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She Pop: The Red and The White--Some Thoughts On Taylor Swift and Katy Perry

Dear Lord, Taylor Swift fans! I cannot keep up with you! Witness just a sampling of the very angry comments on my Taylor Swift post of last week: 

Personally I think she is kind of silly, but I can understand why so
many people like [Taylor]. Especially teen girls. She tells girls that its
okay to wear "T-shirts and sneakers" instead of "High heals and short
skirts". She is an alternative to the super pornified world we live in. 

And: 

at least taylor doesnt cater to some stupid male fantasy where you can
only have sex for mens fantasies. What about the Katy Perry's and the
Megan Fox's who are only sexual for the pleasure of men. "I love sex, I
like it 24/7, but only with a MAN that i love, one noght stands make me
sick, they're gross, unless its with a girl while my man watches!".
Perpetuating sexist girl on girl male fantasies and marketing them as
objects to sell, the girl on girl thing is a way of life for some
people and they are objectifying it. Not to mention that girls like
Megan get huge amounts of Plastic Surgery have a career based on their
looks and then call themselves feminists.

And: 

umm.. taylor swift is amazing. i am a teenage girl and i look up to her and i think you're just a stupid idiot

Interesting points, there! I sort of disagree with them! Oh, except that last one, because it was made of UNIMPEACHABLE LOGIC. There were, however, points in that comment section with which I did agree. (Mostly not made by me! My comments were very cranky! Sorry!) Points about wanting to separate the media-created (or, at least, media-aided) image of Taylor from whoever she might be as a person (but do we ever know who pop stars are, as people? Because if we need to know that before we can talk about them, we basically can't talk), or about the fact that Taylor does seem to have her finger on the pulse of at least some aspects of teen girl life and should be given credit for that (um, OK: even if I can't identify, I can recognize that maybe someone does), or about being irritated at the way Taylor Swift is elevated over and above her peers and given special praise for the very limited, very regressive image of femininity she promotes, and separating one's dislike of the hype and the REALLY RATHER OBVIOUS Madonna/whore complex embedded therein from dislike of Taylor Swift (fine). But those first two comments deserve to be addressed. 

Because I have written about Katy Perry critically in the past. I've written critically about Katy Perry in this very column. If you look through the archives, you will note that I make a Katy Perry joke every 1.5 posts. It's kind of a compulsion, and I've been working to keep a handle on it, because I think it is getting out of control, honestly. But here's the funny thing: if I write a critical blog post about, say, Taylor Swift, people, including other women who identify as feminists, will be all, "but WHAT about KATY PERRY?" But if I write a critical blog post about Katy Perry... well, no-one's weighing to demand that I also criticize Taylor Swift. 

I fully believe that Taylor Swift and Katy Perry are mirror images of each other: one embodies manufactured rebelliousness that includes a very boring, very not-new vision of female sexuality, and one embodies manufactured innocence that includes a very boring, very not-new vision of female sexuality. But, though both images are marketable (and let us be clear, here, that I am talking about IMAGES, not the people themselves, who could be my future BFFs for all I know) one of them is elevated, and the other is scorned. It feels okay to criticize Katy Perry, un-okay to criticize Taylor Swift.

And now, the bonus round: on the vast Madonna/whore spectrum, which one of these ladies does not fall on the "Madonna" side? 

Oh, I know. Katy Perry's image is not authentic sexuality, it's not healthy sexuality, it's not feminist sexuality: it's boy-pleasing, objectifying, "pornified." What I am saying is that we have a knee-jerk reaction to that, and to the women who embody it, and are more comfortable with expressing (or witnessing, apparently) anger about it than we are with other kinds of anger towards other kinds of women. It happens amongst feminists. It also happens among non-feminists. And I think this deserves consideration. 

I'm pretty sure that Katy Perry is one of the more dedicated misogynists of our times. Also, a homophobe! At least, if her song lyrics are to be believed. There's the bit in "Hot and Cold" where her boyfriend keeps changing his mind, like a silly girl, and he has PMS, like a bitch, and etc. There's "Ur So Gay," where the point is that her dude likes clothes and makeup and reading and is totally not a real man, because he's so girly, and girls are just awful. And then there's that song. You know the song. You're Katy Perry's experimental game, she hopes her boyfriend don't mind it (SPOILER: he totally doesn't) and so on and so forth. All of these things are irritating. Massively so. But, you know, there's another girl with a really irritating song, about how the high heels/short skirt lady, with all her sexfulness and willful non-joke-liking, is in no way comparable to the pure intentions of the girl in unsexful t-shirts and sneakers who promises never to get mad at you because she "gets your humor," and this song has a video where a girl in a red, midriff-baring dress is unceremoniously ditched in favor of a girl in a conservative white ballgown because Taylor Swift's video director graduated Unbearably Obvious Symbolism 101, and I somehow don't think that's less regressive. (Oh, yes! And both girls are played by TAYLOR SWIFT, Master of Disguise! OMG, you guys, MORE SYMBOLISM, my mind just got blown.) One is about resisting "pornified" sexuality by embodying a conservative, '50s-style vision of the "good girl," and one is about digging right into that "pornified" sexuality and embracing it as your own. Katy wears short skirts! Taylor wears t-shirts! Katy's cheer captain and Taylor's... well, cheer captain for the opposing team, actually. 

