If a popstar calls herself a feminist and nobody is around to write a comment article, did it really happen?
I’m being facetious of course, but given that I’m not one to let a bandwagon pass me by I feel it my duty to comment on all things Miley, Lily, Lorde and Selena in the name of feminism. Put simply, 2013 has been a year of women taking centre stage and raving about their feminist credentials as they did so. In defence of her controversial VMAs performance, Miley Cyrus declared herself the ‘world’s biggest feminist’, while Lily Allen apparently begged to differ in her Hard Out Here video. In the rest of pop-land, a feud raged between new popstrel-on-the-block Lorde and Selena Gomez, who Lorde branded ‘anti-feminist‘ in a rant which also took aim at stars like Britney Spears and their ‘fucked up’ lifestyles. But are there any real winners in all these battles?
Celebrity women occupy a double standard where they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Call yourself a role model and you’ll be torn down for being that bit too naked or having heels a little too high; refuse the label and… well, you’ll be tutted at for it and then judged by the same standards anyway. These are, in fact, the standards drawn upon by Lorde in her criticism of Selena Gomez’s Come and Get It of which she said: ‘I’m a feminist and the theme of her song is ‘when you’re ready come and get it from me‘. I’m sick of women being portrayed in this way’. In a world where the likes of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and even Queen Bey herself can be seen running for the hills at the mere mention of the f-word, you’d be forgiven for hailing Lorde as the feminist breath of fresh air the pop world has long been waiting for. In some ways you’d be right; outspoken, self-assured and covered up to boot, she ticks the boxes. The problem is that they’re the same boxes into which women have been forced for so long in order to be taken seriously.
I hope it’s not difficult to see that the weight of expectation on female celebrities to be role models is unfair and unequal. After all, if we held male popstars to the same standards it’s likely that Miley might not even have made it onto the front pages due to all the stories about Robin Thicke sexualising himself or Drake being a bad role model. As it is, we see men as active and in control of their own identities while women are the puppets of PR men and the passive recipients of objectification, a term that in itself implies something done to them rather than by them. In her self-proclaimed construction of herself as a feminist and role model, and in her criticism of Selena Gomez, Lorde draws again on these age-old tropes, suggesting that a woman can’t be both sexual and liberated, that one couldn’t possibly make the choice to wear skimpy clothes or be promiscuous. Don’t get me wrong, not every choice a woman makes is a feminist choice by virtue of a woman making it. But we’re all negotiating the same obstacles and constructing our identities under the same conditions. Surely how I choose to express myself under these circumstances is of no concern to anyone else, provided I’m not doing so at their expense? (Unless I start expressing myself by reverting back to my early 2000s wardrobe, that is. In which case I sincerely hope someone would stop me.)
It should be clear, then, that I believe a female popstar can choose to be sexual and promiscuous and that another can choose to be covered-up and chaste, and that each can be as good a role model as the other. Because femininities are plural and diverse, and telling women to look and behave a certain homogenous way in order to be taken seriously is another inequality that, quite frankly, we can do without. That’s not to say that these women will never get it wrong, and that we shouldn’t call them out when their own identities are advanced at the expense of others – critiques from black women on Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen, for example, are many, and worth listening to. Rather, we should place the emphasis in the right place in our criticisms; Lorde has a chance yet to become the feminist pop-heroine we’ve all been waiting for, if only she chooses not to shame other women for their sexuality and rather to criticise the structures and institutions which cultivate this shaming in the first place.
I’m certainly not trying to tear down a 16 year old brave enough to identify herself as a feminist in a society so set on holding women back – when I was 16 I had poker straight yellow hair and wore foundation two shades too dark, so I’m in no position to judge. Rather, the comments aimed at Selena Gomez are symptomatic of the wider issue of female celebrity image in itself; popstars are either sluts, or they’re Taylor Swift, and anything in between is probably too mundane to sell any records. Again and again, women are pushed into these categories set out for them and then chastised for it. Again and again, they’re portrayed as puppets not in control of themselves, yet held accountable for their every action. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling like it’s hard out here for a woman in the cut-throat pop industry.
Eve Livingston is a fourth year Social Anthropology student at Edinburgh University. She’s also the head of Edinburgh’s student radio station: freshair.org.uk. She enjoys watching CSI: Vegas in order and she’s named after the actress Ava Gardner but her dad decided he didn’t like Ava – so she’s Eve. On occasion she writes award winning feminist articles.
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