Do What You Want With My Body: Beyonce, Gaga, and the Pornification of Feminism

[Caveat: this post is rated P-13…at least].

In college I was a part of a group called Sexual Assault Peer Educators. We went to Human Sexuality classes and frat houses and talked about what constitutes rape, how prevalent it is, and how we can all help prevent it. I learned from that experience that it is not self-evident to everyone that nobody deserves to be raped, no matter how they dress. And after actually hearing guys says things like, “Hey, if you wave a piece of meat in front of a hungry dog, you’re gonna get bit,” I came to understand what is now called “rape culture.”

rape_culture

 And I became even more concerned about how our culture commodifies sex and views the female body as an object of consumption. To me, it seemed relatively obvious that porn culture and rape culture go hand-in-hand. You make sex and the human body something to be bought, owned, and consumed for self-gratification, and you are contributing to a culture in which people think like the dude who made the meat analogy. Right?

Then a few years ago, I participated in a Take Back The Night march that was a response to a serial killing of women in my neighborhood, several of whom had been prostitutes. There was a group of radical feminists at the march, and I was surprised to learn they didn’t share my views about pornography. They thought that sex-work, as they call it, and pornography were actually liberating for women—spaces where woman can take control of their sexuality and actually exert power over the men who desire them. On this view, sex workers and porn stars are liberators, “transgressing” patriarchal norms of modesty and morality that keep women oppressed. And prudes like me—who think prostitution and porn are harmful to women—are actually part of the problem. What we need is not less porn and prostitution, but less stigma surrounding them.

Its not surprising that this line of academic feminist thinking—which lends itself so readily to consumerism—has been taken up by pop singers and their marketing teams. And divas who formerly would’ve been seen as playing for the wrong team are successfully packaging their wares as feminist.

Take for example Beyonce’s latest album, which purportedly contains “strong feminist themes.” The album is referred to both as simply Beyonce and as “the visual album,” which is about right, since it amounts to a video magazine of close-ups and glam shots of Beyonce in all manner of hyper-sexualized scenarios. Almost to a video, Beyonce is teasing, stripping, or telling-all, and almost never while wearing pants. Half the videos are marked “Explicit” on iTunes, and most of the ones that aren’t should be.

The lyrically content of the songs is equally erotic and explicit. Most of the lyrics I can’t even reprint here, but here’s a little sampling of what I can: “Drunk in Love” is actually just about getting drunk and having sex (“I get filthy when that liquor get into me”). “Rocket” is a collection of innuendos (“Climb until you reach my peak, baby/And reach right into the bottom of my fountain”) and not-innuendos (“Punish me, please”) that reads like a string of sexts. “Blow” is about just what it sounds like. “Jealous” is about wanting to cheat for revenge after she “cooked this meal for you naked.” And “Partition”…no, there’s nothing I can reprint here. 

What’s noteworthy about this album is not its visually and lyrically quasi-pornographic nature (though dropping 80 minutes of high-def nearly-naked Beyonce all at once does ratchet this game up a notch). No. What’s interesting is the that two songs that bookend the album that attempt to frame it as a kind of feminist manifesto.

The album opener “Pretty Hurts” indicts our culture for its obsession with physical beauty and its narrow definition thereof (“Perfection is a disease of a nation…Blonder hair, flat chest/TV says, ‘Bigger is better,’ South beach, sugar free/Vogue says, ‘Thinner is better”). Pointing up how destructive media images of beauty are to the psyches and self-perceptions of women, Beyonce laments:

It’s my soul that needs surgery

Plastic smiles and denial can only take you so far

Then you break when the fake facade leaves you in the dark

You left with shattered mirrors and the shards of a beautiful past

The solution offered to all this superficiality and pressure to be perfect is to learn self-acceptance. The song asks “When you’re all alone by yourself” (seems a bit redundant) “are you happy with yourself?” And Beyonce finally answers, “Yes” as the song closes. With that, the stage is set for all of the indecent exposure that follows to be understood as a demonstration of the fact that Beyonce doesn’t hate her body like the media tells her that she should.

