Last week, we discussed at great length the effects of ageism and sexism on female artists in the music industry, and highlighted the key relationship between Western patriarchal ideologies and the objectification of female sexuality. Yet, are those women really victims or is there a new wave of empowerment at play?
Starting in the late 1960s, second wave feminism introduced new ways of thinking for thinkers who gave greater attention to the issues affecting the various subgroups of women in the feminist movement. One particular topic that rose to forefront of the debate was female sexuality.
Suddenly, how women expressed their sexuality was no longer orchestrated by standards set by men. Rather, they challenged any models ascribed to them based on previously accepted gender norms, roles and myths, and avowed their own identities with a new sense of self.
Such bold assertions were echoed in various areas of politics, society and culture, and was unsurprisingly reflected in the media, particularly in one of the most dominant products, music. Although some female artists had long defied definitions of female sexuality (Eartha Kitt), the wheels of change began turning at an even greater rate during the 1970s with acts, such as Cher, Donna Summer, Grace Jones and Chaka Khan, introducing different sexual forms to popular culture.
Of course, with the launch of MTV in the 1980s and the eventual dawn of the Digital Age almost two decades later, representations of female sexuality have rapidly transformed. We now live in a world where women express themselves on their own terms and claim true freedom through music…or do they?
Remember when I stressed the point that women are considered as nothing more than objects in patriarchal societies? If not, here is a reminder: Music is a product, women are used to sell that product and the primary target audience for media companies are men. So, by that reasoning, female artists who assume that they have full control of their sexuality and are supposedly empowered are still being manipulated by men.
There is where we enter the grey area, and we must weigh the arguments that are interesting reflections of two types of feminism – liberal and radical. In case you didn’t know, the former group supports the equal rights of men and women within the current social structures whereas the latter stresses the importance of the complete eradication of patriarchies to ending male supremacy.
Therefore, those female artists who believe that they have full control of their sexualities and happily flaunt their bodies to sell records have adopted a more liberal feminist stance as entertainers. On the other hand, a more radical perspective highlights that those acts are still just pawns used to support the very industry that their inaccurately claim to dominate.
There are strong arguments to uphold both the liberal and radical views but let’s take a closer look at both before we draw our own conclusions. To effectively achieve this, we will analyse a few examples so readily available from the works of our favourite female visual artists.
Without question, many female artists sell sex as a means of moving product. Attached to many of their songs are raunchy lyrics and even more sexually charged imagery aimed at stimulating the senses their fans. For example, Janet Jackson blossomed into an icon of female sexuality in 1993 with her janet. album as she shed her formerly innocent image and became increasingly bold with each release since, climaxing – no pun intended – with Discipline in 2008.
Rihanna has since followed in Jackson’s footsteps, despite never proclaiming herself as a feminist icon. Songs such as “S&M”, “Birthday Cake” and “Skin” depict the Bajan star submitting herself to an unnamed lover – the listening male consumer – as she portrays herself as the ultimate sex toy; a living blowup doll with an almost lifelike wine (batteries not included).
How exactly are Jackson and Rihanna taking control of their own sexualities when their risqué songs usually submit them to the whims of men? Naturally, some of you may argue that most of their fans aren’t heterosexual men but are actually women instead. Yet, that still indirectly supports the point because as women identify with Rihanna’s role in her songs as the submissive partner, they reenact that behaviour in their interactions with men, therefore satisfying the demands of those men. A similar dynamic exists in the relationships of gay men and lesbians but hey, let’s fight one battle at a time.
Unlike Jackson and Rihanna, Madonna and Beyonce assert themselves as the dominant parties and so-called empowered women who refuse to serve patriarchal ideologies. Still, their positions of control may be part of the same web of control that they claim to have escaped.
In the early 1990s, Madonna began sporting a cone bra to exaggerate the female form and shock conservative audiences. Yet, that exact tool has long been considered a way of oppressing women and presenting their breasts as perched platforms for the enjoyment of men.
Madonna often boasts of her role as a feminist yet she still presents herself as a sexual object for the enjoyment of male consumers. Yes, flashing her breasts during her concerts is considered as a not so subtle jab at the myth that women’s bodies should be covered but having her face layered in heavy makeup and being double penetrated by Vanilla Ice in her Sex book was certainly a very special treat for men.
Similar to Madonna is the current champion for female empowerment, Beyonce. At every turn, she boasts about her role as an active feminist but her songs and videos tell a completely different story. For instance, the signature dance in “Crazy in Love” was shaking her backside and the entire tale of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” was about a man who should have claimed her in marriage if he really loved her. Moreover, the name of her latest tour is The Mrs. Carter Show, thus proving that her entire identity is no longer independent from that of her husband.
Even Beyonce’s live performances completely contradict her feminist messages. Remember when she performed “Single Ladies” at the 2009 MTV VMA where she squatted and flashed her crotch for the camera? What about the part when she spanked herself like a filly on the race track and arched her back for her man?
Now, some of you may assume that women who dress more conservatively are exempt from this debate but they are also victims of the same system. For example, Adele has never stripped off her clothes, and her music has sold entirely because of other marketing techniques and good quality. Yet, that may not be entirely by choice.
It is difficult to believe that a woman who is a big fan of Lil Kim and Beyonce has no trace of sexier side. Throughout Adele’s 21 campaign, I fond it odd that all of her videos and magazine spreads focused solely on her face, and when her body was shown, she was either covered in layers of black clothing (“Someone like You”) or photoshopped to look much slimmer. Indeed, it seems as though her team was keen to keep her appearance in line with the tastes of the stereotypical, westernised male viewer.
Even the late Whitney Houston eventually succumbed to patriarchal pressures when she had her breasts augmented in the late 1990s. Of course, she claimed to have them “fixed” for personal reasons and she never showed them off as much as fellow diva Mariah Carey but having such a procedure done to please her then husband, Bobby Brown, emphasises that she was not in full control of her own sexuality.
Today, we played the devil’s advocate and challenged the liberal views of female artists by using a radical stance. Whether such are truly empowered and in control of their own sexualities in the patriarchal constructs of Western society is debatable but one thing is certain: As women continue to battle for their own identities in this visual era of music, there is still a grey area to be examined as we decide if they are still just puppets dancing for their male masters.