Super Bowl XLVII: Why Beyoncé’s Appeal Crosses Gender Lines

By Rachel Grate. Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on February 1, 2013. 

Beyoncé is the Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show performer this Sunday, and it’s a fascinating choice. The Super Bowl is one of the most traditionally masculine events of the year, with its encouragement ofmanly soda or beer drinking, bro talk about cheerleaders, and a slew of sexist commercials andtactics to get your girlfriend to stop distracting you with questions (because girls couldn’t possibly understand sports).

Beyoncé, on the other hand, is an (admittedly controversialfeminist icon. In a recent interview inGQ magazine, she said,

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

Why are spaces as hypermasculinized as the Super Bowl and GQ willing to feature Beyoncé’s promotion of female empowerment?

 

 

One answer could be Beyoncé’s sexuality and seeming openness to the male gaze. Many pointed out the contradiction of Beyoncé calling out this sexualization while appearing in her a tiny cotton jersey and underwear on the cover of a magazine run by men that in fact declared her the sexiest woman of the century. However, I resist the notion that any show of sexuality is inherently disempowering – in fact, one of the consistent qualities of Beyoncé’s music is her ownership of her own sexuality.

Back in her Destiny’s Child days (rumored to be reappearing together during her half time show), “Bootylicious” was about owning her own body and being proud of her sexuality even if men don’t appreciate it (“can’t handle that”). More recently, in “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé asserts that she “don’t need no permission” to express her sexuality, with “gloss on my lips, a man on my hips” – the man no more integral to her expression of her sexuality than an accessory like lip gloss. However, with her repeated challenge to “put a ring on it,” Beyoncé would be happier with a specific man by her side, just like many of us who crave companionship.

Whether she wanted to express herself sexually in this particular spread we don’t know, but this self-promotion is a necessary part of a job in the music industry, and it took guts for Beyoncé to speak out against men defining sexuality in a magazine reliant on the male gaze. Beyoncé took advantage of the photo shoot to promote her Super Bowl appearance, appearing in (sexual) jerseys and posing with footballs and helmets.

Her combination of feminine apparel with sports items in the spread signifies a second reason for male acceptance of Beyoncé’s feminist persona: Beyoncé makes it clear that being pro-women is not being anti-men.

While Beyoncé’s songs assert women as independent beings who are empowered by earning their own money and owning their own sexuality, the presence of important men in these women’s lives in no way threatens their empowerment. Individual men are shown as a threat to this empowerment (see: “Survivor”), but never men in general.

Beyoncé urges both men and women to be financially independent and self-reliant. ”Bills, Bills, Bills” is about rejecting a relationship with an unequal financial balance – in this case, the man relying on the woman to pay his bills. One line in particular stands out – “a scrub like you don’t know what a man’s about.” While this language seems to reinforce a stereotype as a man as a supporter, it’s clear that Beyoncé wouldn’t want a man paying her bills either – advising in “Independent Woman” to “make sure it’s your money you flaunt / depend on no one else to give you what you want.”

Relationships built on equality are clearly Beyoncé’s ideal. “Independent Woman” (“try to control me boy you get dismissed / pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills / Always 50/50 in relationships”) reflects the same sentiment as Destiny’s Child’s newest single, “Nuclear,” which opens with “You had your dreams and I had mine” and continues to assert that “you had your half and I had mine.”

Because the relations between men and women in real life aren’t typically as equal as Beyoncé’s ideal, she encourages women to stand up for themselves – but once again, not at the expense of men.

Beyoncé values the lived experiences of women, emphasizing in both “If I Were a Boy” and “Schoolin’ Life” that gender inherently influences standpoint. Beyoncé speaks for seemingly all women in “Schoolin’ Life” when she declares, “I’m not a teacher, babe, but I can teach you something.” With women in generally lower-ranking positions than men, this belief in lived experience (“Who needs a degree when you’re schoolin’ life?”) values the voices of many women.

“Girls (Run the World)” is one song about female empowerment that is more idyllic than true – saying boys “disrespect us no they won’t” and that “my persuasion can build a nation.” In reality, women are disrespected on a daily basis, and the fact that persuasion is her method of rule implies that there is someone, most likely a man, who she needs to persuade – after all, women are still underrepresented in politics.

The reason these masculine spheres still accept Beyoncé with her self-proclaimed feminism is because she doesn’t shun men to make her point about women’s power. Even in “Girls (Run the World),” Beyoncé disclaimers her song with the lines, “Boy I’m just playing / Come here baby / Hope you still like me,” indicating that she welcomes them in this idyllic world (as long as they “pay” her what she’s worth – wage gap shout-out).

