As more and more female music artists such as Beyoncé and The Pussycat Dolls declare themselves to be empowered, Kerry-Lynne Doyle analyses asks whether these artists, and the music industry itself, can ever be feminist-friendly.
When I discovered music television at the tender age of 13 it was a revelation. A new source of freedom from five paltry terrestrial channels, it was exciting, hip, and sexy serving up videos from the world’s hottest acts. At the time, I indulged regularly in hours of Britney, Destiny’s Child and Christina, enjoying their candyfloss pop and sugarcoated lyrics without a thought.
But as I grew older, music television began to trouble me. The women on the screens were singing about dumping lowlife boyfriends, female empowerment and sisterhood while exposing their bodies and staring provocatively into the lens. It was all a bit confusing.
One of the most voyeuristic forms of the male gaze, music videos have both fascinated and appalled me since my late teens. Laden with scantily clad female bodies, sexual images and provocative dance moves, these videos send out worryingly mixed messages about a female’s position in the world to men and women alike. Are these women empowered or objectified? Are they expressing their sexuality or conforming to men’s expectations and wishes? Are they even doing both?
These questions have become more pertinent since the arrival of the Spice Girls. Not just a mere girl band, the Spice Girls were a diverse package of personalities, role models and girl power, the immortal catch phrase they coined to sum up 1990s feminism. They talked about being powerful women, sang about safe sex and loving their mothers, they never exposed too much flesh and they did it well.
A decade on the music industry has arrived at a post-Spice Girls era. Following their success, artists and music moguls have cottoned on to the fact that feminism, albeit a severely watered down version, has capital. Female empowerment is shaped, pushed and marketed like there’s no tomorrow. And therein lies the problem. This new pseudo-feminism, which has become the must-have marketing ploy for any new female artist, has flaws and contradictions. It sends out confused messages to girls and young women about female sexuality and a woman’s relation to man and undermines any notions of positive femininity an artist purports. And the problem just keeps growing.
Beyoncé: Bootylicious or Bugaboo?
To most modern women, Beyoncé Knowles is the saviour of pop. A crazily talented devoted Christian, Beyoncé’s strong image has inspired legions of young women the world over. As the founder and front woman of Destiny’s Child, perhaps the most empowering international girl group since the Spice Girls, she sang about living as an independent woman, the perils of freeloading boyfriends and the joys of sisterhood. She has also bucked the growing trend of emaciated superstars with her bucket load of curves, earning her a gold star from all those worried about our ever-shrinking female stars.
However, this squeaky-clean poster girl for strong femininity has faltered since beginning a solo career and making a move to the big screen. In the video for Crazy in Love she swapped her classy outfits for hot pants and red stilettos. Gyrating for the camera, she even waters herself down with a fire hydrant for good measure. The video symbolised a new, sexier Beyoncé who wasn’t afraid to display her body. It also began a catalogue of contradictions.
This raunchier Beyoncé did still have inspiring lyrics. An anthem of female strength after a broken down relationship, Me, Myself and I gave us the sassy lyrics and inspiring messages we had come to expect from Miss Knowles. The lyrics of Baby Boy and Naughty Girl showed us a woman who is not afraid of promoting female sexuality and, more significantly, the sexuality of a woman who has said she will remain a virgin until her wedding night. These are both extremely positive things to promote.
Yet while the lyrics emphasise female strength, the videos tell an entirely different story. In Baby Boy we are treated to Beyoncé writhing on a bed, in a semi-orgasmic state, glistening with baby oil. In Naughty Girl, she wears visible stockings and gives a big nod to burlesque star Dita Von Teese by playing around in a large champagne glass. Both videos are examples of the confused messages sent out by many female music artists; they may be singing about being empowered young women, but they’re still sexed up for the cameras.
