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.
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.
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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