“Pretty Girls” is a Feminist Anti-Street Harassment Anthem

May 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

As a BritBrit scholar, someone asked me how Britney’s latest single “Pretty Girls” could be feminist. I’d argue that the song offers an alternative means to processing a fairly terrible universal female experience, street harassment, and attempts to find empowerment and redemption through female celebration.

Let’s start with Britney’s first verse.

Hey, don’t you know that it’s always the same?
From Australia ’round to LA
You can betcha’, wherever the girls go, boys follow
We be keeping them up on their toes
They can laugh, but they don’t get the jokes
Just you watch, they’re so predictable
(Some things don’t change…)

Britney acknowledges a global female experience here, not just from a geographic standpoint but also a historical one (“…it’s always the same”, “some things don’t change”). But with this acknowledgement also comes an expression of inevitability, a sentiment that could, quite frankly, be pretty depressing—but it’s also understandable both as an emotional reaction and as an intellectual standpoint given the longstanding narrative of female oppression. Yet, rather than frustration or despair, we get a playful, party summer beat paired with the confident vocals of a notably less-autotuned Britney, indicating that instead, women can find a cause for celebration. Men are following women here, and in the context of this verse alone, it’s due to the uniqueness of feminine wit and understanding of the world (“We be keeping them on their toes/ They can laugh, but they don’t get the jokes”). We see women as having some insider knowledge, they are “in on the joke”. One gender following another isn’t exactly the goal of egalitarian gender relations, but it does provide a refreshing framework in which women can carve out a sense of power even given a global structure of patriarchal oppression—and male behavior is still participatory (they are laughing, after all), though it highlights a discrepancy in truly seeing and understanding the female experience.

Let’s take a deeper dive into Britney’s second verse (my personal favorite):

Tell me, is it true that these men are from Mars?
Is that why they be acting bizarre?
Every time I walk out of my house it’s like, “Hey, baby!”
They don’t see me rolling my eyes
They buzzing around me like flies
They got one thing on their minds
(Some things don’t change…)

Here the “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” trope gets a shout out (and also lends itself to the Geena Davis “Earth Girls are Easy” video inspiration. But perhaps more interestingly, for Britney fans this instantly hearkens back to the track “Alien” on Britney’s latest album, which is a powerful thread running through Britney’s career as she moved from early themes of romantic loneliness (“My loneliness is killing me,” “You thought that I would be lonely?” “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more”, etc.) to a tragic or matter-of-fact isolation caused by her “alien” cultural status, depending on where the perspective may lie). This verse explicitly comments on the communication gap between genders through street harassment, how at its best its a nuisance, but more poignantly, how men fail to truly “see” the female reaction (eye rolling). What’s interesting about “Pretty Girls” is that it argues that male’s failure to see the female reaction is doing a disservice to them. It’s an unusual and empowering view in which males, not females, are the ultimate losers in the male attempt to gain power through harassment. Women and feminists are absolved from the sole burden of changing or policing male behavior, and instead the onus resides with men to realize that their true best interests lie with a higher purpose and their redemption lies only through empathy. For women, it’s like, hey, we might go outside and get harassed, but instead of getting depressed about it, let’s wear 80’s neon bangle earrings and leopard print crop tops and go dancing at the club with our gal pals while we also pretend to be aliens because life is both very fun and very weird!

Two things to note in the chorus (and I imagine these are the issues that people first pick up on from a cursory radio listen):

All around the world, pretty girls
Wipe the floor with all the boys
Pour the drinks, bring the noise
We’re just so pretty!
All around the world, pretty girls
Jump the line, to the front
Do what we like, get what we want
We’re just so pretty!

The first train of thought is this: “Pretty girls = female focus on appearance as a means to achieve power = bad.” But there is a real universal sense in the song that all women can be “pretty girls,” given that nearly all women have experienced some kind of harassment (ostensibly based on their appearance, though we all know harassment is about male power, not female appearance, right?). Britney doesn’t mention anything in regards to what, exactly, makes a pretty girl a pretty girl—what she offers is only the female wit and worldly understanding discussed previously (Iggy mentions “slim waist, thick cake” in her rap, but I’m ignoring her entirely for this analysis because I don’t like her that much for a bunch of other problematic issues that I won’t get to here). It doesn’t read as “pretty” based on limited definitions of what actually defines appearance, but rather, that “pretty” is a societal baseline for which all women must associate with or compare themselves to, and instead of submitting to despair at that system, women can in fact enjoy their lives by pouring some drinks, doing what they like, and getting what they want.