More recently in Beyoncé’s case, not even her lyrics are empowering. Throughout Check On It, a song dedicated to getting men to ogle her bootylicious behind, the lyrics tell men that they can have a good look as long as they don’t touch. And, even better, if they have enough self-control to manage not to touch, they will be able to win the female over. Best of all, the lyrics then encourage all women to act the same way. The messages in this song suggest that women are not only willing victims of a man’s ogling eye, but that sexual attention from men is flattering and needs to be reciprocated. Not quite the same message as Independent Woman, huh?
Aside from her music, Beyoncé’s recent admission that she fasted for 14 days to get down to a size eight for a film role has further damaged her image as a healthy female role model. As a woman constantly praised by the press, parents and her fans alike for her curves, the minimisation of her gorgeous size 12 figure in such an abominable way is nothing short of shocking. While she has returned to her former fine form thanks to a fried food diet, her admission to starving herself for a simple film role gives out more confusing signals to her young fans.
Once a woman recognised as the epitome of the modern empowered woman, Beyoncé Knowles has lost her way. She has conformed too willingly to the film and music industry’s demands for a sexualised, submissive yet superficially strong woman.
The Pussycat Dolls: Purrrfect or pretend?
When The Pussycat Dolls arrived on the pop scene, they were dubbed the new millennium’s version of the Spice Girls. Feisty and gorgeous with a streetwise image, they certainly looked the part.
In fact, the girls hailed from the top US burlesque dancers The Pussycat Dolls, fronted by Carmen Electra, which has seen stars such as Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguliera and Charlize Theron perform as one of the Dolls. In stockings, suspenders and very little else, the Dolls perform dances and stripteases to packed-out audiences of overexcited men. With such raunchy roots, it is not surprising that The Pussycat Dolls band is so sexed up.
When interviewed, the Dolls are keen to cast themselves as strong women. In one interview one doll said that it was great to be both sexy and promoting ‘girl power’. Yet this feminist influence becomes muddied when watching their videos – and listening to their lyrics.
The messages in club and pub anthem Don’t Cha could not be further away from feminism. Dedicated to enticing another woman’s man, the song purports the belief that a woman’s worth lies solely in her appearance when the Dolls ask whether the man in question wishes his girlfriend was ‘hot’ as they are. The lyrics suggest that women are in competition with one another over men, and over their appearances, a wholly negative representation of womanhood. Rather than promoting girl power, in Don’t Cha the Dolls are clearly anti-sisterhood.
This type of negative femininity happens again in Beep. The Dolls bump and grind their semi-naked bodies next to Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am. He sings that a man can only think about a woman’s body, or her beep to be more precise. In the lyrics the Dolls reply that it is okay for him to ogle them. They even ask him to continue to do so. Beep again gives out an anti-girl power message, once again portraying women as mere sex objects.
This worrying message is again present in Buttons, which features Snoop Dogg, hardly a supporter of female empowerment. The Dolls are in less clothing in this video, dancing around in bra-tops, hot pants and small strips of material as they ask to be undressed. As in nearly all of their videos, the lyrics and their dancing suggest that women are objects to be viewed and enjoyed, a suggestion that couldn’t be further away from the strong female role models they claim to be.
It is without a doubt that the two artists I focused upon here are only a small representation of the contradictory messages regarding the female that flood the music industry. Ten years on from the Spice Girls, women still inhabit an uneasy social zone in which they are more empowered, but still not empowered enough to overcome pre-existing stereotypes. The female body remains to be an object to be looked at. These mixed messages, then, are perhaps unavoidable.
Whenever a female artist makes a music video, it is therefore inevitable that she is presented to be viewed and consumed by the TV audience. The mainstream music video remains a genre in which the female is objectified, sexualised and submissive and most female artists are happy to conform to these constrictions if it sells a few more records.
While artists such as Pink are making headway by refusing to conform, these artists are significantly outnumbered by ones who are willing to sex it up. And, as long as the music industry demands women to say empowering words while looking sexy in their videos, these artists will continue to send out paradoxical signals to young women. These signals will create yet another generation of women who are confused about their appearance, their bodies and how to relate to the world.
Perhaps we’ll be needing a Spice Girls reunion after all.