Now, I don’t doubt the genuineness of Beyonce’s own personal journey with self-image and body-hatred. But the idea that this collection of videos is a) a vehicle through which she discovered her own inner beauty/learned not to find her self-worth in her appearance, and therefore, b) some kind of feminist statement of freedom that should be liberating for other women too, and therefore, c) a work of art that somehow subverts the patriarchal media machine that objectifies the female body—is absolutely, positively ludicrous.

And here’s why: First, the idea that Beyonce does not conform to traditional conceptions of beauty, or that in “celebrating” her particular body, she is somehow challenging or subverting the media’s definition beauty/femininity, is just laughable. Who doesn’t think this woman is beautiful? She is, as Jay-Z told us when she started “wearing his chain,” “the hottest chic in the game.” True, skinny, white 15-year-olds are still used in Ralph Lauren ads and high fashion runway shows, but that is not the “dominant paradigm” of beauty in our culture. Beyonce is. Huge eyes, thick lips, flawless skin, toned stomach, big curves in all the right places. Beyonce possesses not a single feature that lies outside of the ideal of what the media was already telling women is beautiful. I can’t imagine that women who are overweight or abnormally tall or have problems with acne suddenly felt permission to love themselves in way they never had before when they first saw these videos.

beyonce

Second, even if Beyonce were “ugly” or “fat” by media standards, the idea that she is doing something liberating or feminist by proudly displaying to the world every nook and cranny of herself is, again, just ridiculous.

Now, I’m all for people being comfortable with their bodies and agree that those of us who don’t or can’t look like some media proffered ideal should still love ourselves and our bodies. But proudly exposing and flaunting a body that (supposedly) doesn’t conform to the media ideal is no less superficial than flaunting one that does. Beyonce doesn’t say or do anything on this album to demonstrate she’s found her value or self-worth in something other than physical beauty and shallow sexuality. Her answer to “pretty hurts” is not “You are loved because you are a child of God” or “Your value comes from your whole person,” it’s simply to redefine “pretty” (which we have already established she does not actually do). So when Beyonce brags to us in “Rocket” that she’s “proud of all this bass” [camera shot: close-up of her butt], she’s still a woman finding her self-worth in her ass.

This becomes glaringly clear in the other bookend. Near the end of the album, the song “Flawless” incorporates a long sample from the TED talk of African feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she laments, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men…we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…” I don’t know how Adichi intended these comments, but as they are appropriated by Beyonce, they end up a kind of self-contradictory mess.

The song’s title is a mantra of self-affirmation. It tells us that Beyonce, now through to the other side of her journey of self-acceptance and sexual empowerment embraces herself just the way she is (“I’m flawless!”). And she wants other women to be able to do this too, inviting them: “Say, ‘I look so good tonight.’”

But ultimately she can’t resist framing her flawlessness in comparison to other women: “I know when you were little girls, you dreamt of being in my world,/ Bow down b*tches.” Well, maybe that’s because the kind of sexuality Beyonce is trying to claim for women, the kind that’s like what men have, is inherently competitive, superficial, and destructive.

Bow down, b*tches? So Beyonce’s journey of feminist self-actualization ultimately arrives at a place where she can call other women b*tches because of how flawless she is. Hm.   

Despite Beyonce’s reporting that “this album is all about honesty,” these videos, and their accompanying lyrics, are all about objectification, which is actually a form of dishonesty. Regardless of Beyonce’s own role in the writing of these songs and production of these videos, their effect is to separate her body from the rest of her and turn it into an object of desire for consumers to purchase and use to their own ends. This is fundamentally dishonest. And ultimately, Beyonce isn’t being honest with herself if she thinks that just because she is the agent of her own body-hawking she is somehow empowered by it. This makes about as much sense as saying that cutting or eating disorders or suicide are empowering. Self-harm is still harm. Self-objectification is still objectification.

Which brings us to Lady Gaga. Gaga has built an empire on dressing and undressing her body in various transgressive ways that shock and provoke (oh my, a meat dress!) And because of this, she’s hailed as a smart, self-aware feminist of the future. (There’s even a whole book written about this). But if we scratch beneath the patina of avant-garde affectation and irony, Gaga’s just as guilty of self-objectification.

lady_gaga-jpg

Let’s take “Do What U Want,” the second single off of her latest album, Artpop, as an example. The song is supposedly smart because it operates on two levels. On one level, it’s a thumper of a club song about drinking and sex, with Gaga giving us permission over and over again to “do what [we] want with [her] body.” On another level, it’s Gaga critiquing the media for objectifying and misrepresenting her.

