In the summer of 2001 I read a thought-provoking interview that singer Kelis gave to VIBE magazine. The cultural landscape in America was different. The Twin Towers were still standing. Britney Spears was still the reigning pop princess. YouTube, Twitter and Google were not part of our lives yet, and the mainstream media had no idea what twerking was. I was turning 21, blissfully unaware of the events which would soon unfold. As a childless young woman who worked forty-hours a week I had the ability to spend both my time and money however I pleased. On that day I chose to spend my money on the latest edition of VIBE. I read hip-hop magazine XXL religiously; VIBE occasionally. It was seeing the name of up and coming singer Kelis that piqued my interest.
The nonconformist in me was drawn to Kelis’ unique persona. She clearly was not the timid, sweet and polished chanteuse demanded by the industry. Her fashion sense and image went against the prototype of what was expected of Black women in entertainment. The sight of her in the video for “Caught Out There”two years prior-rocking a massive curly afro, screaming out her hatred for the lover that burned her as she marches down a suburban street with a crowd of fed-up women behind her made me want to hear her speak. The interview did not disappoint. I learned of her upbringing as the child of a Pentecostal preacher, as well as her struggle to carve a niche for herself. The writers asked Kelis what she thought of the current state of the music industry, and the position of women in it. Subsequently the writer also brought up the sexualization of women in music. Kelis co-signed the interviewers’ statement and lamented that women “have to show their ass to get on”. When asked how she felt about that dynamic and how she planned on dealing with it. Kelis responded with the ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ comeback, laughing that she had an ass too and would use it for her benefit. And in the photos which accompanied the feature she made good on her word. I couldn’t give you a detailed description of those photos, but what Kelis’ said in that interview stayed with me. I appreciated the fact that she spoke candidly. There was no attempt to sugarcoat, no pretense that her choice to sexualize herself was some ’empowering’ giant leap for womankind.
Now we fast forward to 2015.Over the past two years I’ve participated in and witnessed many discussions regarding Feminism, the exploitation of women, sexuality and body image. I’ve watched multiple wars erupt online-White feminists vs WOC feminists, Black feminists vs Black feminists. I’ve read the think pieces surrounding Millenial Feminism. As I watch this generation work though and define Feminism I’m left to ask myself: do I even belong in this movement anymore?
I discovered Feminism as a teenager growing up in the 1990s, and I was for it-or at least for my understanding of the term. In the 21st century it continues to evolve, and I wonder if all aspects of said evolution are for the better. The primacy of sex and the blind adoration of female celebrities(who in my mind are often complicit in maintaining the sexist ideas that feminists oppose) bothers me deeply. When I share these concerns I’m told that I’m a judgmental prude, that I can’t “get” it because I’m too old. As a member of Generation X, I freely admit that I came of age in a different time and that may affect my outlook. I also know that I can’t get in my feelings too much over such accusations. After all, the critiques that Millennial Feminists make of my generation are the same ones I threw at my elders two decades ago.
With that said, I know that two things continue to ring true in my country: sex sells and cash rules everything around me. Now the use of women’s bodies in marketing and advertising is and of itself is not new. The origin of that cannot be laid at the feet of feminists, millenial or otherwise. What I find amazing and frustrating, however, is how such manipulation is both accepted and cheered by the very people I expect to contest it. A woman’s worth is still based on her ability to live up to the unrealistic standards of womanhood aggressively pushed by pop culture. A woman’s worth is still evaluated based on her capacity to perform for the heterosexual male gaze. The female entertainers and singers who are complicit in this are rewarded. They truly have the best of both worlds: they are handsomely compensated for pushing a fantasy and can marshal the support of women who deem their lives to be ’empowering’ and ‘inspiring’ for women. And instead of pushing back against this tune we bob our head to the beat.
I tried doing that. I didn’t want to get kicked out of the club, have my Feminist card revoked. I didn’t want that label taken away from me. But that label was beginning to lose its’ strength. Words like ‘feminism’ and ’empowerment’ were supposed to mean something, but their casual over usage was beginning to drain them of their power for me. My frustration built. The hypersexualization in our culture and the objectification of women’s bodies were all sold to me as something that should make me feel liberated. They do not. As a woman of color I especially find such notions to be offensive. There are Black women in the spotlight who are lauded for their sex appeal-but there is nothing particularly new or unique about Black women being sexually desired and objectified. Nor does the fact that Black women in the public eye(or women of any background for that matter) are lusted after by men actually translate to positive change and empowerment for women as a collective, especially those who are economically disadvantaged.
The internal and external debates regarding Feminism, the exploitation of women, sexuality and body image will continue. I wish that the kid of raw honesty that Kelis shared in her interview mentioned at the beginning was part of these debates. While accepting that each woman should have the autonomy to make her own choices regarding sexuality I can’t embrace the idea that such choices always benefit/empower the collective.
In discussing these issues with a friend of mine it was brought to my attention that the mainstream always co-opts and dilutes progressive social movements. Eventually an ideology which once challenged things as they are is used to reinforce it. I wonder if their words can be applied to the current state of Feminism. I understand the need for women of all ages to own their sexuality, to celebrate their bodies. But I’m dismayed that sex itself is becoming the focus. I worry that we are playing into old ideas which base a woman’s worth on whether she lives up to the physical standards set by society and the media. Our identity is built on how well we can please our sexual partner(s);on how fat our rear end is; on how perfectly beautiful and flawless we look when we wake up-and all this is deemed empowering. Meanwhile Madison Avenue continues to enrich itself based on our insecurities, pulling in billions from products hawked by the same women deemed feminist icons by the masses. I titled this blog ‘Mirror, Mirror’ because I needed to face my reflections on the era I live in. After doing that I can’t help but feel that I’m getting played, and I wonder whether what is deemed as liberating for women is just a more insidious version of the same script.