In a top comment on the new JLo and Iggy Azalea music video “Booty,” YouTube user “Nice Guy” responded to critics claiming the video was too sexual:
Where is the problem? They act like every single woman (especially in the music industry): pure c*nts. (Minaj, JLo, Rihanna, Cyrus, Iggy, Beyonce…When you have no talent: shake your ass…). This video is the exact image of our society…
Nice Guy’s comment could be seen as a microcosm of our society because women are seen primarily as sexual object with little to offer beyond their “ass shaking.” Women who choose to express their sexuality through any form of popular media—music, television, film, or otherwise—are automatically devalued as human beings. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the music industry. The objectification of the female form across all genres has long been a mainstay of the music world, from misogynistic lyrics to hypersexualized music videos. No one seems to object when a male artist uses female sexuality as a prop, but women who claim their own sexuality are often deemed talentless “sluts” with nothing more to offer the public than their bodies.
Some prominent women in the music industry, however, have started challenging the status quo by identifying as feminists, which has been met with both exuberant praise and widespread criticism; it is hard for the some to accept that sexual empowerment is compatible with feminism. First, it is important to define feminism: the advocacy and support of social, political, and economic equality regardless of sex or gender. But feminism is also a spectrum that constantly changes to reflect the current era, with a growing emphasis on inclusivity and intersectionality. Intersectionality is the concept that each of an individual’s identities—gender, race, class, religion, sexuality, etc.—are interconnected and cannot be separated from each other. Based on this concept, today’s feminism, compared to the uniform feminism of the 1960s, is created by the individual. Thus, feminism is manifested differently by each woman (and man) and is defined by their experiences: as a woman (or not), as a minority, as a member of the LGBTQ community, and so on. Feminism is about choice, including the choice to be sexy—or not. If feminism is based on experience and choice, why is it so hard to believe that sexually-empowered women can be feminists?
Perhaps the most obvious example of a feminist pop star is Beyoncé. She has repeatedly defined herself as feminist. From her self-titled album, which features excerpts from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We should all be feminists,” to her Shriver Report article “Gender Equality is a Myth,” Beyoncé’s feminism has been presented in multiple ways. Other examples of her feminist tendencies include: her early songs celebrating female empowerment, from “Survivor” to “Independent Woman”; her exclusively female band; her and her husband’s use of a hyphenated last name (Mr. and Mrs. Knowles-Carter). Beyoncé has helped bring feminism back into the limelight; in spite of a recent stream of articles declaring the death of the movement, she performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in front of a dazzling screen projecting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of feminism to 13.7 million fascinated viewers.
Nonetheless, there have been a myriad of articles debating whether or not Beyoncé is a “real” feminist. She is accused of exploiting feminism for its market value. Critics take issue with the title of her recent tour, The Mrs. Carter Show. They take issue with the reference to domestic violence in “Drunk in Love.” They take issue with her repeated demand to “bow down bitches.” The biggest issue, however, discussed time and time again, is her bold sexuality: her revealing outfits, on stage and off; her provocative music videos; her explicit lyrics. When Beyoncé posed for TIME magazine’s “Top 100 Most Influential People” cover in a bikini and sheer shirt, prolific activist bell hooks branded her an “anti-feminist terrorist.” But in a comment given to the Tufts Observer, Danielle R. Boudrow, a member of the Board of Directors at the Eastern MA Abortion Fund who has been working to close gender gaps at the Harvard Kennedy School Women and Public Policy Program since 2009, said, “Feminism is not about de-sexing women, it’s about destigmatizing a wide variety of choices including the choice to be openly sexy, or not to be. Threatening a feminist’s claim to identify as such for taking pleasure in her own body is thick with irony and repression and misses the point of shared liberation entirely.”
Another pop star whose feminism has inspired controversy is Nicki Minaj. Her success in rap–one of the most male-dominated genres–has given her a platform to advocate for strong, assertive women. She famously defended her use of the word “bitch” in a scathing commentary on double standards in the entertainment industry, explaining, “When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He bossed up. No negative connotation behind ‘bossed up.’ But lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch…When you’re a girl, you have to be everything.” She ends her analysis by simply stating, “I can’t be all of those things at once. I am a human being.”
Recently, Minaj’s single “Anaconda” created a media firestorm. The cover art features her crouching in a bra and thong, staring confidently at the viewer. She addressed the cover art’s criticism with a series of Instagram posts, featuring mostly “angelic” white models posing equally as provocatively. And the video itself is not without provocativeness. It features a symphony of generous butts clapping in unison—another factor that came under fire. Minaj remixes Sir Mix-a-Lot’s infamously objectifying “Baby Got Back” and reverses the narrative of human sexuality regarding women’s bodies. She demonstrates her sexuality, not her sexual availability. In the “Anaconda” video, the only man who appears is rapper Drake, who receives a lap dance from Minaj. She exerts total control and slaps his hand away when he reaches out to touch her. Her message is clear: this is about me. As Robin James, Associate Professor of Philosophy & Women’s/Gender Studies at UNC Charlotte, comments, “Anaconda recontextualizes both ‘Baby’’s bass and its narration of women’s bodies. Mix-A-Lot raps about his desire for a certain kind of female body. Minaj raps about her enjoyment of her body, how she feels in her (b)ass, not how she feels about it.”
Sex has always had its place in the music world. Sex sells, and countless women have been exploited in pursuit of the bottom line. However, women such as Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj have taken control of this narrative and reclaimed their sexuality. They don’t submit to the gaze of their peers; instead, they decide how and when their sexuality will be consumed. Feminism encourages women to take agency over their bodies. Feminists in the public sphere are able to expand the conversation about pleasure and desire to include women’s point of view. Seduction does not have to be submission. In the words of Queen Bey herself, “There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality…The old lessons of submissiveness and fragility made us victims. Women are so much more than that. You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist—whatever you want to be—and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.”