Write what you want/Say what you want about me/

If you want to know/I’m not sorry

…You can’t stop my voice/Cause you don’t own my life/

But do what you want with my body

So she wants us to know that she’s in control here. Even though we can buy her body and use to our own ends, she’s the one who decided that. And she won’t give us the stuff that really matters (her heart, etc). “Do What U Want” is supposedly Gaga asserting her autonomy over an oppressive media machine that would seek to subjugate her.

Except guess which level of meaning the marketing of the song is based on? The video–which, to be fair, was never actually released, but clips of which were leaked online–looks to me a lot like porn. In it, Gaga plays a (naked) patient to R. Kelly’s doctor, who has a party with a dozen “sexy” nurses and Gaga’s limp, anesthetized body. (Get it? He’s doing what he wants with her body. Clever.) This is intercut with shots of her being photographed wearing a paper dress that she progressively rips apart until she’s naked and writhing on the floor.

The cover art for the single is a close up shot of a G-string-wearing Gaga bent over with her butt in the camera. The shot is slightly overexposed, in the photographical sense. According Gaga, it represents the fact that her “ass is all she chooses to give us.”

Do you see what she did there? As with the song, she wants us to think that the meaning of the cover art is entirely based on her intentions. She can choose what she’s giving us. She’s saying, ”I know that this looks and sounds and smells exactly like the kind of pop music that objectifies women. I know that it contains a duet with a guy who was once arrested for making child pornography  and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. I know that on the surface level the lyrics are about me degrading myself and allowing myself to be degraded in the back of a club. But [wink, wink] if you’re smart, you know that this actually means the exact opposite of all that.”

So the difference between degrading objectification and liberating art boils down to whether or not the author intends it to be ironic?

At the end of the day, avant-garde porn is still porn. And porn is still something that contributes to, rather than helps to dismantle, rape culture. The human body, male or female, is not something that can be objectified or commodified or sold without being degraded and dehumanized. Even if the one doing the objectifying and commodifying and selling is the person to whom the body belongs.

Thank God Sinead O’Connor was willing to speak this truth to Miley Cyrus. In her words, “Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”

I know I’ll be accused of slut-shaming and not being sex-positive, but, oh well. Somebody’s got to say it: Nobody is being liberated by the idea that porn is feminist. Nobody is being liberated by these quasi-pornographic pop videos. Not Beyonce, not Lady Gaga, not the other women who watch them or have to live in the culture now poisoned by them.

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22 thoughts on “Do What You Want With My Body: Beyonce, Gaga, and the Pornification of Feminism”

      1. Ouch, was that a ‘bitch-slap’? The recognition of other points of view and anticipating counter arguments as part of a cogent essay is surely inclusive to the intent of maintaining an equally respected voice in fair forum for discussion rather than to anticipate and stifle dissent. Or am I missing something about the freedom to express views through a blog site? Like the theme of this essay, is it to say something for yourself or just to gain ‘likes’ and followers?

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        1. Fair enough. My point wasn’t that I’m not interested in hearing dissenting voices, but that criticisms need to be substantiated. Otherwise it’s little more than name-calling. If you check the comment threads on my posts you’ll find lots of folks who disagree with me from many different perspectives.

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  1. feminist : a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

    I guess that i am in the minority as well for liking this post and thinking you made a valid point
    Following this year’s VMAs, there was a headline article ”Beyonce’s 2014 VMAs Performance Made a Feminist Statement That Was Both Important and Flawless”. said article went ahead to say that through her music, Beyonce is a feminist and basically is a flag bearer for feminists around the world
    And yet, i was a little bit confused how she clearly misread Chimamanda’s TED TALK
    ”We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much…We teach females, that in relationships, ‘compromise’ is what women do. We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs, or for accomplishments — which I think can be a good thing — but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…We teach girls shame. “Close your legs. Cover yourself.” We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up — and this is the worst thing we do to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”
    Sure, Beyonce is trying to show that as women, we need to embrace our sexuality and not shy away from being sexual beings, but are we going to far?
    For VMA to claim this year the stage was graced by women feminists like Nikki grinding over Drake with barely clad backup dancers, i thought, is this what it means to be a feminist?
    We are not celebrating women inventors,leaders, mothers, mentors, role models, environmentalists, seeing how ”few” these are, instead we are celebrating women who have turned pretense into an art form
    I would have to agree with Chimamanda on redefining a feminist : a man or a woman who says, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better.”
    And better is celebrating the milestones, let us not lose focus on what needs to get fixed, we are not calling for more airtime of lady gaga’s music, but milestones in educating women, an educated woman is more likely to raise a child past the age of 5, she is more inclined to educate her children and provide for them, let us promote gender equality and empower women for stronger households, and let us try to keep our clothes on while doing this

