The Sexist

Top 5 Pseudo-Feminist Anthems

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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"

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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"

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"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)"

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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"

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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!

Comments

  1. #1

    Don't forget that Katy Perry's song is a total rip-off of Jill Sobule's "I Kissed a Girl," which is way more awesome, and which Jill wrote herself and released in 1995. (remeber it from the "Clueless" soundtrack). Coincidence? Nope - Jill's original producers re-formatted the concept for Ms. Perry. Without her permission.

    In a wonderful recent interview with Sobule on "Sound Opinions," she discusses the, um, overlap of songs. And she plays some other sweet music that she's written-- it's a must-listen:

    http://www.soundopinions.org/shownotes/2009/042409/shownotes.html

  2. #2

    The "it" refers not to Beyonce as a person, but to her ring finger. You put a ring on a finger, get it. In a relationship, a ring also signals commitment. Otherwise, we wouldn't symbolize engagement/marriage with rings, as a society in general. I suggest that you read the lyrics or listen to the song again. Because Beyonce is saying that she's moving on with her life, even though she still has some feelings for the guy. But she is going to leave him because he won't seriously commit to her. She's telling the guy he had his chance, and he blew it. The song is not only a feminist anthem, it's kick ass and infectious as a song can get.

  3. #3

    You forgot to mention how freaking WHINEY the "I kissed a girl song" is...another aspect of it that makes me want to hurl.

  4. #4

    Well, if you're going to put Taylor Swift's You Belong With Me on the list. Then, you should've put Lady Gaga's Paparazzi. She sounds so desperate in the song when she says, "I followed you around until you love me. I'll be your paparazzi." How needy and annoying can you get. I think because Taylor his such a sweet and wholesome image, but Gaga is this supposedly artistic freak then some people give her a pass for what she sings about.

  5. #5

    @Iris

    So Beyonce is really saying "If you like my finger then you should have put a ring on my finger"? What does that mean? Is Beyonce's boyfriend some kind of finger fetishist? Does he have photos of physically perfect fingers on his bedroom wall? Does he subscribe to Finger Monthly magazine?

    I think your interpretation of the pronoun subtext here is a little shaky.

  6. #6

    On "Single Ladies", I do not think what the pronoun refers to really matters. You can take the lyrics literally or not, but the point is clearly that the person should have committed to marriage or faced losing "it."

    I'm sure why this song would necessarily have to be considered feminist or anti-feminist. Its just about a guy who was unwilling to commit to the relationship and now is regretting it as the woman moves on. It might be misunderstood as feminist because a lot of women really empathize with and like this song.

    Also just for fun to throw another interpretation of the "it" out there, I always thought "it" was the relationship. With the "put a ring on it" as a simple metaphor for committing to the relationship.

  7. #7

    I agree with Richard's points via Beyonce's song. I don't find the song particularly feminist or anti-feminist. And I agree with Richard's point about "it" the pronoun, although obviously it's open to interpretation and I get why others have a few different ones.

    I love this article! I always hated the cutesy-ness of "bitch". OOOOooh, so edgy, we're saying "bitch" now on top 40 radio?

  8. #8

    @Stephanie I agree about Lady Gaga getting a pass. I usually see it more as an "artistic" pass than a "feminist" pass. Lady Gaga makes these outrageous artsy videos, but her lyrics are just standard catchy pop, nothing innovative about it. I still like her music, though, but I'm a sucker for standard catchy pop (I like Beyonce and Taylor Swift, too, so what do I know).

  9. #9

    OH PLEASE. Feminists need to find some real things to get up in arms about. Whining about how the music industry is subverting the feminist cause by getting female artists to sing fake-feminist songs? Give me a break. Anyone taking their feminist cues from the likes of Katy Perry or Beyonce needs a reality check. As a female this is why I'm sick of feminists sometimes. They complain about everything. Go listen to some India Arie (whom I happen to love) or something.

  10. #10

    I take the "it" to mean the relationship or the woman's ring finger. Regardless, it's all about the guy should've committed to the relationship if he wanted Beyonce to stay in his life. Feminist fall in love and when a relationship isn't working for them they get out it. I think that's a very feminist approach to relationships.

