[Caveat: this post is rated P-13…at least].
In college I was a part of a group called Sexual Assault Peer Educators. We went to Human Sexuality classes and frat houses and talked about what constitutes rape, how prevalent it is, and how we can all help prevent it. I learned from that experience that it is not self-evident to everyone that nobody deserves to be raped, no matter how they dress. And after actually hearing guys says things like, “Hey, if you wave a piece of meat in front of a hungry dog, you’re gonna get bit,” I came to understand what is now called “rape culture.”
And I became even more concerned about how our culture commodifies sex and views the female body as an object of consumption. To me, it seemed relatively obvious that porn culture and rape culture go hand-in-hand. You make sex and the human body something to be bought, owned, and consumed for self-gratification, and you are contributing to a culture in which people think like the dude who made the meat analogy. Right?
Then a few years ago, I participated in a Take Back The Night march that was a response to a serial killing of women in my neighborhood, several of whom had been prostitutes. There was a group of radical feminists at the march, and I was surprised to learn they didn’t share my views about pornography. They thought that sex-work, as they call it, and pornography were actually liberating for women—spaces where woman can take control of their sexuality and actually exert power over the men who desire them. On this view, sex workers and porn stars are liberators, “transgressing” patriarchal norms of modesty and morality that keep women oppressed. And prudes like me—who think prostitution and porn are harmful to women—are actually part of the problem. What we need is not less porn and prostitution, but less stigma surrounding them.
Its not surprising that this line of academic feminist thinking—which lends itself so readily to consumerism—has been taken up by pop singers and their marketing teams. And divas who formerly would’ve been seen as playing for the wrong team are successfully packaging their wares as feminist.
Take for example Beyonce’s latest album, which purportedly contains “strong feminist themes.” The album is referred to both as simply Beyonce and as “the visual album,” which is about right, since it amounts to a video magazine of close-ups and glam shots of Beyonce in all manner of hyper-sexualized scenarios. Almost to a video, Beyonce is teasing, stripping, or telling-all, and almost never while wearing pants. Half the videos are marked “Explicit” on iTunes, and most of the ones that aren’t should be.
The lyrically content of the songs is equally erotic and explicit. Most of the lyrics I can’t even reprint here, but here’s a little sampling of what I can: “Drunk in Love” is actually just about getting drunk and having sex (“I get filthy when that liquor get into me”). “Rocket” is a collection of innuendos (“Climb until you reach my peak, baby/And reach right into the bottom of my fountain”) and not-innuendos (“Punish me, please”) that reads like a string of sexts. “Blow” is about just what it sounds like. “Jealous” is about wanting to cheat for revenge after she “cooked this meal for you naked.” And “Partition”…no, there’s nothing I can reprint here.
What’s noteworthy about this album is not its visually and lyrically quasi-pornographic nature (though dropping 80 minutes of high-def nearly-naked Beyonce all at once does ratchet this game up a notch). No. What’s interesting is the that two songs that bookend the album that attempt to frame it as a kind of feminist manifesto.
The album opener “Pretty Hurts” indicts our culture for its obsession with physical beauty and its narrow definition thereof (“Perfection is a disease of a nation…Blonder hair, flat chest/TV says, ‘Bigger is better,’ South beach, sugar free/Vogue says, ‘Thinner is better”). Pointing up how destructive media images of beauty are to the psyches and self-perceptions of women, Beyonce laments:
It’s my soul that needs surgery
Plastic smiles and denial can only take you so far
Then you break when the fake facade leaves you in the dark
You left with shattered mirrors and the shards of a beautiful past
The solution offered to all this superficiality and pressure to be perfect is to learn self-acceptance. The song asks “When you’re all alone by yourself” (seems a bit redundant) “are you happy with yourself?” And Beyonce finally answers, “Yes” as the song closes. With that, the stage is set for all of the indecent exposure that follows to be understood as a demonstration of the fact that Beyonce doesn’t hate her body like the media tells her that she should.
Now, I don’t doubt the genuineness of Beyonce’s own personal journey with self-image and body-hatred. But the idea that this collection of videos is a) a vehicle through which she discovered her own inner beauty/learned not to find her self-worth in her appearance, and therefore, b) some kind of feminist statement of freedom that should be liberating for other women too, and therefore, c) a work of art that somehow subverts the patriarchal media machine that objectifies the female body—is absolutely, positively ludicrous.
And here’s why: First, the idea that Beyonce does not conform to traditional conceptions of beauty, or that in “celebrating” her particular body, she is somehow challenging or subverting the media’s definition beauty/femininity, is just laughable. Who doesn’t think this woman is beautiful? She is, as Jay-Z told us when she started “wearing his chain,” “the hottest chic in the game.” True, skinny, white 15-year-olds are still used in Ralph Lauren ads and high fashion runway shows, but that is not the “dominant paradigm” of beauty in our culture. Beyonce is. Huge eyes, thick lips, flawless skin, toned stomach, big curves in all the right places. Beyonce possesses not a single feature that lies outside of the ideal of what the media was already telling women is beautiful. I can’t imagine that women who are overweight or abnormally tall or have problems with acne suddenly felt permission to love themselves in way they never had before when they first saw these videos.
Second, even if Beyonce were “ugly” or “fat” by media standards, the idea that she is doing something liberating or feminist by proudly displaying to the world every nook and cranny of herself is, again, just ridiculous.
