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also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops.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.
So, I’m still a little brain-drained from working on Cinemakids this weekend. I helped a group of nine-year-olds make a short movie about skatin’ dudes and pie fights (or, more accurately, walked them through the basics of making their own movie, tried to keep them positive and focused, sometimes mediated arguments, and sometimes provided them with Oreos). It was fun and if you want to see the movie ”Team I Want Some Pie” made, along with the other participants, the screening is on November 7th.
And sometimes being a little brain-drained is good. It’s inspiring. And because today is Monday and we might all be a little slow getting back into our weekly routine, I thought I’d make a quick list of rad stuff I’m stoked about or inspired by. Feel free to share your rad lists as well.
Sadie Benning. Thanks to grad school and Kill Rock Stars, I know who this is. Benning is my go-to “girl filmmaker,” however essentializing that term may be. But I kept thinking about her work all weekend and how, if you have a vision and a Fisher-Price camera, you can start making movies at any age (an experimental filmmaker parent may also help, but not necessarily guarantee inspiration). If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend looking at some of her shorts. You can also watch her work in Julie Ruin’s “Aerobicide” music video.
On that tip, Molly Schiot has made some great videos too. Might I point you in the direction of Mika Miko’s “Business Cats” and Sleater-Kinney’s “Entertain”? Also watch the interview footage Schiot put together of Pat Place and Cynthia Sley of Bush Tetras talking about being tuff feminists on the lower East Side in the early 80s. This interview plus a recent screening of Downtown ’81 convinces me that I’m not tough enough to have lived in New York and the early 80s, and neither are most people of my generation. These women lived “Too Many Creeps.”
Oh hai Jane Campion. I’m looking forward to seeing Bright Star. Additional points of interest for apparently configuring Fanny Brawne as a proto-punk fashion icon.
Karen O, music supervisor of Where The Wild Things Are. How is Spike Jonze’s new movie not going to be awesome? Regardless, I know the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman’s musical contributions to the movie will necessitate its own post. Can’t wait for it to come out!
The Gossip are coming to ATX next month, two days after Parton’s box set is released. Yet another reason why October is for winners. We can only hope that Beth will pull out the wig and cover some Dolly.
I missed Mad Men last night because I was cheering on the KOOP Kilowatts. I suspect others may have missed last night’s episode too due to the Emmys (or at least had to back-and-forth it). Regardless, apparently Betty and Don’s angsty eldest daughter Sally discards a Barbie doll her mom gives her in last night’s episode. Ugh, you totally don’t get my ten-year-old girl needs, mom. Season three has been Sally’s season, in my mind.
Oh, on that tack, I need to rewatch season two and see the documentary on women’s liberation that was included in the DVD set. For more on the subject, Mary Kearney just wrote a great Flow column on it. I wonder how Sally will be impacted by these changes.
I recently bought Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love at Cheapo. Yes, that does mean that I listened to “The Big Sky” on my drive to work.
I have been pairing this with Julie Ruin’s “Valley Girl Intelligensia,” bringing us back full circle to grrrl germs.
She really wants to, as she shared with Pitchfork recently, but no one has asked her.
Seriously, wouldn’t that be awesome? Her music is so cinematic anyway. I’ve been an avid listener for many years and have always thought that the person behind “I’m Just Working for the Man,” “The River,” and “A Place Called Home” (among others) could put together a score that triggers all the right buzz words — haunting, moody, atmospheric, elusive. For further evidence, let’s listen to “Leaving California,” off A Woman a Man Walked By, her new album with longtime collaborator (and film scorer), John Parish.
In my head, I’d like to see her score a western, like her erstwhile companion (and musical counterpart) Nick Cave. If we’re going for the movie of my dreams, let’s say it’s a Campion-esque costume piece that will eroticize boots, chaps, and fringe the way that The Piano did with crinoline, corsets, and ankle boots. If it were directed by Campion and was a lesbian romance starring Tilda Swinton and Susan Sarandon, so much the better.
For now, I guess I’ll have to wait for Spike Jonze’s highly-anticipated Where The Wild Things Are. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs served as composer for it. Expect a future post.