  11. #11

    I'd have to put Carrie Underwood's "American Girl" in that list, every time that song comes on I shudder

  12. #12

    And Amanda if Taylor's "You Belong with Me" is subtly anti-feminist, then I'd have to say her song "Change" is very pro-feminist in not-so-subtle ways

  13. #13

    Quinn, maybe you could give us a list of things that feminism is allowed to deal with? Thanks!

    Beyonce and Katy Perry just reinforce all kinds of crappy crap about women. Why is that not important enough?

  14. Comrade Al Gonzales
    #14

    (Bikini Kill's Rebel Girl is the best feminist anthem) Gramschi's Cultural Hegemony Theory & Maggie explain the underlying problem here: Patriarchal capitalism is using the "arts" & entertainment to indoctrinate women into behaving like docile sheep.

    Unless & until patriarchal capitalism is destroyed - root & branch - women will be second-class citizens. Full equality will come only with a communist revolution.

    oh & by the way, Bikini Kill's Rebel Girl is the best feminist anthem.

  15. #15

    ok, i interpreted "single ladies" very differently.

    i thought the lyrics were addressed to the ex-girlfriend of the protagonist's boyfriend, saying "hey, if you get jealous of me being with your hot ex, well too bad -- you should've put a ring on it (ie, him -- 'if you like him then you should've put a ring on him'). if you had married him then you wouldn't be in this position now, seeing us two dance saucily in 'da club' and getting bent out of shape about it".

    it doesn't make sense for the "it" to be herself. why would she say "if you like (yourself) then you should've put a ring on (yourself)"?

  16. #16

    ok, scratch that last part -- "it" can be herself if she's addressing the song to man. i interpreted it as being addressed to her boyfriend's ex though. hence "all my single ladies, put a ring on it!" not "all my single men, put a ring on it!" it's saying "women, if you don't put a ring on the man you love, eventually you'll break up, and then you could end up watching him dance all sexy-like w/ someone like me and you'll be steamed."

  17. #17

    Am I the only one that interpreted those lyrics in "You Oughta Know" to be about what Alanis herself did, and that the new chick is probably too stuck-up to do? That the fellow has moved on to a more "respectable" woman?

    I don't see how you can read it the way you have here, given the rest of the song.

  18. #18

    @gkorein,

    I dunno if I think the lyrics really lend themselves to your interpretation that well..

    First off the use of "Single Ladies" is her rallying other women who have been given sh** by their ex's for moving on (you Decided to dip but now you wanna trip/Cuz another brother noticed me). And no where does it say "all my single ladies, put a ring on it."

    I don't really see how this song works as "anti-feminist" unless you are talking about separatists or going out of your way to be obtuse about the interpretation of the lyrics. Yes, she says "it" by that's for flow of the song and is really a vague pronoun (given the fact that it's being discussed). Though I suppose one could argue about the usage of the "ring" as a symbol, but I think given the context of the song, it's not marriage per say that she is looking for, but rather real commitment, and well.... It's just cleaner to say "put a ring on it" than to say, "I don't want to be married, but I want this relationship to have serious commitment"

  19. #19

    @nate I interpret the lyrics the same way you do, I think. But she's still speculating about a woman's sex life and using her assumptions to hate on her.

  20. #20

    Sad that my biggest problem with the Taylor Swift songs is the once again reaffirmation that girls with glasses are ugly. Only when you take those glasses off, ladies, will men TRULY see how glorious and magnificent you are!!!!11!!!1!eleventy!! And then you can go to a dance and everything can be super blurry and you won't be able to see a thing but who cares! That dude thinks you're hot now! Who needs to really see whom they're kissing when they look SO GOOD WITHOUT GLASSES?!?!

    Screw that shit.

  21. #21

    @anna: Actually it was Supermodel on the Clueless soundtrack, not I Kissed A Girl. But you're right, Jill Sobule is way underrated.

  22. #22

    I really love Bif Naked's "I love Myself Today" as a self empowerment/female empowerment anthem. Though I don't knwo if it is really feminist. A lot of her songs are great for that sortof vibe.

    And I think Pink has a kindof feminist vibe, I really liked stupid girls and how it advocated for better female role models. (Though it is problematic in a lot of ways too.)