We can talk about Taylor as an "alternative" to Katy Perry, but what that misses is that the system is built on dichotomies and alternatives. Wife and mistress; the girl you sleep with and the girl you respect; the hot girl and the girl with substance; the smart girl and the sexy girl. The Media Image of Taylor Swift isn't creating a new alternative to The Media Image of Katy Perry; it's just stepping into the "alternative" role already provided by patriarchy, which has a vested interest in dividing women against each other and against themselves, in keeping them from being whole people, who can be smart and sexy, who can sleep with people and still fully believe that they deserve respect. These two images need each other; they couldn't function without each other. The girl in the white dress is nothing without the girl in red. And vice-versa. 

What I'm objecting to is not girls criticizing each other. I've never had a problem with that. That is maybe kind of obvious! What I'm objecting to is girls being pitted against each other along these lines. 

Why does anyone choose to be the girl in the white dress? Well, several reasons: first, you'll be venerated over and above the girls who don't wear it. You'll be "good," classy, appropriate, virtuous. You'll also receive special protection; people will leap to your defense, when they wouldn't do the same thing for other women. This is because that role depends, very much, on the idea that you are essentially fragile and childlike. It's not even about virginity - I have no idea if Taylor Swift is a virgin, to be entirely honest, and I don't care; people can be virgins or not be virgins or do whatever it is that they need to do - but about assigning a moral value to your expressed sexuality or lack thereof, and correlating that with things like sweetness, goodness, meekness, "innocence." Your status, your "purity," depends on people believing that the world is too much for you and that you need protection. But what that also means is that you'll never have full status as a person; you'll be sheltered, but not ever fully respected. You'll also never be a whole person. For your lifetime, you will be walking a tightrope, clinging to a very narrow, very unforgiving standard of female behavior, and the costs for one slip-up - one moment of messy, imperfect, unladylike humanity - will be immense. 

Why does anyone choose to be the girl in the red dress? That's more difficult to answer. Those women aren't given protection, aren't seen as vulnerable. It's just assumed that they can take whatever happens to them, or that whether or not they can take it doesn't matter. Which is why their emotions and bodily safety and personhood are so easily disregarded. If you've ever slept with a male friend, and have seen him suddenly lose the sense that you are a person and start treating you like garbage for no other reason than the fact that you hooked up, you know this. A lot of girls don't, actually, wear that red dress continually or on purpose - they just slip up, and are treated accordingly. But there are women, like Katy Perry, who willfully and consciously do "sexy" with all the old patriarchal tropes attached to it, for whatever reason. And this has been a subject of hot debate amongst feminists for approximately nine million years: are they victims of false consciousness? Are they victims, period? Are they being pressured into it? Are they doing it because they don't know what else to do? Are they doing it so that boys will accept them, are they trying to prove they're "cooler" than feminists, are they getting unfair power from it, are they our enemies, are they people in need of saving? 

At this point, I'm not very interested in these questions. It's entirely possible that the whole performance is inauthentic and a sad plea for acceptance by men or the patriarchy, a joyless caving in to societal pressures. (Though the white dress is a better ticket to acceptance, actually, if that's what you're after.) It's also entirely possible that some women do all this because it genuinely feels good and gets them off. And then, there's another option, which is that they know it's inauthentic, and they know it's dictated by someone else's fantasy, and they are fine with that, because it's getting them what they want, which is sex. Because - and this is a big because, if you are living in a body that is hardwired to crave sex and physical intimacy, and a culture which places a great deal of value on beauty - even if those girls don't get the protection afforded to "good" girls, they're seen as desirable, and allowed to express desire, even if only in a limiting way. Which may be important enough to outweigh a lot of other considerations. I suspect everyone who performs this kind of sexuality has her own reasons for doing so - just as the "good girls" may be doing it for any number of conscious or unconscious reasons. Authentic, inauthentic, I don't care; what I care about is that womanhood should come in more than two models. 

The fact is, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift are both playing to pre-established fantasies. They both arise from and embody patriarchal ideas about women. And they're both marketable - we need the bad girl for titillation and the good girl for veneration, in this system, and both women will be rewarded on a concrete, financial level, if they get the job done right. 

The question of feminist response to these women is the one that sticks with me. We've developed a language for patriarchal fantasies of female sexuality: we know about objectification, the reduction of women to the "sex class," we've talked about all that extensively. We've also developed, to some degree, a language for patriarchal fantasies of female virtue: we know about the Purity Myth, the Angel in the House, the Feminine Mystique, the rest of that business. But many of us still react more viscerally to the girl in the red dress than we do to the girl in the white.

I don't think that's because we've all got Madonna/whore complexes that haven't been fully processed, although many of us do, and that's natural,
given that we've all been saturated in that imagery for our entire lives. I would suggest to you that it is also because many of us feel understandably threatened and hurt by the images and power dynamics of "sex" as we see it enacted in this culture: we've been harassed, we've been objectified, we've been shamed, we've had guys want to do the porn shit with us that hurts or feels gross, we've been pressured to make our bodies look a certain way or taunted and tortured because our bodies don't look like that. Many of us have felt, first-hand, what it's like to be punished for being sexual. It's right to be angry about this. It's reasonable. It's fair. But when we see girls like Katy Perry, we see someone who is apparently participating in the objectification, permitting it, liking it, and all of our anger at the patriarchal ideal of sex bubbles up and is directed onto her. "How can she have plastic surgery and call herself a feminist? How can she make a living from her looks and call herself a feminist?" Why isn't she hurt like I am; why can't she agree that this hurts; why is she telling people this isn't hurting me; why is she letting people hurt me? These are the questions we're asking, most of the time, no matter what language we use, even if they don't make total sense. And sometimes - here is what I was getting at in my original post, although the point seems to have been lost - there is a part of our brains that, despite consciousness-raising and politics and maturity, asks: why does she measure up, and not me?  And because it is more culturally acceptable to direct anger at these women than at any other women, we do it, and we're backed up when we do it.