The first line of the chorus is the other thing to address: “All around the world pretty girls wipe the floor with all the boys.” Again, one gender wiping the floor with another is certainly not a feminist goal. And my first impulse was to try and understand how a man might feel hearing that in a club. But I couldn’t help but think that all the men I know who would wince at that line or feel uncomfortable have not expressed any discomfort to me at a club when they hear the endless barrage of rap and pop music that disparages women. There is a lyrical canon that trashes women or debases the daily experiences of womanhood, and in true double standard fashion, when a female expresses the same aggressive sentiments towards men that men have expressed towards women, they are accused and judged in a way that men have evaded as it is so pervasively “the norm.” But again, this song isn’t about women leading the charge for men to save themselves from themselves. In the case of women expressing hostility, frustration, or a desire to dominate men, it is within the context of a history that has told them that only the opposite is possible, that what they are saying is a fringe statement amongst a status quo that has dictated their oppression for centuries. Keep in mind that radical feminists have held the position that given the history of male domination over women, the only means to an egalitarian society is to unite in personally confronting men, who consciously constructed patriarchal domination, or to completely destroy the institutions of the patriarchal society (marriage, the workplace, and heterosexuality, among others). To internalize the treatment of women and flip it on its head, and to do so in a playful song that asks for women to celebrate rather than shoulder the exclusive burden for gender reform or play into stereotypes of female empowerment as aggressive misandry, is actually one of the more palatable and watered down forms of female discontent given human histories of radical rebellion.

But it would be a mistake to go the other way then, and assume that because Britney and Iggy are part of the “pop machine”, that nothing they do or express can have a powerful message that is also shared by activists, that because the song is poppy and radio ready, that their message is always sugary and should always be written off. In this sense, Britney has created a balance that is incredibly rare and particular to this moment in history, in which females in positions of power are celebrating some aspects of feminism in a way that casts the widest net, leveraging their popularity to the lowest common denominator—something we devalue in a culture of elitism, but in reality, represents one of the most influential and powerful means to spread a message. And because Britney refers only to “girls and boys” in the chorus, the listener is left with the notion that only in growth, stemming from empathy, will girls and boys both reach their full potential—to come into fully realized men and women, both operating on the same page.

Circus

April 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Back in December, my co-worker Suri and I put together a workshop on Britney Spears. To both of our surprises, the workshops sold very well, and then they continued to sell out, and then some media outlets deemed our little corner of the Britosphere worth covering. Most of the press has been flattering or sweetly curious, some have been incredibly confused, but either way, I’m happy that I get to talk about “Blackout” while meeting like-minded feminists and pop-lovers over cheap beer on a regular basis.

All dates are sold out at the moment, but we’ll be at Bluestockings Bookstore on May 4th for a free event at 7pm.

You can sign up for our newsletter here, and be the first to know when we add new dates: britneyworkshop.tumblr.com

Check out some of the press:

And one of my personal favorites, from Inquisitr, “Britney Spears Fans Sign Up for Workshop On Icon: Is Christina Aguilera 101 Next?” (The answer: hell no.)

More updates to come. For now, I’d be remiss if I did not conclude with this prolific quote, and one of my personal favorites, from our very own Sage Spears:

“Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby (oh baby), baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby (oh baby), baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby (baby), baby (baby), baby.”—Britney Spears, “Ooh Ooh Baby”

I’ve been robbed!

February 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Mimicking the graceful, directional flight of the geese, so too did my bank account plunge southward this winter. Unlike the geese, I couldn’t understand why things were going the way they were going. I had neither a dramatic increase in spending nor a decrease in income. My behaviors were consistent: get up, ride the subway smashed between 400 armpits of other people who just got up, guzzle (free!) coffee at work, purchase lunch and sometimes cocktails after work, maybe cook an egg on the weekend. Sure, sometimes I have to buy a gift for someone I love, sometimes I have to buy a new pair of shoes because the heel of my winter boots started to fall off and I tried to superglue it back on and ultimately it was not a prudent fix. But that’s about it spending-wise for this one!