    Rebel Girl you are the queen of my world.

  23. #23

    @matthew -- Ooops, you're right. Good catch!

    In the meantime, here's Jill Sobule with her ORGINAL, and best, "I Kissed a Girl":

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4r41vPTF8k&feature=PlayList&p=662E9332B9312DC0&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=11

  24. #24

    Amanda Hess: You are my new favorite.

  25. #25

    @Quinn-Listening to India.Arie's "Video" right now-Thanks for the reminder!

  26. #26

    Geez, do people here REALLY take Top 40 radio pop songs THAT seriously? They're songs. Made purely for entertainment. Yes, interpret the lyrics as you wish, take them seriously or not, but give me a break with whatever messages they send! As long as it's not advocating hatred or anything truly dangerous, who cares, honestly? If it bugs you so much, change the damn station. Real feminists don't waste their time on silly crap like this.

  27. #27

    Rita!

    Oh my god, thank you so much for coming here and setting us straight! We are truly fake feminists, just looking to complain about everything that anyone could possibly find joy in. You certainly showed me that pop culture has NO influence on societal standards and is completely irrelevant... Nobody EVER tries to emulate that which is so pervasive and popular. You're absolutely right....

    Except that part where you say "truly dangerous" as something that these things aren't. These stereotypes are the model that young people aspire to (to some extent) when they hear them. So yes, these songs are "truly dangerous"

  28. #28

    I'm so glad I've inspired this lively discussion about pronouns!

    This proves that Beyonce is a very grammatically challenging (not challenged) songwriter. The last time I heard a song where punctuation played such an important role was "Lola" by the Kinks.

    "I'm not the world's most masculine man/but I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man/and so is Lola. L-O-L-A, Lola."

    Is Lola also glad the narrator is a man? Or is Lola, herself, also... A MAN!?!?!

    Sorry for just blowing all your minds there.

  29. #29

    How about that Beyonce typically isn't listed as one of the 3-6 writers on any song she sings???

    COME ON!

    Where's your power, girl? Say something from your own mind!

  30. #30

    @ Jenga:
    Beyonce, Taylor Swift? "Truly dangerous"? LMAO, you're hilarious, you really are. You're making Gloria Steinem, proud, keep up the good work! I'm not saying pop culture NEVER provides social commentary on how society is, but until those women come out saying with a straight face that these songs are intended to be feminist anthems with messages that everyone should take seriously, I think you guys are grasping at straws here. You can't tell me that people don't know the difference between a song you dance to and a song that says something worth listening to. Looking at the lyrics for the songs listed up there, they're harmless, contrived and banal at worst. The only crime the writers of those songs have committed is making them utterly corny and cringeworthy. But hey, nobody expects poetry in a pop song, especially these days. And as for young, impressionable girls taking those songs seriously, maybe it's up to their parents to explain to them that kissing girls just to look cool is absolutely stupid and waiting on a guy you like to finally acknowledge your existence is a huge waste of your time that could spent doing better things, not to mention there's always other (and better) fish in the sea. And can't people just RELAX with a song? Believe me, if everyone only listened to Tori Amos and Melissa Etheridge, we'd all go crazy! Sometimes we need to let our hair down and listen to songs with fun beats and lyrics that mean nothing, just to be free of reality for a little bit. Can you at least understand THAT?

    @naomi:Actually she is listed as "one of the 3-6 writers" on most of her songs, if you'd bother to actually check the credits on her albums. Whether or not it seems rather peculiar that a person needs several people to help her write a song that a 12-year-old could come up entirely on their own is another story.

  31. #31

    Another way to interpret the "it" lyric in Put a Ring on It is that "it" refers to two things. The first time Beyonce mentions "if you like it" this "it" refers to having sex with her/doing "it" with her. The second it refers to her finger "then you should have put a ring on it." In other words, Beyonce is saying if you like having sex with me, you should have married me. I don't think of any of Beyonce's songs as feminist because I don't confuse pro-woman/independent woman with feminism.

  32. #32

    I think a lot of people here are missing the point. The problem isn't that these songs aren't feminist. It would be ridiculous to be up in arms over every song that isn't feminist. The problem with these songs is that they are marketed and presented as empowering anthems for women when they really are the same old thing as every other song out there.