When we see someone like Taylor Swift, even when her vision of womanhood is no less limiting, for some reason, the impact of her participation in the system is less immediate. When sex is such a scary, dangerous thing, so bound up in the ways that many of us have been hurt, a break from it can feel good and safe. When you've struggled to have your sexuality acknowledged, or struggled to accept your own sexuality, the white-dress mode maybe feels more immediately repressive. But the scariness and frustrations of sex are broadcast at us all the time, from everywhere, and it may feel like such a relief to acknowledge that you don't have to be sexy in this problematic, threatening way that you don't immediately recognize you're being sold an equally sexist bill of goods. 

The solution isn't to embrace one of these modes over the other. As long as there are "pure" women, there will be women who are punished for not being pure; as long as you need to be "impure" to be desirable, there will be women who suffer. The girl in the white dress needs the girl in the red dress, but we don't need either of them. If there are women who reject both, and insist on being whole people - and there are, more and more of them every day - the system will eventually crumble. Because, eventually, with so many women all performing their own sexualities - and dudes! Dudes, too! Dudes who are maybe tired of thinking that they have to be attracted to this one specific kind of lady or want sex in this one particular way - the choice will cease to be either/or. 

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Comments

39 comments have been made. Post a comment.

To be honest, I've only been

To be honest, I've only been following your blog posts for about a week, but they've been awesome. I've been trying to figure out why I don't like Taylor Swift's image and music for awhile now, and you captured why in your previous post about her, and then reinforced it in this one.
I'm not talking about Taylor Swift, the person. I'm talking about Taylor Swift: the image. A lot of my friends are basically in love with her and everything she produces, but I've never been a fan. Sure, a part of that could be because I don't like her music. I'm just not into that country-pop vibe. But another part was that she seemed too perfect. Perfect in the "I'm a Christian girl that knows her morals and values because that's what society tells me to do" sense. So thank you for helping me figure out how to voice my complaints to her music and image. Kudos.

@ sarah esterman i agree with

@ sarah esterman

i agree with u 100% everything u said is what i think n believe.
i too am not a fan of the whole pop counryt music never have been never will. also the fact that taylor swift cant sing 2 save herself dsnt help it either loll

i couldnt describe 2 my friends who all love her n think she is sweet n innocent etc why i did not like her but u have put it perfectly.i have always thought she was fake or insincere.i dnt buy the whole pure innocent sweet persona she portrays at all.

im nt sayinhg she is horrible or a whore. im just saying i think most of it is an act

at least with the likes of lady gaga n kesha we can say they r being themsleves n not putting on a front 2 save face to their audience target.

like taylor, kesha isnt much of a singer? however i find her music much more bareable than swifts not just hat but her personality i can relate 2 more aswell which is odd

im a 19 y/o virgin, never had a bf so u would think i would be more in to swift or would be able 2 relate 2 her more yet i find kesha more relatable and more sincere due to the fact she dsnt hide who she is and dsnt feel she has 2 put on this front to keep all the pre teens out there likeing her jmo

i have just recently been coming on to tis blog n i love it

Awesome post. Awesome,

Awesome post. Awesome, awesome, AWESOME!

I just finished reading a YA fantasy called FIRE by Kristin Cashore, and this is one of the central themes of the book, female sexuality and how it is somehow "wrong" compared to male sexuality.

Thanks for a great and thoughtful post.

Totally off-subject for the post but..

I just had to respond and say OH MAN, how great is Fire? It's the second most feminist book I've read and FUCKING LOVED in a year-- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is the first. I thought Graceling would be a tough act to follow, but Fire just blows it out of the water.

In this way, they can actually be tied in with this post, because (in some ways) the two books deal with exactly what Sady is talking about. Graceling is very traditionally feminist, and its hero, the ass-kicking, gender-bending girl, is someone whose real-world equivalent is really easy and non-threatening for feminists to get behind. She's a fantasy metaphor for the tomboy, an example of the idea that strength and aggression can exist in a body that also happens to be female. And that's great, don't get me wrong. But Fire is, as you kind of point out, a feminist argument for what's going on inside someone who would be understood as a "red dress girl"-- not because she chooses that role for herself, but because she looks a certain way and cannot escape the attention that brings. And it's just so fucking smart, and it's challenging because, as Sady has pointed out, the real-world equivalent of a woman so physically stunning she can control people's thoughts is NOT an easy person for feminists to identify with, usually. And good on Sady for thinking about this stuff so hard, and writing about it so eloquently.

