Britney and the back-lash
My first feminist role model was Madonna. I was ten years old when Like a Prayer was released, an album that dealt with issues of female autonomy, domestic abuse, damaged parent-child relationships, and religious devotion. Madonna was smart, blunt, and bossy. She sang about speaking your mind and setting your own terms. For me, a girl being raised a reluctant fundamentalist Christian in a small, macho, military town, Madonna’s music was both liberating and blissfully taboo.
In the mid- to late-1980s, there were several female performers who came across as being smart, strong and independent. Bonnie Raitt, Lita Ford, and Joan Jett told us that not only could girls play guitar, but that we could rock. Pat Benetar and Janet Jackson recorded songs about being tough and in control, and Melissa Etheridge was amazingly passionate. All of these singers clicked with me, but none of them annoyed my mother as thoroughly as Madonna, so I figured that Ms. Ciccone must have been on to something.
Towards the end of high school, I encountered academic feminism for the first time in Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth. Madonna’s musings quickly took a back seat to those of Steinem, Dworkin, Greer, and Faludi. I was radicalized at 17, suddenly out of the church and out of patience with attitudes and stereotypes that degraded women. I read every feminist book I could find, had long debates with friends and family, and began looking for meaning behind the images of women that appeared on television, in magazines, and on billboards. Educating myself on women’s issues, and really considering how these issues related to my everyday life, wasn’t about accumulating knowledge; it was about survival.
I started paying a lot more attention to the way women were represented in the.music industry. I cringed at the artwork and lyrics featured on Snoop Doggy Dogg’s first album, Doggystyle, and considered friends who bought it to be committing a vaguely treasonous act against womankind. But I didn’t protest or write about it. I just shrugged and went back to my reading. After all, we still had Sheryl Crow, the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and Lucinda Williams, among many others, so everything balanced out, right?
Then came the Spice Girls, immediately followed by Britney Spears. The goofy “girl power” of the former made me wonder if today’s ten-year-old girls think feminism is a comfy pair of platform heels. As for Britney, my reaction to her public image made me realize that I was definitely a grown-up: “(gasp!) I wouldn’t let any daughter of mine dress like that!”
A chill down the spine at the sight of Spears is probably exactly what 80’s moms felt when confronted with Madonna. But the two are not mirror images. The lyrics to Spears’ songs are frighteningly submissive, not particularly smart, and unlikely to inspire anything beyond sales of hair ornaments and shock-your-mama halter tops.
Britney Spears’ image is overtly sexual, but unlike Madonna’s, it is a manipulative, contradictory, look-don’ttouch kind of sexuality. Go away. Come here. No, seriously, go away. What are girls whose first pop culture role model is Spears supposed to take away from that? Is the cynical marketing and one-dimensional “girl power” of Spears, the Spice Girls, and Destiny’s Child part of a’ backlash against the genuinely independent women of 80’s pop?
The marketing of younger and younger girls in an increasingly exploitative way is very different from the manner in which denim-clad, girl-next-door teen singers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were advertised 13 years ago. Welcome to the 90’s. Don’t have a red leather catsuit yet, girls? Better get with the program.
Okay, so Madonna wasn’t perfect. Her song “Material Girl” was a shallow’ fluff piece that praised consumerism and manipulative behavior. Her 1992 book, Sex, was a cynical ploy for publicity. She has, at various times during her career, been crude and chameleon-like, and has engaged in some pretty shameless self-promotion. But, for better or worse, Madonna wrote her own songs and determined her own direction. It would be preferable if girls had more serious role models – if they spent as much time watching C-SPAN as they did vegging away in front of MTV, but that’s unlikely to happen, and it’s hard to blame them. After all, there can be just as much artifice and downright silliness on political and news channels as there is on networks that exist strictly to entertain.
In a climate where Jennifer Lopez’s lean, dancer’s, body is considered “fat,” girls and young women need all the clever, confident, joyous, hellraising role models they can get. Instead, they are being confronted with an endless stream of content-free, alarmingly thin, look- and soundalike performers. The message? Having an identity won’t get you a guy. Be voiceless. Be inanimate.
Is third-wave feminism having any real effect on many of today’s girls, or is happiness a good glitter eyeshadow?
by rebecca boone
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jan/Feb 2002
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