So when things took a turn for the broke, I handled this issue the way any New Yorker would: I kvetched incessantly with confusion, hostility, and occasionally, a healthy dollop of wit to anyone who would listen. They responded the way most New Yorkers respond: aggressively calling me out on everything I’m doing wrong.

The first thing I was taken to task for was my lack of cooking. Sure, in the narrative of my day, this stands out as the obvious choice for the overspending culprit. But the whole concept of cooking is actually a serious anecdotal debate that occurs among two discrete factions of New Yorkers. In one group, you have The Cookers. They just loveeee to cook and tell you all about how they make a giant vat of turkey chili in their slow cooker every Sunday so they have food for the whole week. These people are often coupled up, meaning that they themselves are not forced to eat chili for lunch and dinner for the next 7 days straight, but that between two people, they save a lot of money and they just loveeee how it brings people together. It’s nice, in a saccharine way. Naturally, in the other camp are the Non-Cookers. It’s not that this camp is lazy and uncaring. A lot of them really like food. In fact, it is people in this group who made the term “foodie” a thing you’re supposed to hashtag. They love experiencing the vast restaurant scene of the city, or having diet diversity (Thai one night and Indian another night and Mexican the third), or are simply busy and everything can be delivered in New York for really not that much more money than what you would spend if you were cooking for one. And yes, of course, you could also just be lazy and a bad cook and fine living off of a diet of cheese and Chinese takeout.

Clearly, for me, being a Non-Cooker wasn’t keeping my bank account robust, and I was up for trying something new. So, I tried to cook some stuff! And it went okay! Yes, one time I dropped my phone in a pot of boiling water. Yes, one time I nearly sliced my stomach in half by trying to open a vacuum sealed bag of turkey bacon with a chopping knife. (I was holding the turkey bacon package against my stomach, and holding the knife the wrong way. Lesson learned!) And yes, guilty as charged, I brought a sad salad to lunch at work. But you know what? A few things I made were pretty good, too! And I didn’t hate doing it!

Yet still, to my disbelief, the bank account continued on its merry way of plummeting. So the other theory posited, after the cooking one, was that I should stop socializing quite so much (this is represented by “cocktails” in the narrative of my day). I’ve learned something about adulthood in New York, and that is this: meeting up with a friend is always done over a beer or a cocktail. I don’t know why. We have a lot of other things we could do here. It’s the largest city in the U.S. after all. But if you want to see any of your friends ever again, you’re going to a cocktail bar in Brooklyn or the LES. And as well you know, buying cocktails in New York is essentially willingly participating in your own robbery.

To be frank, I know nothing about cocktails. But I’m good friends with several people who know quite a bit about them. And they have explained to me that given the price for quality ingredients and the absurd cost of commercial renting in NYC, what most bars charge for cocktails is actually “fair.” This may be true, but if a vodka soda costs $18 to cover operating costs and upkeep your bar, then what’s fair is also incontestably terrible. So now that we all agree it’s terrible, we are led only to one conclusion: it is insane to have bars in New York. We need to start going to more house parties with $7.99 handles of Kamchatka vodka as if we are 17-year-olds. But since I am not going to start the Kamchatka house party revolution, because I am clearly quite busy fulfilling my own Maslow’s hierarchy at the moment, I wondered how I could circumvent the system while still maintaining my friendships. And the answer hit me quite suddenly. I should invest in a flask! I said this out loud at work, and as it turns out, someone had a flask they didn’t need at the office (this is normal, I work at a startup).

So not only did I have a flask on my side, but I also began suggesting alternative activities to drinking at bars, such as drinking a $6 gallon of wine at my place or playing board games or seeing some free art or getting a coffee because I have Starbucks gift card.

After modifying both my food and social behaviors, I checked my bank statements online, anticipation dripping from my fingertips. And lo and behold! I was still just another broke 20-something in New York. No change whatsoever! I joked that someone must be stealing from me because it made no sense. And with that, I sort of just gave up and accepted the terrible status quo of my terrible savings account.