    So no one is giving Lady Gaga a free pass for having un-feminist songs. That's clearly besides the point. Lady Gaga isn't trying to be a role model last I checked. She's trying to be edgy.

  33. #33

    I take umbrage with your reasons for listing Alanis and Taylor on this list.

    Alanis has been done wrong by a guy who's moved on to another woman. Why on earth can't she be angry about that? I also interpret that song as another commenter mentioned - that this new woman is an upgrade, a more "respectable" woman.

    Finally, Taylor making a subtle jab at her crush's more traditional girlfriend in the short skirts and high heels actually makes me proud as a feminist. She's pointing out that she is being herself in her sneakers, while the Barbie doll acts like a traditional girl.

    My main objection is that you don't allow these songwriters / singers any leeway in expressing their feelings about their relationships. Can you honestly say that you've never felt angry or annoyed by your ex's new girlfriend (especially if he / she dumped you for her)? It doesn't mean they aren't feminists - feminists want equality for women and men. It doesn't mean we have to love every other woman on the planet. Some of them suck!

    Especially in Taylor's case - she's a teenager! Give her some slack with expressing her emotions. I remember being a teenager and feeling like the awkward ugly duckling while the boys doted on all the pretty cheerleaders. If I wrote a song about it, it doesn't mean I'm not a feminist.

  34. #34

    Wow. You forgot the most important part of "Bitch"
    ".I do not feel ashamed... , "
    is that because you want us to all feel ashamed.

    ….......

    "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."

    …........

    Seriously? You're the one projecting.

    Who taught you this nonsense? This feminism you're doing is all sorts of wrong. Where do read hate into those lyrics? That hate is coming from you!

    And hey, it's NOT OK to hate the guy who fucked you over either. It's still hate. It's OK to feel angry, anger passes. Hate stays. Hate is not ok.

    I never heard it as saying hateful things - and music is ONLY what a listener hears in it. It's possible to be angry, and growl even, without feeling hate, you know. Anger is natural, hate isn't. Maybe she actually is happy for them and sees the woman is like her, and what's wrong with asking if she's perverted, – and yeah, would she have your baby? She seems like she'd make a good mom.

    You see hate in that, and you want to make sure everyone else sees hate in it too.

    Who taught you this feminism?

    Shame and Hate. Boo.

  35. #35

    I agree that some of these songs my have aspects that are anti-feminist. But sexism is so ingrained in us, that women can be sexist and have sexist feelings sometimes. What I don't understand is what you want from these artists. If these are their emotions, right or wrong, then it is perfectly healthy to express them. It should be talked about, but not denounced.

  36. #36

    Amanda- I love the feminist critique of pop songs. As a high school teacher this kind of stuff is damn valuable for me. It is through an analysis of pop culture that I can usually hook students into thinking critically about race and gender. It is so important to be able to explain/deconstruct what the message in the message is. @rita- I don't know if you are arrogant or ignorant, but thinking that we should leave it up to parents to explain media influence to young women reveals that you have no grasp of the reality of being a teenager today. Finally, can we please stop this tired ordinary "real feminists" or "whiny feminists" bullshit. It is unoriginal and empty. If you don't think this conversation is important join one that you think is. In the meantime, Amanda and everyone else, ignore the haters. This is good stuff.

  37. #37

    @Yenima: Being that I'm a teenager myself, (late teens, shocking revelation, I know) I kinda do have a grasp of the reality of being a teenager today. And trying to figure out why is it that I've never bowed down to the pressures of the media and pop culture, whilst my peers do just that, I'm thinking that the reason I've always been a step ahead of my ilk is because of the way I was raised. I didn't learn feminism from pop singers, my examples of what a real woman who thinks for herself is certainly wasn't influenced by stupid songs with banal lyrics. If you are indeed a high school teacher, then maybe you should also tell your students that pop music should be the last place to take life lessons from. Nobody blames kids for being impressionable, but the adults in their lives could point them in the right direction.

  38. #38

    The good part - it's not only me who thinks these songs are really messed up.
    The bad part - this is what passes for feminism these days in the pop industry? Really??

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