Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, Nicole Scherzinger, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga… all market themselves as strong, empowered women ‘doing it for themselves.’ But are they really? It’s my hunch that far from being the feminist role-models that they make themselves out to be, all these women are succeeding in doing is showing young girls that in order to get ahead, you have to be controversial, over-sexualized and well marketed. Katy Perry gets away with cooing seductively about kissing girls and labelling others as ‘So Gay’, Britney bounces from one drama to another without actually performing a single genuine note, Christina Aguilera coquettishly flutters about her ‘Candy Man’ making her ‘panties drop’, Nicole Scherzinger prances about in barely-there outfits whilst encouraging girls to boast about being better than other women, and Lady Gaga… Christ, don’t get me started. These women, far from being feminist icons in control of their own destinies, are in fact little more than puppets being manipulated by record labels and publicists desperate to have the next big hit.
Let’s break it down a bit. I’m not for a minute suggesting that these women aren’t consummate performers. Each have their own niche and legions of loyal fans. Each work hard to stay at the peak of their careers, put in hundreds of hours of promotional tours, interviews and photo shoots, and deserve to be as successful as they are. In that respect I’m sure you could argue that these women really are ‘doing it for themselves,’ and doing it damn well. But what are the messages these ladies are sending out to the masses, many of whom are highly impressionable young ladies (and gentlemen)?
Take Katy Perry for example. True, Perry hit it out of the park with ‘I Kissed A Girl,’ but those that downloaded the single can be split into two key groups: people either bought the song because of the provocative, breaking-the-taboo lyrics, or because they couldn’t resist the catchy melody. I will put my hand up and say that as much as the lyrics annoyed me (in my opinion all Perry was doing was trivializing the gay rights movement in an effort to sell records), the song itself was damn catchy and hard to ignore. Perry then followed up her number one hit with ‘Hot N Cold’, a song which detailed the trials and tribulations of being in a relationship with someone who changed their mind constantly (‘You’re hot and you’re cold, you’re yes and you’re no, you’re in and you’re out, you’re up and you’re down’) whilst the video showed Katy at the altar trying to force her fickle boyfriend to say ‘I do.’ Then came ‘Thinking of You’, billed as a lament for a lost love (the video showed Perry regretting being in a relationship with her current boyfriend after the death of her former true love), which failed to do as well as the previous two singles. Most recently ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ has been released, with a video that shows Perry and a male companion first winning and then losing in Las Vegas, with an ending that could leave people thinking that Perry is suggesting that relationships stop working once the money stops rolling in.
Far from being a strong, feminist voice eager to encourage other women to feel empowered, Perry is instead simply a polished media commodity. First she kisses a girl, then she complains about her boyfriend being unwilling to commit, then she sobs over losing a lover, before finally telling us that winning actually is everything, especially in a relationship. Independent? In control? Making choices to benefit her own well-being? Being a considerate, reasonable human being? Hardly. Oh, and I wouldn’t suggest you ever criticize Perry online either – she’s been known to encourage her minions to terrorize any individual who dares question her motives. One poor bloke on YouTube posted a video discussing the lyrics of ‘I Kissed a Girl’ and found himself on the end of a rampaging group of Perry-ites who had been instructed by the woman herself to crush the dissenter into oblivion.
Poor, trampled Britney is another example of the feminist icon gone wrong. Marketed right from the get-go as a strong, proud young woman (she rebels in the school room in ‘Hit Me Baby (One More Time)’, she flounces about like a powerful temptress in a red cat-suit in ‘…Oops! I Did It Again,’ and more recently exposes a lover as being nothing more than a ‘Womanizer’), her private life has earned her more page-space than the rest of the women mentioned in this column put together. Spears is the archetypal paparazzi darling – everything she does is reported faithfully by the media, from her questionable choices in men, her competitive relationships with other women (Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, et al), the loss of custody of her children, her numerous breakdowns, her equally numerous ‘comebacks’… hell, she can’t even go to the bathroom at a petrol station without photos ending up on the internet a day later.
Rather than using this intensive coverage to her advantage, however, Spears has let the media use her. Her hounded alter-ego has overtaken any genuine scraps of talent she may have once possessed, so that she can now prowl around a stage lip-synching her back-catalogue dressed as a circus ring-leader whilst remaining confident that all that will be mentioned of her ‘performance’ in the newspapers the next day will be whether or not she’s gained a few pounds. Spears has strayed from the path she set out on, becoming less of a role-model and more of a slow-motion train-wreck that people can’t help but enjoy watching despite their protestations that they ‘just want to see her do well, honest…!’. She, like Perry, knows that all she has to do to keep selling records is sexualize everything about her public persona, in effect relegating herself to the status of a legitimized erotic performer who wouldn’t look out of place in a nineteenth century brothel.
So is this a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’? These women claim to be empowered individuals, proud of their status as strong young women, happy to talk to the media about their successes and their dreams of becoming powerful female icons. But their videos and lyrics, their private behaviour and their publicists tell us differently. So who do we believe? The artists themselves, on their best behaviour whilst they’ve got a microphone thrust in their face, telling the interviewer what they think their audience wants to hear? The PR pundits behind the scenes, jerking the strings and manipulating all and sundry? The paparazzi photos and the miles and miles of column space? Perhaps it’s time we stopped expecting these women to be feminist role-models and started seeing them for what they are – just another mass-marketed commodity out there to make money.
I wouldn’t go looking to the next generation of up-and-comers for respite either: Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift are well on their way to being pigeon-holed; Cyrus is better known for her controversial Vanity Fair cover with dad Billy Ray than her music, and Swift’s lyrics are packed full of male-bashing sob-stories that encourage girls to think that it’s never the female’s fault. Then there’s Vanessa Hudgens, star of High School Musical, who has had naked pictures (which she took herself, mind) splashed all over the internet ‘by mistake’. It really makes you wonder whether this is what we really want, as a consuming public, or whether we are just accepting what the marketing gurus tell us we should want.
I for one am going to stick with my vanilla-flavoured non-controversial performers. I’ll let you know when I find one.