But, dear readers, something wonderful happened to me tonight. I found out that slowly and discreetly, someone has been robbing me!! Someone has been stealing smallish amounts of money for months that really added up!! It all finally makes sense. I’m elated! Why was it so hard to detect? Because apparently the person robbing me is also a New Yorker, and like me, they are spending my money on food and cocktails.

In Defense of Shallow Girls

November 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

I dyed my hair blonde again this past week. It takes a very long time, four hours or so. You sit in the chair while someone paints your hair in thin strands with a wooden brush, first the back, then working towards the front. It’s painstaking and expensive. For some reason, when you go blonde the dye itself is purple. I’m not smart enough to know why it’s purple, or really, what the hell kinds of toxins they are actually putting into my hair. The dye’s texture is like something from a childhood haunted house, the goop you’d stick your hands into when the lights are all out, those soon-to-be-expired grapes passing for zombie brains or eyeballs. The fact that this thought actually crossed my mind should be an indication of how often I frequent salons.

When it was time for the dye to sit and dry, my stylist asked if I wanted a magazine. Instead I pulled out my book, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” I got a bit self-conscious. Why do I have to be such an asshole and pull out this seven-pound Russian book in the middle of a salon? A minute or so later, the receptionist walked by and talked to me a bit about “Anna Karenina.” She was having a hard time getting through it, but thought it was just starting to get good. Another hairdresser joined the conversation, mentioning the movie. Then several other girls getting haircuts started to chime in, somehow the topic shifted to horror movies, and then the whole salon was chatting about bad B-grade films. We weren’t discussing anything important – at one point “The Human Centipede” came up – but everyone had something to say and it culminated in a very good joke by one of the stylists and everyone laughed.

I thought of my grandmother, then, and how for her entire life, she loved going to beauty parlors (her term). Even at the end, in the assisted living home, she went to get her hair done every week. It seems shallow. But it was a real social space for her as a woman to connect with other women, one of the few precious spheres afforded to women of her generation outside the home, and she held it sacred. Going to the beauty parlor for her, a poor New York Jew from an immigrant family, was a luxury, a duty, and I suspect most importantly, a community. Watching her in there chatting with all the women, both as a child and then caring for her as an adult, made celebrity gossip and nail polish something quite substantial, actually.

It can seem shallow. You know early on that your beauty is what matters, and simultaneously that caring about it, that talking about it – the women who diet obsessively and spray tan, who have extensive morning makeup routines, who get their nails done and pontificate about it as if it’s a philosophy final thesis – this is superficial and silly. Men hate women who go on and on about this. Women hate women who go on and on about this. But it’s a hard ask of society, to tell us to stake our identities to something, and put systems into place that ensure it’s enforced upon us, and then tell us we are crazy or stupid for internalizing it and claiming that it is important in our lives. I prefer to critique the cultural machinery then the women it produces, but maybe that’s because I am a feminist or just read “The Beauty Myth”, though I’d like to think that it is really just a basic empathetic, moral stance. Either way, when I was at the salon, laughing at the stylist’s joke, I thought of my grandmother, who went to beauty parlors every week for 70-something years. And I thought that the group of us had managed to carve out a nice space for ourselves for a Sunday afternoon, while we all partook in something that I’ve heard referred to as “superfluous.”

From Xanga to ello

September 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

In 2003, I was a freshman in high school. Up until that point, I’d used our shared family computer mainly to flirt with boys on IM chats when I should have been sleeping. I joined Xanga shortly after I had my first kiss. I know this because even though the website is now defunct, they made the archives available, and I downloaded mine. I had a Xanga long after it was acceptable – all through high school, all through college (mid-college was when it became embarrassing), and through several years of living in New York (by this point it was so past embarrassing that it actually felt like a character flaw. Fortunately, it was an easy secret to keep since no one else was on the site.) I suppose I have a hard time letting things die, and it took a company literally hemorrhaging funds for several years and collapsing into ether for me to give it up, by default.