Sady, I've been following

Sady, I've been following you here and on Tiger Beatdown for some time, and I've wanted to say this for a while--you are BRILLIANT. This post in particular is so insightful and relevant, I wish I could make every lady (and dude!) I know read it. This part is fantastic: "But when we see girls like Katy Perry, we see someone who is apparently participating in the objectification, permitting it, liking it, and all of our anger at the patriarchal ideal of sex bubbles up and is directed onto her...And because it is more culturally acceptable to direct anger at these women than at any other women, we do it, and we're backed up when we do it." Of course I knew this already on some level. But the way you put it just made everything click into place. Thank you for your insight, your great sense of humor, and your courage in the face of nasty comments. Keep writing, please!

God damn you write well.

There's nothing left to say, you nailed it.

Was it really necessary to

Was it really necessary to edit my comment to make it better fit with your argument? And don't call me a fan either.

Which commenter were you?

Which commenter were you? Also: in previous posts, where I've quoted commenters, I've quoted the key points of the comment with which I am engaging. Comments here can get long, and I don't want the posts to drag. The full comments are public record, on the post to which I linked.

Also, does "defender" work better for you than "fan?"

Exactly!

This blog post really is amazing and you pretty much just articulated exactly why both Taylor Swift and Katy Perry irritate me so much.

And the thing is, you don't have to go to the virgin/whore extremes to succeed. Kelly Clarkson does the girl-next-door, could-be-your-regular-BFF image, but in a more nuanced, adult way. Her songs give off the idea that yes, you can have sex and heartbreak but still move on in your life and not be defined by that. Hell, there's a bit in the video for "Never Again" where she actively mocks the perfect, Stepfordian wife (presumably, the happy ending for the girl in the white dress). Meanwhile, Lady GaGa does the sexed-up image in a way that's too out there and weird to fit into a basic "whore" stereotype. She goes to such extremes, especially in her fashion that it's not even sexy, even if it is a bold (probably pantsless) statement. "Paparazzi" is more creepy than sexy, and seems intentionally so.

(I would also argue that a big part of it is both Clarkson and Gaga are way, way more talented than either Swift or Perry, neither of whom are exactly strong singers. If you've got the musical chops, you don't need to cater so much to outdated sexual tropes.)

On an unrelated note, it's interesting to look at what happened to the last really virginal popstar: Britney Spears. Her career took a turn that pretty much amounted to a public deflowering (and then she had a few more really good dance singles, then a mental breakdown, then an impressive comeback). I'd hope Swift could avoid that route--especially the very real mental breakdown part--but just how long can you keep up the virginal image, anyway? Even with Britney it was always suspect (though she was a way more sexualized virgin), but what exactly do you do if you want to stay a good girl? Settle down and churn out songs about wedded bliss?

(I can't even begin to imagine what sort of future Katy Perry's career might have. I'm still amazed she was more than a one-hit wonder, and I'll be shocked if her second album actually goes anywhere or sells much.)

"Mental Breakdown"

What precisely is a "mental breakdown," and how is it earned by virginal pop star-hood? Brittany Spears is said to be bipolar- not so much something so much created by deceptive public imagery. I don't consider it entirely appropriate for us to fall back on disingenuous tropes of mental illness because we're in the process of dissecting disingenuous tropes of femininity. That is kind of a bit lousy.

*applause*

Sady, you're the shit. Can I carry you around in my pocket? So often in day-to-day life I want to make concise and powerful arguments such as these, but I just find myself saying "er, um, er, feminism, patriarchy, um..." and falling all over myself. Damn I want to write like you!

Also, I find it rather telling that SO MANY commenters on your last entry saw the need to defend Taylor Swift from your "mean" and "unnecessary attacks." What's wrong with a woman being criticized? Is this to say we can't give critical opinions of a woman, for fear of us being big old meanies to her? The notion that you, as a feminist blogger, should forsake stating your own opinions in order to be "nicer" to Taylor Swift is just ridiculous. It would seem that Taylor's pure-good-girl-sweet-little-kitten image truly has penetrated many a viewer's consciousness.

Because there is a

Because there is a difference between blatantly attacking someone vs. criticizing and critiquing.

One involves writing a blog post dripping with sarcasm, assumptions, and interpretations, and the other involves looking at it from an unbiased perspective and providing facts and analysis.

Besides, I don't think there's anything wrong with promoting virginity to high school girls. The thing that bothered me the most was the criticisms of personal choices, i.e., remaining a virgin.

I don't think it's right to post anything about any woman that blatantly attacks them and their life choices.

see comment below.

The person who commented right below me (in response to my first comment) put it pretty well.

I don't remember Sady saying anything about Taylor Swift's personal life choices. We're talking about an image and a message here - not so much a specific person and her specific personal decisions. I don't personally give a hoot whether or not Taylor Swift is a virgin, or even what she eats for breakfast. What I care about is the message that her work and her image is sending to consumers, and what it is influenced by. Her work and her image, by the way, might not even have much to do with her as a person at all. In the mainstream music industry, people tend to make a lot of decisions for you - especially for a "young starlet" like Taylor Swift. We don't know how much creative control she has over her videos and her songs. All we know is what we see. And THAT'S what we're criticizing.

