Here’s the thing: female popstars are often given a hard time because they ‘act as sex objects‘ who ‘provide unhealthy examples‘ to young women. People give them a really hard time for making themselves available to the male gaze in the way that they dress and behave in their videos and concerts.
I want to very briefly reframe that idea. There’s a lot to unpack and untangle in the way that society views and treats women in pop music, and I don’t have the space or time to go into that here. To be honest, I think this probably deserves a monograph/series of journal articles. But I don’t have time for that.
Generally, I believe in the notion that it doesn’t matter how a creator wants the audience to feel: the audience is the ultimate meaning-maker of a text. The same goes for celebrities and their branding; it doesn’t matter what they intended, what matters is what the audience reads into their behaviour. That isn’t to say that they have complete control – there needs to be evidence. If the audience argues that the female popstars are sexist and problematic they have to have reasons. Sometimes, their reasons are open to alternative interpretations. And that’s what I want to talk about here.
Basically: Young female popstars can either ruin young girls or empower them – it just depends on how you look at it.
Let’s say that you watch Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda video. Scroll down to the comments and you get to see a number of people arguing over whether this is an appropriate for young fans, whether she’s a disgusting slut, and bragging about how many times they’ve masturbated to the video. But if you actually watch the imagery in the video, you’ll see a lot of interesting motifs: playing with and then cutting a banana in half, sneering, women enjoying each others’ bodies without a man in sight – not to mention the way Nicki slaps Drake’s hand away when he tries to touch her while she’s dancing. Yes, Nicki and the rest of the women in the video are performing in a way that is typically associated with trying to attract a mate. But she seems intent on drawing one on her terms. The lyrics support that idea: she allows men into her bed because they can give her something. If they can’t, then she won’t. Moralise as much as you like about that, but I like the idea of a woman clearly and explicitly stating what she expects from relationships.
Similarly, Ariana Grande’s God is a Woman. Lots of spread legs, contortionist poses, and nudity. But the only time men are shown in the video, they’re hurling insults at Ariana. Words like ‘fake’, ‘hoe’, ‘dumb’, ‘annoying’ – they bounce off of Ariana as she gazes at the camera. Like Nicki, she’s surrounded herself with beautiful women. Like Nicki, she moves in a stereotypically ‘sexy’ way. But the lyrics are all about Ariana taking control of a sexual situation, making herself and her partner happy, and eventually becoming the centre of her partner’s world.
So is this sexist? Is this demeaning? It depends, I would argue, on your perspective when you come to interpret the message. Because you can read these situations as unnecessarily objectifying. These artists could probably get their message across without resorting to these behaviours. But you can also read this as a subversion or reclamation.
Whether these images can be considered sexist or not depends on perspective and, arguably, the politics and agenda of the commentator.
It would be unreasonable to argue that female popstars should not present themselves in a sexual manner or try to stifle their sexual identity in music videos/lyrics just to avoid ‘objectification’, but on the other hand, there is the question of whether the female artists have agency in how they present themselves in the first place (think Kesha).
Sometimes, they’re performing according to their branding. Sometimes, they’re dressed and promoted in a way that is outside of their control, and sometimes they have creative freedom. It is difficult to tell what is their authentic self and what is their performative self, and I think unless we’re given significant reason to we should give them the benefit of believed agency until we learn otherwise.
To assume a woman does not have agency unless proven otherwise would be a step in the wrong direction.
Female pop stars know that their audience is female, but a lot of their songs are sung to men – they’re singing about falling in love, breaking up, and having sex, among other things. But – and here’s where I try to bring it back to the idea of female empowerment – I think that we can interpret the portrayals and performances of female popstars as opportunities for female listeners to appropriate their words and the experiences implied by them. Afterall, the women performing these songs know that young women are their target audience. They are the bread and butter of the entire music industry. So it doesn’t make sense for them to alienate their audience by directing their music to men who like to jerk it to music videos between porn.
Instead, we could interpret the videos and lyrics from these songs as a female power fantasy. These songs and videos give young women a chance to explore and live vicariously through these popstars. The intricate music videos accompanying these songs are capable of creating or exploring a space in which a beautiful woman is (often) standing alone as an impervious force, unbreakable and flawless. She is the centre of the universe. Men may look, but they can’t touch without permission. Even then, the popstar – and by extension, the listener – is the one in control, guiding the encounter, and setting clear boundaries on what is and isn’t allowed. That’s a far cry from how women are usually allowed to see themselves.
Here are some other songs I considered including in this blog post. Maybe if I have time in the future, I’ll go into an in-depth analysis of how each of these could be interpreted as a feminist masterpiece.
Hailee Steinfield – Love Myself
Ariana Grande – Seven Rings (does anyone else get serious Nicki Minaj vibes from this video?)
Taylor Swift – Look What You Made Me Do
Little Mix – Black Magic
Beyoncé – Diva, Run the world
Cardi B – I Like It
Britney Spears – Work Bitch