Some songs – such as “Cater 2 U” and “Naughty Girl”- go so far in welcoming boys that some feminists have critiqued them. Like “Dance For You,” these songs depict her doing things for the man she loves. In “Cater 2 U” she sings, “I’m here to serve you / If it’s love you need / To give it is my joy / All I want to do is cater 2 U boy.” The important consideration for this song is that it’s a love letter.

Like anyone in love of either gender, Beyoncé wants to pamper her significant other, just like we all want to be pampered once in a while – and based on her other songs, I bet Beyoncé’s expecting to get pampered back in due time. As Jezebel wrote defending the song, “There’s a giant difference betweenwanting to do something for a man and having to do it.”

And this is why Beyoncé’s music crosses gender lines: It asserts female power while proving female empowerment does not exclude men. This is what feminists have been trying to convince men of for ages – that we are not anti-men, we are pro-equality. Beyoncé is pro-equality and questions gender roles, and her spreading that message to the Super Bowl – to a space largely defined by those roles – is in many ways a feminist victory.

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Follow her on Twitter or read more of her work on her blog.

Happy Holidays & Sexist Songs

This blog was originally posted by MissRepresentation.org on December 11, 2012. Editorial Intern Rachel Grate continues her series on Christmas traditions and gender stereotypes.

by Rachel Grate

It’s that time of the year again. The time of year when you can’t walk into a store, flip through radio stations, or generally leave your house without hearing Christmas music. While these songs can be comforting, they can also be downright creepy – and in ways more serious than Santa’s disturbing ability to “see you when you’re sleeping” (from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”).

The main issue with many Christmas songs is that many of the stereotypes they propagate are as outdated as “a one horse open sleigh” would look speeding down a highway. There’s a plethora of Christmas songs detailing children’s gift lists – lists entirely dependent on gender roles.

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” reports that “Barney and Ben” want boots and “a pistol that shoots,” while “Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk is the hope of Janice and Jen.” This sort of gendered gifting implies that boys should be violent and adventurous, while girls should care for dolls – not surprising considering that the song was written in 1951.

Christmas songs, however, aren’t recognized as outdated like most popular songs are. “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” was written in the 1860s and remains popular, despite “Johnny” wanting skates while “Suzy” wants a “dolly.” Similarly, “Up on the Housetop” was written in 1864, and describes “Will” getting a “hammer and lots of tacks, also a ball and a whip that cracks” while “Nell” gets – you guessed it – a doll.

The gender roles these songs socialize kids into don’t disappear once the children grow up, either. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” written in 1952, is a lighthearted song that nonetheless reinforces heteronormative family ideals.

1953’s “Santa Baby” is a drastically different interpretation of the Santa Seduction story. This song relies on the gold digger trope, reinforcing a materialistic portrayal of women. Furthermore, the song includes an outdated polarity between good and bad, saying, “Think of all the fun I’ve missed/ Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed/ Next year I could be oh so good.” This sort of slut-shaming attitude – that kissing boys she wanted to would have been bad – was, again, expected for the time period it was written, but with all the remakes of the song, why hasn’t the line been changed?

One remake in particular stands out to me: Michael Buble’s version, in which he refers to “Santa buddy” and “Santa pally” rather than baby. The version is incredibly awkward, and changes the desired gifts to tickets to sports games and decorations bought at Mercedes, rather than Tiffany’s. Instead of a ring, “and I don’t mean on the phone,” Buble just wants “one little thing, cha-ching, No I don’t mean as a loan.” Nonetheless, Buble keeps the line about kissing, but he kisses “hotties” instead of “fellas.”

Instead of using the gender switch to reduce the gender roles in the song, Buble’s song highlights them with his discomfort wanting the ‘girly’ items in the original – even switching the “light blue” of the convertible to the more manly “steel blue.” While some argue that this song doesn’t rely on sexuality to get the gift’s, if that were the case Buble wouldn’t make these changes – Santa could be his “baby,” too.

On the top of both Feminist Frequency’s and Chloe Angyal’s lists of problematic Christmas songs is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written in 1944. Angyal describes the song as “a relic of an era when it was accepted that any respectable woman would both refuse a man’s invitation to stay at his house drinking alte into the night, and that when she said ‘no,’ she actually meant ‘yes.’ Why the song is still a beloved classic … when our culture’s views on consent have changed considerably, is beyond me.”

