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

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

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”

In Defense of Shallow Girls

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.”

On “Empowering” Female-Centric Clickbait

Seeing articles like the one posted below repeatedly go viral speaks to the sad state of perceived gender constraints more than the contents of the actual article. The ideas and writing are fine, considering simultaneously that its points are blasé and uncontroversial. “Not having baby fever. Having baby fever. Wanting to get married young. Not wanting to get married young. Weight, because size actually does not determine what a ‘real woman’ is or not.” General decision making and humane attitudes towards appearance should not spark a throng of women to share and weep. It should not spark a mass of men saying “THIS.” If such spoon-fed conspicuousness is felt as empowerment—then that is much more telling as to how far we still have to go and just how needed progressive gender work is.

Read the article in question here, if you haven’t already come across it on your news feed: http://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2014/01/18-things-women-shouldnt-have-to-justify/

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I’m Still Alive

Reasons I’ve been MIA:

  • Hurricane Sandy caused the pipes in our building to explode, the heat to fail, our ceiling to collapse – in a nutshell I had to move to a new apartment. To give you non-New Yorkers some context, moving apartments here is the difficulty-equivalent to building Rome in a day while writing a Nabokovian novel while juggling purple elephants.
  • I started a new job! At a great company! It’s great! But it means sacrificing certain things while adjusting, such as babbling in a blog at 2am.
  • “Game of Thrones” returned. Naturally this means I had to re-watch every season before the premier. To do so involved retreating to my cave of a room, leaving society, throwing my fist in the air and yelling “Joffrey!” while covered in peanut butter, etc.

But I am alive, and have been busy. Feel free to check out some of my womany feministy human rightsy writings on PolicyMic:

Is Fast Food a Feminist Issue?

“This is Personal” Campaign Fights For Reproductive Rights Online

Hollaback! to Create An App to End Street Harassment

Cultural Superiority and Issues of Rape

I’ve been following the story unfold in India regarding the Delhi gang rape. The more I read, the more I am appalled.

But for now I don’t want to talk about the specificities of the case. What I want to discuss is how these incidents are appearing in American media. In an incident that appears to be so black and white, so good vs. evil, we as a Western culture have taken liberties in criticizing Indian culture without taking it one step further, in reflecting on the rape culture here at home. Of course, we should criticize this incident. We should be upset. But we should not presume a kind of colonial superiority, however unintentional this presumption may be. In fact, the “unintentional” is what frightens me most about this kind of editorial coverage.

A lot of people I know have difficulty seeing rape culture in our society. They don’t deny that there are faults within the system, but they also cannot identify how it affects their daily life and the life of those around them. I believe the men in my life who say they do not understand the purpose of a feminist movement anymore. These are not misogynists or idiots; they are friends and people I love. These are people whose opinions matter to me. But what I also believe is that if they understood the insidious ways gender inequality and social constructions have been established in American society, that they would no longer passively support them. I believe these issues would not be viewed with such cultural opacity the way it is often done now. I believe they would call themselves feminists.

Rape and sexual oppression are not issues that were ordained by God. If we are willing to label other cultures’ gender relations as morally wrong and separate from our own, than a country’s gender relations are not inherent. And that means the way we do things at home, as well as abroad, can be changed. Gender inequality has fallen under the umbrella of “culture”, a big, foggy word that often shifts our perception to one of concepts instead of something tangible to be dealt with proactively. But as any historian would tell you, it is possible for immense and drastic change among gender policies and cultural attitudes. This should make us hopeful. While we scrutinize Indian culture and advocate for positive changes abroad, we should take the opportunity to implement the same strategy here while these issues are in the national dialogue, and criticize.

Here are some things I’ve been reading:

Don’t Blame It on the Sunshine (blame it on the boogie and/or social constructions)

As I am both a product of gender studies courses and a lover of danceable 80’s beats, I felt compelled to comment on Michael Jackson’s cultural impact, as last week would have been the King of Pop’s birthday.

Here is my article, submitted to the Feministing website. And if your eyes haven’t been e-bludgeoned to e-death with Todd Akin internet commentary, you should also check out my article on that whole fiasco, entitled “Why We Can’t Write Off Todd ‘Misspoke’ Akin as a Lunatic Exception”.

Hope everyone is enjoying September! In fact, September really means “seven”, even though it is the 9th month of the year. Why, you ask? It’s because we converted stuff weirdly from the Roman calendar, but dug the lingo too much to change it. And that is a charming tidbit of history from you to me, in my own colloquial tongue. (As you can see, I am not a product of history courses.)