The problem with "promoting virginity" to high school girls is that it is often spun in a very limiting and unproductive way. It's usually in the form of "Be a virgin! You are pure! If you are not a virgin, then you have been DEFILED. It is all your fault. You will never be pretty/liked/loved/appreciated/worth anything ever again." I hope you can see why this kind of approach is problematic. It is one-sided, unfair, quite sexist, and victim-blaming. Now, I'm all in favor of an approach that is something like, "If you don't want to have sex, then don't! And if you DO want to have sex, then that's okay, too! Whatever you do, just make the choice FOR YOURSELF based on your own personal values. And whatever you do, be safe, and be healthy." But I rarely, if ever, see that kind of message being broadcasted in the popular media. A girl can dream...

Good point.

"It would seem that Taylor's pure-good-girl-sweet-little-kitten image truly has penetrated many a viewer's consciousness."

This is a good point. I think if we have to remember that "Taylor Swift" is a cultural product. She is no different than a Burger King ad campaign or a movie. Yes, she is a real person, although her teeth may make her look like a fake person (zing!). However, when we critique her or even write snarky blost posts about her, we are really responding to her as a cultural product. We don't know Taylor Swift. We know a product that is created by her (granted) as well as managers, producers, song writers, and yes...us. We tell Taylor what we want her to be, and she responds to that. When you see Taylor Swift on TV or internet she is at work. She is at her job, and you are her boss. We like her in white dresses and she wears more white dresses. We like her shy and kitten like, she gives us more shy kitten. It's worthwhile and interesting to talk about "Taylor Swift," and it certainly reveals plenty about us and her. That's what makes Sady's posts interesting - her treatment of Taylor Swift as a cultural product and her analysis of our responses as a cultural to that product. We can't get our panties in a bunch if we happen to like or be invested in the cultural product under discussion. We have to be able to interrogate our own investments, because that's when things get interesting.

But WHAT about LADY GAGA?

But WHAT about LADY GAGA?

Getting Past This Dry Preamble, We encounter Paradox.

It can be difficult to view thing from a perspective other that the ones to which we were subjected, surrounded and indoctrinated throughout our development. One of the positive aspects attending schools or institutions where doing one's own research and analysis of the various theorems or the application of independent thought using scientific method occurs and the schools curriculums lend themselves to a higher probability of cogent thought, is that the scenario above (associating celibacy with purity) begins to logically deconstruct. Sadly so often we see the preaching of ignorance, abstinence and fear rather that doing what higher institutions of learning theoretically exist for: To make unbiased knowledge and research resources available. The purpose of higher education is (or should be) higher learning and not by wrote indoctrination (to Jerry Fallwell's Liberty Universty (choke, puke) and it's human excrement like Monica Goodling. There is nothing impure about sex prior to marriage. Learning competence and health information are good things. Right wing-nuts wagging their fingers and lecturing or even yelling to invoke guilt using Leviticus while putting on that sickening phoney smile..... it just really make me want to puke. Speaking of Puke, Did you read about Ralf Lauren firing a model for being overweight? At 6 feet tall and 120 lbs? The model was concerned about the emaciated image presented to youth. He, yo. Ralph Lauren. We don't want to have more models bullied into being emaciated anorexic and bulimic and that leading to more deaths by starvation. Too bad. I like Kate Perry. Maybe she could use coaching from Lady Gaga.

Awesome post. I am

Awesome post. I am bookmarking this because it pretty much sums up, well, alot of everything.

Also, 'Besides, I don't think there's anything wrong with promoting virginity to high school girls.' - I agree in that I don't see anything wrong with promoting virginity to high school girls AS A CHOICE. However, when it's promoted to the extent that it is the RIGHT choice, and girls who made the other choice (because, just maybe, they found someone they WANTED to have sex with!) are then denigrated as 'sluts' (or 'fallen women' in 21st century speak) it's just not helpful. This is (part of) what Sady is saying - Taylor's brand and/or the people who control this brand are holding up the dichotomy and saying 'this is the side of it you should be on. The other side is the wrong side.'

I really have nothing else

I really have nothing else to add, since you have already said what I wanted to. The reason I was annoyed when people were defending Taylor Swift saying she was a great "alternative" to our "hypersexualized" culture, is that, as you said, it puts women right back into that virgin/whore complex.

I'm trying to think of a singer/actor that gets typecast as both smart AND sexy but I can't think of one. Anyone else?

This is a great post.

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow

who?

When was the last time you heard anything from her? Other than her relationship with lance Armstrong and the two squares of toilet paper thing.

In terms of actresses...

In terms of actresses... Kate Winslet and Tina Fey, maybe? Although Fey doesn't play up her own sexuality, and in fact plays it down a lot in her on-screen characters. I was kind of rolling my eyes at the whole Jon Hamm guest-stint, even though I loved it, especially the episode where the entire point was that he was absurdly hot and she was "average" and that was why they couldn't be together. Because Tina Fey really doesn't qualify as "average" on the planet I come from. And then the photos of her are all, "LOOK, she can be hot, TOO!" Nevertheless, I think you could argue that the public perception of her is of a woman who's very beautiful and also very smart.

In terms of pop musicians, I'm sort of struggling to find one. You could look at people like Neko Case, maybe, but I'm not sure she qualifies as "pop."

Anyway, I think the fact that I'm struggling to come up with anything says a lot.