The traditional cat-and-mouse dance portrayed in the song certainly tip-toes on the line of sexual intimidation, with the lady continually protesting “I really can’t stay” and “I’ve got to go away.” Some have even argued that the line “Say, what’s in this drink?” implies date rape.

On the other hand, it is true that societal pressures, rather than the woman’s own desires, seem to be her reasons for leaving. She mentions her mother, father, sister, brother, and even her maiden’s aunt as people who would question her – as well as the neighbors. Thus one could read the man as convincing her to do what she really wanted to all along, when she finally says, “Well, I really shouldn’t, alright.”

But that doesn’t excuse the man’s disregard for her refusal. Additionally, his argument centers around questions like “How can you do this to me?” and “Think of my life long sorrow,” rather than actually questioning the woman’s desires.

Some new songs are flawed as well, such as “All I Want For Christmas is You” which portrays a one-dimensional woman obsessed with love, rather than caring about other things like her career. AsFeminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian wrote, this is “not really a huge issue but the larger media pattern is definitely problematic.” Unfortunately, the larger media pattern is defined by 1950s standards for what family and gender means.

But for some reason, even though these old songs are remade year after year by new singers, the lyrics aren’t updated. These songs – like any Christmas traditions that reinforce outdated stereotypes – should be either shelved or rewritten to reflect modern sensibilities. (A Feminist Christmas Carol is one fun example of rewriting songs.)

It would be impossible to shun these songs, even if one wanted to. But keeping these messages in mind is important, especially when around children who may be absorbing these limiting messages without considering their historical context.

So just as one might have to explain that carriage rides aren’t necessarily as romantic as they sound when you’re traveling “home” for Christmas, don’t be afraid to mention that girls don’t need to ask for dolls for Christmas, or boys for tools. (Check back tomorrow for how Christmas advertising adds to these gendered expectations.) The red and green of the Christmas season shouldn’t transform into gendered pink and blue gender roles for the rest of the year.

Rachel is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her viaLinkedIn.

In Defense of Taylor Swift

This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on October 23, 2012.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Taylor Swift recently. Not only is her new CD “Red” out this week, but I also go to a college in a consortium with Harvey Mudd College, who recently won Swift’s “Taylor Swift on Campus” contest. So last Monday night I was in the fourth row of her concert, for free. And it was incredible. In addition to getting a ridiculous amount of free stuff from her sponsors, the concert itself – Taylor Swift’s performance and oft-critiqued live singing – were great.


Taylor Swift at Harvey Mudd College on October 15.

But the sentiment was not so united in my Gender & Women’s Studies class. One girl expressed her desire that the campus-wide Humans vs. Zombies competition hadn’t ended the week earlier so that zombies could rush the stage. I’ve been a fan of Taylor Swift since “Tim McGraw” first came out while I was in 8th grade, and I knew the words to every single song she sang at the concert, but feminism is integral to my identity. I needed to understand the hate.

So I did my research. And I wasn’t convinced.

The Taylor Swift criticisms I read all seemed to rely on distinguishing “Taylor Swift the product” from “Taylor Swift the person” (Jezebel). Or, as Salon phrased it, “Taylor Swift, lyricist, vs. Taylor Swift, public figure.” According to them, Swift’s business success is the most compelling pro-Swift argument, but her lyrics hold her back.

The thing is, you can’t separate two halves of a person. Taylor Swift the businesswoman is the same Taylor Swift writing and performing love songs. When young girls hang posters of her in the room, they aren’t distinguishing between the two – so neither should we in figuring out what her impact on them is.

Since Swift’s business savvy is generally accepted as a good model, I’ll delve into the criticism of her lyrics – most of which relies on claiming they reinforce a virgin-whore dichotomy.

First of all, since I don’t think you can separate the person from the artist, I feel the need to point out that Swift is one of the few teen stars recently who resisted the purity ring trend. In fact, as public as Swift is about her relationships, she’s kept her sexuality private and never implied any judgment about sexuality. Even her ex, Joe Jonas, followed the purity ring trend. Admittedly, the song she wrote about that breakup is problematic. “Better than Revenge” claims that his new girlfriend is an actress but “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”

I can’t deny that this song relies on criticizing another woman for her choices, sexual and otherwise. But I also can’t deny that I listened to it on repeat when my boyfriend dumped me for someone else in high school. Was that girl a slut? No. Was she the one I should have been mad at? No. But I was, and so was Swift.

That doesn’t excuse the girl-on-girl rivalry that this song sets up, nor the slut-shaming in it, but just as with all feminist works, it’s important to keep in mind the specific historical context. And the context of being dumped for someone else doesn’t often lead to being level-headed.

