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.