What's really interesting,

What's really interesting, or maybe sad, is I feel like if you go back 15 years, for a brief moment it wasn't so hard to find examples of women in popular music who were "whole" people. Alanis Morrisette, Gwen Stefani back in the Tragic Kingdom days, Lisa Loeb, Sara McLachlan-- I mean Fiona Apple and Tori Amos were TOP 40 musicians in the mid-90s!!!! Does this lack of diversity in the roles being shown in pop music correspond with the younger age of the audience its directed to now? And, if it does, does that mean that perpetuating these overly simplified roles is excusable because, for better or worse, that's more often how preteens will understand the world? Or is it worse, because its creating a toxic environment for them to mature in?

I blame the industry

I wouldn't blame the audiences. Top 40 audiences are pretty much the same age as they were in the 1990s as they were in the 1970s as they were in the 1950s etc. I blame the record companies. The execs think 'sex sells' so they see someone like Tragic-Kingdom-Era-Stefani and Barbie-ize her to increase sales. Or if a female artist isn't really Barbie-able, like Amos or Morisette, they'll just not bother putting the money into promoting them and giving her bubblegum to crank out, so she comes to be perceived as one of those artsy-fartsy angsty artists that only girls with hairy armpits and dolphin tatoos listen to.
Something like that. I don't know all the ins-and-outs, but I get the distinct impresstion that if you're a female artist and you're not young and blond and perky and singing insipid shit about how dreamy cute boys are the industry will basically chuck you off a cliff.

Yeah. Seconded. At 14, I was

Yeah. Seconded. At 14, I was a pretty big Tori Amos fan (tad embarrassing to say in public! But true). Also, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Hole... these weren't necessarily things you had to be clued-in and indie to be all about, which is great since I was a sheltered little teen and would have had no idea how to go about cluing myself in. It was the big "alternative" boom, or maybe the tail end of it... there were a bunch of mass-market pop stars that had to present themselves as Alterna or specially authentic in some way just to go over with the public, like Stefani and Jewel and whatever. But when gritty authenticity (or a simulation thereof) went out the window, popularity-wise, so did a lot of the really interesting female artists we had, either because they were made over (or made themselves over) in glossier fashion in order to stay relevant (like Stefani and Jewel and Liz Phair) or because they were no longer desirable to their record labels and were put on the back burner or booted off their labels.

When Tori Amos wanted to leave her record label for not promoting her well enough - this would be in 1998, so roughly at the peak of her popularity and "relevance" - their relationship was apparently so bad that they threatened to keep her on board for a few more years so that she'd be "too old" to find another label by the time she left. She would have been about thirty-four years old at the time. Maybe forty by the time they let her out, at which point she would be assumed to be so ancient as to be unsignable by any other record label in the business.

Yeah, the expiration date on female musicians is messed up. Thom Yorke is forty-one.

yup

And in the end all the solid female artists with any sort of longevity - ie PJ Harvey, Beth Orton, Erykah Badu - you have to go digging for, while in the "mainstream" and on the radio and on MTV all the female artists are still in their teens and twenties and just finding their footing, further solidifying the general perception that female artists are all bubblegum and Appletinis and the only true artists are male.

At 14, I was a pretty big

At 14, I was a pretty big Tori Amos fan (tad embarrassing to say in public! But true).

Embarrassing why?

actresses maybe, pop stars no

i can think of quite a few actresses that are often protrayed as both smart and sexy (parker posey, uma thurman, zooey deschanel, charlotte gainsborough, christina ricci, penelope cruz, scarlett johannson, reese witherspoon, angelina jolie, and jennifer aniston to name a few), but not many mainstream pop singers. i wonder if this is because acting is considered sort of serious and intellectual (as long as you don't only do action and horror films), where as pop music is absolutely not considered these things under any circumstances (well, unless you're the geeky critic mansplaining it's underrated brilliance to people in rolling stone, and then it's totally esoteric).

anyhow, i was thinking maybe madonna, maybe jennifer lopez, perhaps beyonce... but the whole smart thing with them usually comes off more as a sort of savvy. like, "well, they must be smart, they've made millions of dollars! they've been around for more than five years and they still have songs on the radio, they must be geniuses!" hell, nowadays even britney gets this treatment a little bit. the only mainstream pop singer that really comes to mind, for me anyways, is shakira. she's always shown as smokin' hot and, in better interviews, as very smart as well. and her lyrics are a little more intelligent and thoughtful than one has come to expect from the radio.

Peaches

Peaches Rocks!

Reading material

I was wondering if you've ever read Samuel Richardson's "Pamela". If not, you should. It's not that it's so much a good book as it is a good feminist whetstone. There's a lot of equating virginity to jewelry (gross) and "I would rather die than lose my virtue". After that, you can read "Shamela" by Henry Fielding. It's a funny take down of "Pamela" though distressing as it simply perpetuates the whole virgin/whore thing. Yay, books!

What about the pink?

