My junior high years were filled with the music and visual images of the female recording artists Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Pat Benatar. These were powerful women, often with overt pre-grrl power sentiments behind their lyrics, physical images, and lives.
Lauper was quirky, Benatar was tough, and Madonna dared the viewer to objectify her, letting him or her know that she was always the more powerful even if she was the one being viewed through the lens.
Comparing those singers of my youth to many of the female recording artists young girls and boys are exposed to today causes me to feel my age (nearly 40, kids!) and long for the days of Benatar and Madonna more acutely. In the past year, both Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, two of the most commercially successful female singers today, have not only publicly backed away from feminism but they both did so by incorrectly defining it. Their constructed personas (no doubt assisted by a bevy of managers, P.R. directors, and other advisors), while almost completely opposite of one another, fit under the umbrella of postfeminism, as Anne Helen Peterson, a Professor of Media and Film Studies at Whitman College, defines it:
Postfeminism is, most explicitly, the idea that feminism is no longer necessary. Feminism accomplished its goals in the ’70s and ’80s, and we’re ready to move on and just “be” women, whatever that means. […] We don’t need feminism, we just need “girl power” – a very different concept than the “grrl power” that undergirded the Riot Grrl movement of the early ’90s (which was, itself, a response to the rise of postfeminism). Postfeminism is forgoing freedoms or equal rights in the name of prettier dresses, more expensive make-up, and other sartorial “freedoms” to consume.
Swift’s constructed persona is the “Virgin” and Perry’s constructed persona is the “Tease”; even if their real lives complicate these images, the personas are what young girls and boys (and big girls and boys) experience.
That’s why women like Grimes give me hope.
Grimes is the stage name of Claire Boucher, a 25-year old Canadian electropop artist. Grimes isn’t anywhere near as commercially successful as Swift or Perry, but knowing she’s out there, winning awards and making a living as a musician, proves that musicians are combatting the far-reaching postfeminist narrative that we see in so much of our popular culture. Plus, Grimes is a feminist, and she’s amazing at it.
Combatting and Reversing the “Male Gaze”
In all of Grimes’s appearances, performances, and music videos, she demonstrates her knowledge of, and her refusal to participate in, self-objectification and sexualization. She may wear dresses, she may wear pants, she may wear pigtails, but everything she wears and does, comes from a place of empowerment.
She frequently collaborates with other female musicians and singers, her videos feature other women in powerful ways, and in some of her work, she reverses the male gaze, creating a situation in which men are being watched and masculinity is being deconstructed. The video for “Oblivion” is a glorious juxtaposition of female empowerment and hypermasculinity:
In “Oblivion”, Grimes and her co-director, Emily Kai Bock, subvert the traditional “male gaze”; Grimes playfully engages with the viewer without trying to seduce or be objectified. By putting herself as observer into testosterone-laden situations, like a motocross rally, football stands with rabid male fans, or a makeshift mosh pit with a dozen sweaty, shirtless men, Grimes calls attention to traditional presentations of hegemonic masculinity without being didactic.
In an interview with SPIN magazine, she had this to say about the song: “’Oblivion’ embodies that kind of archetype, going into this masculine world that is associated with sexual assault, but presented as something really welcoming and nice. The song’s sort of about being — I was assaulted and I had a really hard time engaging in any types of relationship with men, because I was just so terrified of men for a while.” In that same interview, Grimes stated that she has been able to take that experience and turn into something positive. She also looks like she’s having a terrific time while she’s at it.
The Solo Musician At Work
In stage shows and radio appearances, Grimes displays her abilities at solo music producing, demonstrating that she’s serious and passionate about the production of her work.
Here Grimes is unlike the Swifts and Perrys of the music industry, seemingly oblivious to being watched, while she disappears into the work of creating her songs. She tucks the microphone under her chin at one point so that she can free her hands up for other work, signifying her lack of interest in putting on the physical act of being attractive while creating.
The Informed and Unapologetic Feminist
Grimes is outspoken about her identity as a feminist and the blatant sexism she constantly has to fight against in the music industry. In April she wrote a badass feminist manifesto, which included this:
I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them. or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers
I’m tired of the weird insistence that i need a band or i need to work with outside producers (and I’m eternally grateful to the people who don’t do this)
Her Tumblr post defines some of the unique issues that women have in the music industry, including a huge amount of “mansplaining” coming from dudes who think they should coach a talented and successful woman on how to do her job.
She also writes about her frustrations with being valued for her looks or her body type. A disturbing number of the commenters even on feminist websites focus on Grimes’s physical appearance, either stating that she is “not pretty”, claiming that “she would be pretty” if she would only pluck her eyebrows or make some other superficial change to her appearance, or arguing that she is pretty. But this misses the point that Grimes is making about gender stereotypes in popular culture. Whether or not you find her conventionally attractive is insulting and only serves to perpetuate the tired stereotype that women should always be judged for their appearance before, or instead of, anything else.
I hope Grimes signifies that empowering female artists are out there for our young daughters and sons to look to when they are in junior high.
What other feminist artists do you recommend?
Revenge as Postfeminist Dystopia [Anne Helen Peterson]