I concede the virgin-whore dichotomy in that song, but I haven’t been swayed by any other songs. An oft-criticized song is “Fifteen,” in which Swift’s friend “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried.” A critic on Astrostraddle responds by saying, “I’ll spare you the time of listening to the song and give it to you straight: Abigail had sex with a boy, and later they broke up. That’s right. No marriage. She gave him all she had. That’s right. All Abigail had was her hymen.”

The issue is, without listening to the whole song you’re not getting all the context. The phrase “giving it all up” is common to refer to giving one’s virginity, and while I agree that the diction surrounding a woman’s first time is generally sexist and demeaning (“losing it” implies a loss, rather than a gain), Swift did not create this diction. She’s just using it. Swift doesn’t even specify that “everything she had” is sex – it’s the reader, the critic, imposing our expectations of this sexist diction on the song. Everything she had could have been her heart, or too much of her time.

But, granted that it likely means sex, it must be pointed out that Swift never mentioned marriage. She never said Abigail should have waited til she was older and married, she just said she chose the wrong guy. And Swift doesn’t shun Abigail for her choice, instead they simply cry together and take it as a growing experience. The song is hardly a lecture on abstinence – it’s a story of growing up, which includes mistakes of all sorts.

The other song I’ve seen heavily criticized for a virgin-whore dichotomy is “You Belong with Me,” in which Swift positions herself against a cheerleader who wears “short skirts.” I’m not a fan of the girl-on-girl rivalry created by this song, but as Notes on Pop Culture writes in response to a post by Bitch magazine, “Sady [Doyle] calls the comparison between the two girls ‘girl-on-girl sexism”. What Sady forgets is that this is what people do. That is what girls do, that is what teenage girls do, this is what girls do when another girl has the guy they like. It’s tame, and pretty damn fair.”

There’s also something to be said for the fact that Swift plays herself and her rival in the music video, which provides at least a visual deconstruction of the virgin-whore dichotomy. Notes on Pop Culture concludes that the biggest issue with the Swift criticism is “reading the music from a very adult perspective, completely forgetting that Taylor is singing from a teenage girl’s perspective TO teenage girls.”

As a teenage girl (for one more year, at least!) I agree. Swift’s songs helped give voice to my experiences in love, and otherwise. (Contrary to popular belief, not all of her songs are about romance – check out “The Best Day,” one of my personal favorites, or “Never Grow Up,” “Safe and Sound,” “Ronan,” “Change” and “The Outside.”) It is a privileged experience, to be sure, but that doesn’t call for its dismissal.

This categorization of all of her songs as love songs (which Swift actually made fun of herself for at the concert I saw) is an oversimplification. Astrostraddle wrote that Taylor Swift, “according to her lyrics, has spent her entire life waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets.” While “Love Song” and “Begin Again” and others are about wanting boys, as I’ve pointed out, Swift does write about more. Furthermore, songs of hers like “White Horse” and “Should’ve Said No” aren’t about waiting around for a man, they’re about taking back your life and rejecting the fairy tale ending for your own sake. (In “White Horse”, Swift writes that “I had so many dreams about you and me / Happy endings, now I know / That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale.”)

That’s what Taylor Swift does. She writes about her dreams in love, but she also writes about moving on and becoming a stronger person for it. A stronger woman. Even Sady Doyle (who wrote the Bitch article “Taylor Swift Wants to Ban Access to Your Lady Bits”) admits, Swift describes “women being suitors, not desired objects.” Women may be set against each other to get the guy, but they’re not passive in the experience – Swift isn’t spending her life “waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets,” as has been argued, but she’s out there making her dreams happen. In her lyrics and in real life.

I’m not arguing that Swift is a feminist. Her songs clearly aren’t written with issues of equality in mind. But calling her “a feminist’s nightmare” seems ridiculous in an age when Lil Wayne posted the picture below on his Facebook with the caption “That dick made them rest in peace, I got a bunch of dead hoes!”

I’m also not saying that this means it’s not worth criticizing Swift’s lyrics. Sexist rap or pop songs haven’t stopped me from taking a closer look at their lyrics in the past, and this look is valuable to raise awareness. But separating Swift into two parts to tear one apart – without having to take responsibility for the fact that in doing so you’re also tearing down a successful woman – isn’t the way to go about constructive criticism.

What is important here is perspective, and reality. I love Swift because as generic as they are, her songs have given voice to my emotions throughout my teenage years. I may not have a guitar, but plenty of tears were shed in high school to “Teardrops on my Guitar.” And, in one aspect, isn’t Swift giving voice to the lived experience of women, a goal of feminism?

