let someone else do it. I’ll definitely see this, though. I wonder how this movie and this role will evolve Fox’s Jolie 2.0 bombshell persona. I’d be curious what my friend Annie has to say about it.
2. I do kinda wish Jennifer was being played by Kat Dennings (Norah from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). I feel like Fox is ripping her off. That and I just want to see Dennings in more movies.
3. I like that the popular girl is a demon. Making the normatively feminine monstrous? Yes. “No, I’m killing boys” might be my favorite line in the trailer (the “Am I too big?” line is a close second). I see some potential feminist commentary.
4. Fox’s “I swing both ways” line to Amands Seyfried suggests one step forward, two steps back. I’d pair this with the shot of panty-clad Jennifer leering at Seyfried’s character and saying “we always share your bed when we have slumber parties.” Hello, boys. I’m sure having Jennifer play for both teams also builds up Fox’s star persona as a lipstick bisexual.
5. Why is Jennifer friends with the nerdy girl? Is it some kind of psychological “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” thing? We know that Veronica Sawyer couldn’t stay friends with Betty Finn to be one of the cool girls in Heathers. I’m intrigued.
6. It’s interesting to me that Cody’s is doing horror (albeit decidedly of the black comic variety). This suggests the influence of movies like Heathers and Scream on Cody as a screenwriter in ways more pronounced than Juno, which was cultivated and marketed as a prestige picture.
7. It’s a little annoying that the screenplay comes from “the mind of Diablo Cody.” Um. Karyn Kusmana directed it too. Plus I’m ambivalent about Cody’s writing style. Kids just aren’t that slick. And even with Daniel Waters’s super-heightened Heathers screenplay, a lot of the banter was slang-based. Or it was gross, which teenagers definitely are. I have an easier time believing a teenager would ask someone if they had a tumor for breakfast than telling a grubby-fingered peer to have a Chinese nail technician “buff your situation.” Plus, points off for reusing the fuck/Phuk Thailand joke.
7A. But the Buffy the Vampire Slayer dialogue didn’t bother me, in part because it seemed to be making a commentary on other network teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek. We shall see.
8. It seems that the soundtrack may play an important part for the movie’s burgeoning franchise. In the trailer, the soundtrack’s featured artists appear before the production credits and boasts hot acts like Little Boots and Panic at the Disco. Pair this with the prominent use of bad girl hits like The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” and you have a potential Billboard contender. This is important. Apart from the Disney machine, I can’t think of a teen movie with a soundtrack so at the fore of its marketing strategy since the mid- to late 90s (ex: She’s All That, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Cruel Intentions, Ten Things I Hate About You, and Clueless). I’ll be listening as well as watching.