Now, I’m all for people being comfortable with their bodies and agree that those of us who don’t or can’t look like some media proffered ideal should still love ourselves and our bodies. But proudly exposing and flaunting a body that (supposedly) doesn’t conform to the media ideal is no less superficial than flaunting one that does. Beyonce doesn’t say or do anything on this album to demonstrate she’s found her value or self-worth in something other than physical beauty and shallow sexuality. Her answer to “pretty hurts” is not “You are loved because you are a child of God” or “Your value comes from your whole person,” it’s simply to redefine “pretty” (which we have already established she does not actually do). So when Beyonce brags to us in “Rocket” that she’s “proud of all this bass” [camera shot: close-up of her butt], she’s still a woman finding her self-worth in her ass.
This becomes glaringly clear in the other bookend. Near the end of the album, the song “Flawless” incorporates a long sample from the TED talk of African feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she laments, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men…we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…” I don’t know how Adichi intended these comments, but as they are appropriated by Beyonce, they end up a kind of self-contradictory mess.
The song’s title is a mantra of self-affirmation. It tells us that Beyonce, now through to the other side of her journey of self-acceptance and sexual empowerment embraces herself just the way she is (“I’m flawless!”). And she wants other women to be able to do this too, inviting them: “Say, ‘I look so good tonight.’”
But ultimately she can’t resist framing her flawlessness in comparison to other women: “I know when you were little girls, you dreamt of being in my world,/ Bow down b*tches.” Well, maybe that’s because the kind of sexuality Beyonce is trying to claim for women, the kind that’s like what men have, is inherently competitive, superficial, and destructive.
Bow down, b*tches? So Beyonce’s journey of feminist self-actualization ultimately arrives at a place where she can call other women b*tches because of how flawless she is. Hm.
Despite Beyonce’s reporting that “this album is all about honesty,” these videos, and their accompanying lyrics, are all about objectification, which is actually a form of dishonesty. Regardless of Beyonce’s own role in the writing of these songs and production of these videos, their effect is to separate her body from the rest of her and turn it into an object of desire for consumers to purchase and use to their own ends. This is fundamentally dishonest. And ultimately, Beyonce isn’t being honest with herself if she thinks that just because she is the agent of her own body-hawking she is somehow empowered by it. This makes about as much sense as saying that cutting or eating disorders or suicide are empowering. Self-harm is still harm. Self-objectification is still objectification.
Which brings us to Lady Gaga. Gaga has built an empire on dressing and undressing her body in various transgressive ways that shock and provoke (oh my, a meat dress!) And because of this, she’s hailed as a smart, self-aware feminist of the future. (There’s even a whole book written about this). But if we scratch beneath the patina of avant-garde affectation and irony, Gaga’s just as guilty of self-objectification.
Let’s take “Do What U Want,” the second single off of her latest album, Artpop, as an example. The song is supposedly smart because it operates on two levels. On one level, it’s a thumper of a club song about drinking and sex, with Gaga giving us permission over and over again to “do what [we] want with [her] body.” On another level, it’s Gaga critiquing the media for objectifying and misrepresenting her.
Write what you want/Say what you want about me/
If you want to know/I’m not sorry
…You can’t stop my voice/Cause you don’t own my life/
But do what you want with my body
So she wants us to know that she’s in control here. Even though we can buy her body and use to our own ends, she’s the one who decided that. And she won’t give us the stuff that really matters (her heart, etc). “Do What U Want” is supposedly Gaga asserting her autonomy over an oppressive media machine that would seek to subjugate her.
Except guess which level of meaning the marketing of the song is based on? The video–which, to be fair, was never actually released, but clips of which were leaked online–looks to me a lot like porn. In it, Gaga plays a (naked) patient to R. Kelly’s doctor, who has a party with a dozen “sexy” nurses and Gaga’s limp, anesthetized body. (Get it? He’s doing what he wants with her body. Clever.) This is intercut with shots of her being photographed wearing a paper dress that she progressively rips apart until she’s naked and writhing on the floor.
The cover art for the single is a close up shot of a G-string-wearing Gaga bent over with her butt in the camera. The shot is slightly overexposed, in the photographical sense. According Gaga, it represents the fact that her “ass is all she chooses to give us.”
Do you see what she did there? As with the song, she wants us to think that the meaning of the cover art is entirely based on her intentions. She can choose what she’s giving us. She’s saying, ”I know that this looks and sounds and smells exactly like the kind of pop music that objectifies women. I know that it contains a duet with a guy who was once arrested for making child pornography and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. I know that on the surface level the lyrics are about me degrading myself and allowing myself to be degraded in the back of a club. But [wink, wink] if you’re smart, you know that this actually means the exact opposite of all that.”
So the difference between degrading objectification and liberating art boils down to whether or not the author intends it to be ironic?
At the end of the day, avant-garde porn is still porn. And porn is still something that contributes to, rather than helps to dismantle, rape culture. The human body, male or female, is not something that can be objectified or commodified or sold without being degraded and dehumanized. Even if the one doing the objectifying and commodifying and selling is the person to whom the body belongs.
Thank God Sinead O’Connor was willing to speak this truth to Miley Cyrus. In her words, “Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”
I know I’ll be accused of slut-shaming and not being sex-positive, but, oh well. Somebody’s got to say it: Nobody is being liberated by the idea that porn is feminist. Nobody is being liberated by these quasi-pornographic pop videos. Not Beyonce, not Lady Gaga, not the other women who watch them or have to live in the culture now poisoned by them.