Friday, January 30, 2009

Conflicting feminisms

by Elizabeth Winkler
Justify Full
It’s always interesting to notice the ways feminist sentiments – in their various forms – trickle into and are absorbed by pop culture. Vaguely feminist, or at least girl-empowering motives have been distantly linked to a motley array of popular cultural icons: from the Pussy Cat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up” to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” to Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sex and the City, and Lipstick Jungle, it begins to seem that the varied and distorted array of ‘feminist’ ideals our society projects are only a reflection of the confused and incoherent understandings of (and attitudes toward) feminism that are, in many respects, the root of its troubles.

What struck me as particularly startling, and symptomatic of the larger cultural inconsistencies, was the existence of these conflicting ideals within the work of a single artist: Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” and “Single Ladies” seem, at least to me, to stand in irresolvable contradiction. The lyrics of the former are powerful, conveying the painful disparity between male and female experiences of life and relationships, and the music video shows a relatively plain, un-made-up, un-sexualized Beyonce. It treats gender difference and privilege, and that chasm of misunderstanding that dialogue attempts to bridge (“but you’re just a boy / you don’t understand…”) with subtlety and nuance.

By contrast, the video for “Single Ladies” portrays three highly-sexualized women (legless, low-cut black leotards of some sort, oiled legs, etc.) dancing extremely provocatively, shaking that booty and dropping it to the floor like they’re doing a fast-paced lap dance. And while some might claim that the lyrics attempt to emphasize the importance of commitment and monogamy in a relationship, the chorus, “if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it,” seems to elicit a grossly commodicized portrayal of femininity: the woman is not even referred to as ‘her’ but rather ‘it,’ and the idea of ‘putting a ring on it’ suggests not a mutual commitment but some sort of possessive ownership (or even ‘calling dibs’) on the part of the guy.

How does one reconcile these conflicting portrayals of liberated womanhood? What does it mean that powerful female figures in popular culture illustrate ‘feminism’ this way, and what are the implications of being conflicted about what a free and equal woman looks like in modern society? Do these conflicts have to be resolved in order to ‘push forward’ in the movement? Can we even say, conclusively, that a movement exists when a universal standard seems so impossible to come by?


At January 30, 2009 at 11:16 PM , Blogger Robert McGibbon said...

The fact that there are lots of different "vaguely feminist, or at least girl-empowering" pieces of pop culture, and the fact that they are "varied" and "incoherent" is a good thing.

We don't all agree. Pop culture is a rag-tag jumble, not an orderly collection.

The trouble with feminism is not that it is too broad of a tent, encompassing too many divergent and incoherent ideas. Ideas, movements, schools of thought and the rest are always incoherent because they're not governed. No one speaks for everyone - there is a plurality of voices, not a hierarchy. Imposing an artificial structure ("this is TRUE feminism", "that is FALSE feminism", "if you believe this or that you can't be a feminist, etc") is futile and counterproductive.

Feminism is a big tent, and sometimes we are strange bed fellows. But it's just a word. It doesn't help to get attached to our labels.

Robert McGibbon '11

At January 31, 2009 at 10:26 AM , Blogger Angie said...

Not sure if this will change your perception of the "Single Ladies" video at all, but one of the provocatively dressed, oiled up "women" is actually Beyonce's male choreographer. Watch the video closely and pause it whenever you get a close-up of the dancers' faces. You'll be able to identify the "impostor" immediately. Apparently, none of the dancers who auditioned for the video could pull off the rigorous moves, so the choreographer donned some make-up and stepped in.

I think the fact that a man could project himself into the space of a sexualized, even objectiied, female dancer adds an intriguing dynamic to the video and the song's message.


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