By the end, I didn’t even like Xanga. When it died, it was a relief. Like finally having permission to let something out of its misery (me, or the journal itself). In the final years of my Xanga, every bitchy entry was me bitching about bitchy New Yorker things to essentially no one, like 1. how I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, 2. how other people seemed to know what they were doing with their lives, 3. smatterings of lyrics from feminist musicians or The Smiths that seemed important to copy and paste and post, and/or 4. me blabbing about how half the food in New York has ingredient names I can’t pronounce, then bitching about how I suck at cooking, then bitching about my rent, which somehow always feels tangentially related to every topic when you live here. The point being, it wasn’t fun anymore.

It’s easy to forget that creativity can be (should be?) fun, or at least, derivative of some form of joy. When I began my Xanga at age 14, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or be. The first entry is downright painful to read (dramatic, attention-seeking, and about some dbag senior who made out with me and said he liked me a lot but then didn’t really want to date!!!). As time went on, however, I began to look forward to coming home from school to write in my Xanga. Not just because I disliked a lot of my classes and thought eating microwavable Pizza Bagels and talking to my friends on a landline for six hours was what life was all about (not sure I was that far off, actually), but because I found a community and a voice on Xanga. And I felt autonomous over that voice.

I learned quickly that writing a self-piteous diatribe about a senior guy not liking me (totally over it by the way!!) did not get as good of a reaction as, say, me writing a story poking fun at a naive high school chick just trying to eat Pizza Bagels and talk to her friends and get over senior guys who were clearly using her. I began to craft, daily, some hybrid of journal writing and storytelling, that attempted to be funny or witty or maybe even beautiful on occasion, and have my peers (in its heyday, maybe 50), comment and react to it. And I got better based on their feedback, though none of this was a self-aware process. These were prehistoric likes and shares and comments. The whole thing was a natural occurrence. I didn’t have a goal to write daily and I had never even thought of becoming a writer.

Of course, the internet changed, and everyone left Xanga for the greener pastures of legit websites. I got older and wrote about things that were more serious and more elegant, but often less pure and joyous. As every writer knows (really anyone with an internet connection knows), you often have to write things in a censored way, or present yourself in a certain way, ever-aware that privacy is historic and what you post is public forever. There’s no moral compass or nostalgic value proposition I’m attaching to any of this, but when I got an invite to ello today, it made me remember what I used to think the internet was, and how much it helped me back when it was, perhaps, as naive as I was.

On Robin Williams

August 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Last night my roommates and I were interviewing someone to take over my room before I move out in September. While absently flipping through his phone, one of my roommates gasped. He told us Robin Williams died. Of course none of us knew Robin Williams personally. Of course we continued to vet the potential subletter, letting him know about our cleaning chart and the protocols for having friends over during the workweek. Of course we went about our lives.

When our guest left, I headed to my room, searching the internet until 2am in the hopes of clarity, and perhaps some absolution from the tragedy. I read the tweets from his celebrity friends. I watched a skit with Carol Burnett and a clip from “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” I looked at my DVD of “Hook” sitting in the corner.

I don’t remember feeling this bad about other celebrities that have passed away. Sometimes it was shocking, and sometimes I did feel sad, but only in the abstract way that death is always sad to hear about. I cried for Robin Williams. I think about how my parents knew him so young and how I grew up with him. I think about how overwhelmingly, horrifically depressed one must be to feel that is the only way out. 

But from the outpouring I see on my newsfeeds and in the conversations I have with friends, it is nice to be reminded of the transcendent power of comedy and art, how it cuts through to universal human experience, that someone none of us knew could make us feel something. It’s easy to forget that. Fame can seem dependent on “selling out” at best, and cultural materialism and immoralism at worst. But Robin Williams was not that. He was charming. Did he make crude jokes? Yes. He made fun of all types of people, but it never felt malicious or mean-spirited or offensive. He was a verbal force, sometimes exhaustingly so, with an unbelievably quick mind that is stunning to watch in old Johnny Carson videos or SNL skits. I remember being a child and laughing along at “Mork and Mindy” reruns, and my not-so-brief “Aladdin” addiction, and feeling moved by “Good Will Hunting,” and weeping at “Good Morning Vietnam.” I remember being grossed out at his comedy specials. It feels almost inappropriate, but also remarkable, to say that I miss him. 

“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”

February 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

Last week I started a dream journal. This week I obliterate my dream journal.
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