I was rocking right along with you, not really agreeing but feeling like there wasn't much I wanted to respond to, until I got to the paragraph beginning with, "Why does anyone choose to be the girl in the white dress?" You go on to say that she'd do it to create a certain image--that it's a calculated attempt to gain acceptance and approval by being the "good girl." When I was 16 my family moved from the big city to a small town and I discovered that some girls really are that girl! Heck, some girls in the big city are that girl! At the time I was a 16-year-old and a hardcore feminist, so I lacked the maturity to offer them the right to be who they were, but now, at 30, I understand that they were just girls being themselves. They were girls who liked white dresses and planned on keeping their virginity. I couldn't relate to the reasons they were keeping their virginity, but I had my own reasons for keeping mine. Mostly I just thought high school boys were dumb and undeserving of all I had to offer. But that brings me to something you said in another post about Taylor Swift: that she projects an unrealistic view of teenage girls because teenage girls smoke, experiment with drugs, drink, want to have sex. I did none of these things until I was well into college. And I was nothing like Taylor Swift's persona. I just figured that I loved and respected myself enough that I would save those decisions for a time when I was more emotionally mature and could handle the consequences better. And by "consequences" I do not mean "what men would think." I mean real, honest-to-goodness consequences like possible pregnancy or STDs and accidents due to incapacitation. But I just wanted to share that I've known girls who could've related to Taylor Swift if we'd had her around when I was 16--and I think they genuinely would've related.

What always strikes me about these arguments in general is how they make women out to be such victims. "Women only choose these roles because men make them." I'll tell you what. I've always been a little of both the white and the red--and a mess of other colors, too. I've held my own with every man I've ever been with. I've encountered men who were jerks, but I don't think that's just about some Madonna/whore complex, and I don't think it was because they listened to one too many Katy Perry songs. I think some people, both men and women, are JERKS. But those jerks don't absolve me of making my own choices. Women have a number of reasons that they make the choices that they do, and to say that they all boil down to wanting to "please men" or "live up to some idealized standard of women set forth by men" basically gives MEN all the power. And isn't that what we're trying NOT to do?

Oh, I don't doubt that there

Oh, I don't doubt that there are women who aren't all that into sex, or that there are teenagers who prefer not to have it. I was one of those teenagers throughout high school, so that's understood. What I'm referring to, as I said in the post, is that there is a "good girl" role that includes not having sex (or, at the very least, not having sex for its own sake - depending on the cultural context, having sex only when you are in a serious relationship and/or having sex only when you are married is fine, because it's assumed that sex is something women "give" or withhold to get what they want, commitment-wise, from dudes) but is not limited to it, and that this role limits women.

About it all being imposed directly by men, and that making women "victims": honestly, many men are just as frustrated with these rules as anyone else, and have sexualities that don't fit the masculine stereotype. We don't talk, much, about those poor boys who are pressured to have lots of sex, have sex without emotional attachment, have sex in ways that are appropriately macho, yada yada yada, because we have more of an idea of women's "fragility" in these matters, left over from the Victorians. Sex is supposed to hurt and endanger women, and to be a natural and much-beloved biological function for men, so we don't recognize male vulnerability. But we could, reasonably, talk about the guys too. I've known a lot of men who were insecure because they felt they couldn't measure up to patriarchal standards of masculinity or masculine sexuality.

These roles aren't created and reinforced directly by men - that would be silly. They don't have some clubhouse that they all meet at once a week to decide how they're going to oppress the womens. They're imposed by CULTURE, which is patriarchal and works to give men the advantage (which is tempered by other things like class and race and sexuality, of course). We're all "victims" of culture, if you want to see it that way. The other way to see it is that we're all informed by it and have the option to resist it. But we need to analyze it, and identify issues therein, before we know how to resist it.

"I've known a lot of men who

"I've known a lot of men who were insecure because they felt they couldn't measure up to patriarchal standards of masculinity or masculine sexuality." - asbolutely, especially in more cultures with a more 'macho' emphasis on aggression and dominance. It's unpleasant to be jostling all the time in a pecking order based on values one doesn't share or achievement in things like contact sports.

"We don't talk, much, about those poor boys who are pressured to have lots of sex." I doubt this is a problem for many people. Especially for teenage boys it's a challenge to have sex at all. The issue is that by approaching sex as conquest you fail to have good relationships, hurt and use people, develop bad attitudes to women which will limit you in the future, and are less likely to have sex unless the swagger really works for you. Many teen males who don't manage to get laid much also have to face to double blow of their own disappointments (ie, valid) and the social ridicule of being a failure at this conquest (unnecessary).

Yes but...

I agree with your post and everything you said in this comment and I think its one of the best thing's you've done (coming from someone who has read just about everything you've ever posted on the internet).

But what I think the point that Nanarchist was making is that your description of why girls choose the white dress only includes negative or manipulative motivations. While I completely agree that the reasons you list ARE very much real motivations of some, those aren't the ONLY reasons people wear the white dress. The description of the red dress ladies seems to be more nuanced and gives various motivations. So I think that the phrasing of it could create the impression of a *slight* biased against the white dress girls, where I know one does not actually exists.

But all around, SPOT on article. How do you have so much good writing in you? How? How do you constantly make complicated issues seem so clear all of a sudden? Its a gift, A gift I tell you.

this was just really amazing

this was just really amazing to read. you articulated everything i've ever wanted to say about this whole subject. especially this bit:

"Why isn't she hurt like I am; why can't she agree that this hurts; why is she telling people this isn't hurting me; why is she letting people hurt me?"

really sums up how i feel and my anger at some women sometimes. it's true that we shouldn't be separating women into these dichotomous categories, we shouldn't be asking if someone is a bad feminist but sometimes it's really hard not to - i often feel that the actions (or lack) of women are the ones that hurt me the most, make me feel about the futility of the entire system, that offend me personally because i don't understand how someone could feel like me yet not feel like me. i know this is redundant as you said, but i'm glad you described and made me understand exactly why i feel this way, and to refocus my thoughts and anger on a more useful question.

