Helen Monks considers the continuing unreasonable pressure on female pop stars to be role models
Remember when Lily Allen wrote that great feminist song about how women shouldn’t need to get naked in order to get attention and then objectified a load of naked, mostly black, women in her music video in order to get attention?
Remember when Beyoncé penned that great article titled ‘Gender Equality is a Myth‘ and then appeared at the Grammys a few days later, smiling along as her husband rapped at her to “eat the cake, Anna Mae”, a reference to the violent domestic abuse and rape of Tina Turner by her husband, Ike?
Remember yet another wave of disappointment rippling our way when, in the wake of the debut of her 10th studio album, Sinéad O’Connor controversially claimed, in an interview with The Observer, to not be a feminist?
In the midst of the online anti-revolution of the anti-feminists (most noticeably using their freedom to speak freely about how they don’t need it), this declaration could not have come at a more annoying time (apart from, perhaps, when we were trying to get the vote).
And this is Sinéad O’Connor we’re talking about. This is a woman who has been voluntarily bald, an action that is often still stigmatised due to being associated with radicalism and an unwillingness to conform to societal notions of female ‘beauty’. This is a woman who is so vocal about her opinions on women’s rights, she’s almost drowned out the sound of her own music (note, almost). A woman whose recent open letter to Miley Cyrus explicitly — in more ways than one — warned that “if they want you sexually that doesn’t mean they give a fuck about you“. [Different feminist takes on Sinéad’s open letter can be found here, here and here.]
If there was ever a woman we could count on to fly the feminist flag, it was Sinéad. But, instead, she has gone and done to that flag what she did to the Pope’s face in 1992, and we are left to sadly glue the ripped up pieces to our collage of discontent.
This could not have come at a more annoying time. And that is precisely the point.
Sinéad O’Connor is famous for doing exactly what you don’t want her to, exactly when you don’t want her to do it. She isn’t famous for being an advocate for women’s rights. She’s famous for being an advocate for herself. It just happens to be that she is also a woman.
The problem isn’t that these women are doing disappointing things. The problem is, we are disappointed.
We commodify and democratise celebrities for our own gain. We reduce celebrities to symbols, statuses and political messages, in order to use that status and power to platform our own agendas. They become a condensed image, on which we project everything we think they should be, while often ignoring what they actually are. We give them painted faces. And then we’re surprised when they come off in the rain.
This is misogyny, isn’t it? This is objectification. This is as anti-feminist as O’Connor claims to be.
It took Sinéad O’Connor doing something controversial to make me have the most over-exhausted epiphany of all time: celebrities are people too.
More than any other industry in the world, music is arguably the one in which women’s power lies in their sexuality. It is also one of the most noticeably sexist industries, where gender is binary and men are presented as writhing torsos and women as boobs and bums, or lack thereof. But it is still the one we constantly rely on to set an example for women. And we do, don’t we? (You may not be able to persuade your nine year old child to read Simone de Beauvoir, but you can sure as hell make her learn the dance to ‘Single Ladies’.)
The music industry is arguably the one that, above all others, shapes our fashions and our culture, our sexual relationships and our values. But we need to stop expecting these women to be heroes. Because they’re not. They’re singers.
We see women in powerful places and we want to use them: we want them to become a symbol and to embody everything we believe a woman should be. Then we feel let down when they aren’t. They can’t know what we’re thinking; they don’t know the issues we want them to talk about and they get far too much fan mail for us to try and bother telling them.
The problem isn’t that Sinéad O’Connor isn’t a feminist. The problem is that I expected her to be.
Instead of democratising a false image of perfection, we should consider these women’s human, genuine decisions (and mistakes) and discuss them to platform the issues that we choose. This isn’t to say we should criticise them personally when we believe they go wrong. But instead, when Lady Gaga gets an artist to vomit on her live on stage, let’s use it as a way to talk about Bulimia. When Rhianna gets back with her abusive boyfriend Chris Brown, let’s use it to talk about victim blaming in domestic violence.
Since these celebrities are kept quite busy doing the singing, it needs to be us doing the talking for ourselves, rather than expecting them to lead the way. And when these women make mistakes, instead of criticising them for not living up to their responsibilities as celebrities, let’s use their celebrity status as a way to stimulate discussion about the issues we want talked about in media.
Women in the music industry shouldn’t be expected to represent us. They should be there to provoke us. And instead of waiting around expecting them to bring about change, only to feel disappointed when these fail to materialise, we should use these women as facilitators for our own debates in determining how we, the ordinary folk, can be the ones to bring about the real change. And then let’s pop out to buy Sinéad O’Connor’s new album. Because, after all, she’s a pretty good singer.
Image descriptions and credits:
1.) Detail of a woman’s shoe. Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash
2. Beyoncé, with microphone, on a polished black stage at the Dublin 02 on 4 June 2009. She looks slightly downwards to her right with a pensive expression. She wears a fur-trimmed wedding dress with a slit at the front, with a veil framing her head and shoulders. By Caroline Delaney and shared under a Creative Commons license.
3. Sinéad O’Connor, with microphone, at the Glade Stage at Greenbelt, 2014. She is mid-flow, with her eyes tightly shut and the bones in her neck standing out. She wears a hoodie that appears navy in the light, with a just-visible figure (possibly Jesus) in a circle on the front. Stark black background. By John Sargent and shared under a Creative Commons license.