I’m not dismissing the criticism that’s been done, or its value. But I do respectfully disagree with the simplification of the emotions and situations Swift describes into a “virgin-whore dichotomy.” I propose in the future we deal with Swift as a complex individual rather than dividing her into parts, which seems to be a disclaimer so that we can criticize another woman without guilt. I for one refuse to believe that a successful woman could ever be “A Feminist’s Worst Nightmare.”

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn or read more of her work on her blog.

What Makes You Beautiful? Disturbing Messages In Pop Music

Originally published June 6, 2012 on MissRespresentation.org

Intern Rachel Grate looks at the scary messages for girls embedded in seemingly innocent pop songs

By Rachel Grate

In the length of my hour commute to work it’s not unusual to hear One Direction’s hit “What Makes You Beautiful” upwards of three times on the radio. The pop music phenomenon is just the most recent of a series of artists that have topped iTunes charts and captured the hearts of young girls everywhere. But have you ever listened beyond their catchy beats to focus on the lyrics?

“What Makes You Beautiful” begins with the observation that the girl is “insecure” and the band “don’t know what for.” However, despite the entire song essentially being a list of compliments, the band members never encourage the girl to stop being insecure. In fact, the chorus croons, “You don’t know you’re beautiful, Oh oh, That’s what makes you beautiful.”

The band is telling their target audience of teenage girls not to be confident in their appearance (even if they are as beautiful as the girl from the song), but to remain insecure because low self-esteem is literally “what makes you beautiful.” Is that really a healthy message for young girls to be absorbing?

Disturbed by this song that seemed permanently stuck in my head, I delved deeper into seemingly innocent pop music. Turns out Justin Bieber, the icon of the teen pop music scene, isn’t actually that innocent either. His songs seem to subtly imply that women can be bought, are a source of property, and that being showered with cash is all they need to be happy.

In his first hit, “One Time,” Bieber promises to give his girl “everything down to my last dime.” In “Baby,” Bieber tries to stop his girlfriend from breaking up with him by promising to “buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring.” In his newest hit, “Boyfriend,” he flaunts that “I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow/Swag swag swag on you.” Over and over again, his songs support the idea that women are just after men’s money and – judging by how many pre-teens wish he was their actual boyfriend – the message is sticking.

According to One Direction, what makes a girl beautiful is insecurity 

Admittedly, it can be a little difficult to take anything seriously in a song that includes the word “swaggie.” It may seem a bit nit-picky to be analyzing the misogyny in these light-hearted songs when so many other artists (from rap to rock) seem incapable of referring to women as anything other than “bitch”. (Even when Akon, with David Guetta, tries to “find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful,” the best he can do is “sexy bitch.”) So why bother focusing on these pop songs?

Because so many pre-teen girls listen to Justin Bieber that you can actually buy a bed cover with his face on it, or an entire Justin Bieber dental care set. Because these artists’ target audience are at an age where they are most vulnerable and most likely to take these messages as valid life advice. Because the fact that these messages are so subtle compared to those in some rap songs means that it’s actually more difficult to identify and avoid them.

It’s not just male pop singers sending these messages. In Orianthi’s hit “According to You,” she lists all the (disturbingly abusive) insults her boyfriend has hurled at her: stupid, useless, difficult, hard to please, a mess, boring, moody, inattentive and more. But instead of supporting girls to leave an emotionally abusive relationship because of their own self worth, her only defense against this boyfriend is that another boy thinks she’s “beautiful.” The whole song is defining her value according to other people – never once is her target audience given an example of generating healthy self-esteem based on their own thoughts.

I’d love to think that pop songs will change their tune and start encouraging girls’ self-confidence, but given their commercial success, it doesn’t seem likely. Even less likely is that “Beliebers” will suddenly cease to exist. What is possible, crucially so, is to make sure young girls are aware of these hidden messages. The secret is that you don’t have to stop enjoying catchy music to resist the messages it’s
implying.

Raising awareness is as simple as one car ride with my dad. “My Life Would Suck Without You” by Kelly Clarkson came on the radio, and I was singing along to the chorus (which is the title of the song).

“You should never be so emotionally dependent on someone to believe your life would suck without them,” my dad commented. “That’s unhealthy.”

I thought about it, I nodded in agreement, and I went back to belting out the song. Though my action stayed the same, my mindset, if only just a little bit, had changed for the better. And with enough little changes like that, girls will become conscious of these negative messages instead of absorbing them subconsciously.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.