But what about...

How come you didn't write about every other female artist and feminist issue that's ever existed in the history of the universe?

"The naughty one" -- really, culture?

Wonderful post, Sady. I think you've done an excellent job of articulating an issue that goes way beyond celebrity, although it certainly is revealed there. There's a question that's been kicking around in my mind for awhile, though:
Why, WHY is Katy Perry seen as a "naughty girl?"
I have no doubt that she is; you're right in that that is her whole shtick and all her publicity focuses on that. When I finally heard her album (because, yes, I do like the sound of some of her songs, while fully agreeing with everything you've said. Just because you like someone's work on some level doesn't mean you have to defend everything they do! Just look at Roman -- yeah, not the time. Sorry.) I was really puzzled. Where was the "manufactured naughtiness" she's so despised for? None of the songs really dealt with sex, and don't tell me that'd be taboo. Just look at Christina Aguilera's very sexual debut album, and I'd argue that she has a lot more merit as an artist than Perry. Boys, breakups, being depressed...it's all rather PG. I think that it all stemmed from "I Kissed a Girl," which also doesn't say anything that sexual, though the video is another story; she's seen as naughty because she admits to a simple kiss, which may not even have happened, that some still see as controversial for some godforsaken reason. You mention her homophobia, but I think she (or her "image," whatever) played on the fact that there are lots of 'phobes still out there for attention, and a pretty much undeserved "naughty" image.

Virgin/Whore in one

I have to agree with a lot of this. Upon listening to Katy's album (or watching her vids for that matter), I was struck less by the impression that this woman was being overtly sexual/naughty, and more with the feeling that she expressing, well youth and naiveté. Honestly, the songs read like musings she scribbled on a notebook between ages 12 and 16. She's depressed. She likes this dude. She's going to a party! She wishes guys saw her as a hottie and not a tomboy. And so on and so forth. Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling her lyrics "young" as an insult. I generally enjoyed the album (during those times I was able to stop trying to figure out what the f$@$% she was trying to accomplish with "ur so gay." Although, again, it reads like something written by an adolescent who totally buys into gender roles).

I don't know if I'm just not seeing the sexy/naughty things people are talking about or if I'm just not reading Cosmo enough to catch her interviews (hint: I'm not), but to me Katy seems less like a woman embodying the red-dress whore side of the dichotomy, and more like a girl playing dress up in her mother's ball gown and heels. The dress is draping over her shoulders and the heels are huge, but she Feels Sexy. She feels Grown Up! Until mom gets home and she changes back into her own clothes. I dunno. Maybe I just see it different. To me, I Kissed A Girl may well be about the fluidity of female sexuality, and the experimenting with one's female friends as a perfectly normal, natural part of growing up, skewed by the music industry into a mini-soft core porn video for boys. Again, it's all about how it's being sold to us (except, I guess, when it isn't) but the whole "she's doing it to please boys" response just irks me. Because it's such a prevalent response. To everything women do. Whether they're in the white or the red dress. And that's already been addressed a bit, in your post and in comments, I'm just adding my take because that's what I feel like doing, but I think it's possible to interpret I Kissed A Girl as something that, in it's creation, had nothing to do with guys. There are no guys in the video. It's a party of girls. Sometimes, at parties of girls, girls do kiss. Because they want to. Because it's fun, and it feels good. And it doesn't have anything to do with guys. The line "hope my boyfriend don't mind it" implies that he wasn't there, again, that the experience had nothing to do with him. And maybe this is all a very hopeful, positive interpretation. But if she did happen to go to an all girl party, and experiment, and the next day her guy friends heard about it, of course there's the chance they're going to skew it into something the girls did to titillate them. Even if it didn't come about that way at all.

Anyway. What I really wanted to bring up was the fact that so often, in the media, the virgin/whore dichotomy is played out in one person. Britney, Jessica, Rihanna. I could go on, but why? These girls are pimped out as the ideal virgin for as long as they can be, and then when they're too old to be honestly portrayed as virginal little girls, the Industry flips the dichotomy and makes them over as The Whore. In the red dress. (Or bikini. Whatever.) In fact, it seems to be completely required of these women to switch from virgin to whore at some point in their careers. Just as, at some point, it will become impossible for Taylor to keep singing about (or implying, or having her videos imply) virginity, because it will cease to be marketable. And then, she either makes the switch or . . . I don't know. Gets dropped from the label. Or forgotten. (Probably forgotten.) As for Katy Perry, she kind of strikes me as the girl in the white dress playing make believe in the red dress. The sandy-haired, scrawny tomboy who realized, upon dying her hair and dressing in skimpified retro wear, that Boys Will Actually Notice Her!!! So that's that.

BTW, my comment in the Taylor post about people learning to separate real-Taylor from the media portrayal of Taylor was directed, not so much at you, Sady, but at some of the angrier comments where people were freaking out! about how Taylor was either so perfect! or so purposefully detrimental to All Women!. So. Yeah.

My main problem with 'I

My main problem with 'I Kissed a Girl' is the line 'it's not what good girls do, not how they should behave'.

THAT is homophobic.

Farts.

This post is so fuckin' insightful that I was nodding the entire time, to the point where any casual observer would have assumed I was listening to some thoroughly enjoyable hip-hop music.