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After much discussion of traditionally feminine passivity in ostensibly empowering lady-pop, I think it’s high time for a list. Ever since the Spice Girls made “Girl Power” cool, sexy, and (above all) lucrative for record producers, empowerment has been a convenient posture for pop music to assume—-lyrical cognitive dissonance be damned!
Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon put it best: “Once again, I feel that the music industry is cleverly positioning songs that kind of sort of sound powerful but reinscribe traditional female passivity as a substitute for songs that might actually give women ideas.”
Let’s see who did it best!
5. Alanis Morissette‘s “You Oughta Know”
Alanis has laid down some legitimate feminist anthems in her day (okay, I’m mostly thinking of her parody of “My Humps”). “You Oughta Know,” the song that catapulted Morissette to feminist-y prominence, isn’t one of them. Yes, she is announcing, screaming, and growling her perspective into the public sphere. No, she is not going to take shit from any man. Yes, it’s awesome that this song is purportedly about Dave Coulier. But no, it is not cool to turn your Coulier-hate into some extremely scary thoughts concerning the Other Woman:
I want you to know, that I’m happy for you I wish nothing but the best for you both An older version of me Is she perverted like me Would she go down on you in a theatre Does she speak eloquently And would she have your baby I’m sure she’d make a really excellent mother
Hating the guy who fucked you over? Sure. Projecting that angst onto another woman’s sexual proclivities / reproductive health? Creepy, Alanis. Creepy. And not helping.
4. Katy Perry‘s “I Kissed A Girl”
Sexual experimentation! Bisexuality! Kissing! And liking it! On first glance, Perry’s hit single offers up a positive, fun, and inclusive vision of female sexuality. On second glance, it’s none of that.
Perry’s song winkingly reinforces bisexual and lesbian women as objects of male fantasy (“hope my boyfriend don’t mind it”). Then, it situates bisexual and lesbian women as nothing more than an “experimental game” for heterosexual women to play with (“It’s not what I’m used to / Just wanna try you on”). Finally, it turns girls kissing into some sort of crazy taboo “It felt so wrong / It felt so right / Don’t mean I’m in love tonight”; “It’s not what good girls do”).
At the end of Perry’s video, the producer sets up the ultimate safety-net for this bit of experimentation: Perry’s little same-sex kiss turns out to be nothing more than a dream. Really?
3. Taylor Swift‘s “You Belong With Me”
“You Belong With Me,” a song about Swift’s secret crush on a friend, could have been girl-power declaration about women pursuing their romantic and sexual interests without shame. Instead, it’s another ode to romantic passivity. Swift spends the song “Dreamin’ about the day that you wake up and find / That what you’re looking for has been here the whole time.”
Meanwhile, she manages to edge in some vaguely slut-shaming commentary about her fantasy boy’s real girlfriend—-a high school cheerleader who wears high-heels and short-skirts. Gross!
2. Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”
Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, and I’ma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best pseudo-feminist anthems of all time!
(Sorry). The sheer awesomeness of this song is almost enough to make me overlook the anti-feminist weirdness. Beyonce looks and sounds even stronger on this track than she does in the more traditionally girl-power songs in her catalog (“Independent Women Part I”; “Survivor”). I mean, she has a bionic arm in the video. What’s not to like?
Well—-a few things. Beyonce referring to herself as “it”? Equating herself to bling? Handing herself over to a man who will determine her self-worth through a demeaning, years-long game which can only end with Beyonce emerging triumphant as his symbolic property, or crawling away as a meaningless ex?
As Marcotte writes: “isn’t that the implicit idea? To get women together to say, ‘Ring or door, your choice,’ without asking why on earth you’d want to marry someone who puts you in that spot because he enjoys the sadistic pleasure of seeing how far along he can string you before you break.”
I don’t care how triumphantly Beyonce announces “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” That shit is messed up.
1. Meredith Brooks, “Bitch”
I have a sneaking suspicion that Meredith Brooks tricked me into feminist awareness. The summer I turned 12 years old, I received two singles for my birthday: Hanson‘s “MmmBop” and Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.” My best friend Lindsay and I listened to them both on repeat. I learned so much that summer. Hanson taught me how to cultivate a guilty pleasure—-even among white middle-class sixth graders, Hanson wasn’t very cool. Meredith Brooks introduced me to feminist theory.
Lindsay’s parents objected to us listening to the song, because they saw “bitch” as a derogatory term for women, and we were 12. I remember sort of indignantly explaining to them that the song was pro-woman because, like, Meredith Brooks can be whatever she wants to be, and she doesn’t have to conform to any one idea of what a woman is told to be like, by people like her parents. Meredith was free to be both a bitch and a lover, and for some reason, that really spoke to me. As a 12-year-old. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase “virgin/whore dichotomy” back then, but if I had been, I probably would have employed it.
Anyway. Several years later, I heard “Bitch” again and realized how fucking annoying this song is. There’s no substance here, just a laundry list of false dichotomies—-bitch v. lover, child v. mother, sinner v. saint—- followed by the declaration that Meredith fulfills all of them and “nothing in-between.” The song is sung to Meredith’s man, who had up to this point been feeling “confused” about Meredith’s complicated personality.
Meredith reassures him: “Do not worry about abandoning your rigid double-standard of femininity in order to understand me as a person! I promise to satisfy both aspects of your virgin/whore complex!” Damnit!