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  2. Without weighing in on what’s right or wrong I do find it interesting that when Alan Thicke objectifies women it’s oppressive. When Beyonce does it to herself it’s liberating. Ownership of the behavior is very important. When my African-American students use the n-word for themselves they are trying to create a new emotional and cultural significance for the word- they claim ownership of the word and therefore, by extension, it’s meaning. I cannot separate the history form the word but they can. Is it my place to tell them they cannot have agency over their lives? In the end, I work to change my practices and create a safe and thoughtful environment. To do that I must be informed and encourage others to be informed. I really appreciate this post because it is, in my opinion, well reasoned and honest. Posts like this and your post on White Privilege are what wee need to further the conversations that will allow these discussions to move into the main stream.

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    1. Interesting comparison. I think where it fails is that reclaiming a word is a possibility because it’s meaning can be changed. I think that our bodies and sexual acts, however, have intrinsic meaning that we cannot just decide to change. That was my point about Gaga. Just deciding that an inherently self-degrading act is empowering will not make it so.

      Thanks for the kind words about my blog.

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  3. I’m not quite sure how I feel after reading this post. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    I think it’s coming from a well-intentioned place, at least.

    The segue from talking about rape and rape culture into a dissection of Beyoncé’s costumes, dancing, and music was uncomfortable.

    One thing worth mentioning where Beyoncé is concerned is intersectionality of issues. You state she does not possess a single feature the media does not claim to be beautiful, but please don’t forget race. Beyoncé is indeed lauded by nearly all media as the epitome of beautiful, but it’s very important to remember that this only came with fame. As a Black woman, that would not have been the message the media portrayed in her childhood.

    It is okay to enjoy problematic things so long as we don’t ignore or make excuses for the problems, and I hope that doesn’t sound like what I’m trying to say here.

    In the end, I suppose I’m just going to have to respectfully disagree. Try as I might I cannot bring myself to fault at least Beyoncé for selling her sexuality on her own terms; I feel the same of Gaga, begrudgingly, as I have other issues with her. There are a lot of intersections here that have weight, most notably race, and some which are not as apparent, such as motherhood and the range of new societal pressures tied to it.

    I would also like to – very kindly – suggest that if you’re already anticipating being called out for slut-shaming before you finish writing an article, please consider going for that bike ride before the final edit; it can apply to more than one topic.

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    1. Yes, thanks for pointing out the racial aspect of beauty and self-image in regards to Beyonce. I thought about writing a paragraph to acknowledge that in Beyonce’s case, it is more complex. But you can only cover so much ground in a blog post without making it overwhelming for readers. I would also say in my defense that (at least with one listen/watch) I didn’t find that Beyonce herself made race a very prominent theme in addressing issues of beauty/body-image/sexuality, etc. It’s there, but not central.

      As far as being called out for slut-shaming, I get that privilege exists on multiple levels (and that I have it on multiple levels), but I don’t think that my critique was slut-shaming at all. Slut-shaming is when a victim is blamed for causing her own assault. I’m not doing that here. I’m trying to point out ways I think a certain line of reasoning that purports to be feminist is not, and using pop singers as examples. And I get that cultural expectations for sexual ethics have been disproportionately focussed on women. But that doesn’t mean we just drop sexual ethics altogether or that we can’t critique destructive behavior just because it’s being done by a woman.

      I really appreciate your respectful engagement here. If you put your finger on your discomfort, I’d love to hear back.

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  4. I’ve been ruminating over this for a little while, and still can’t quite get a foothold on the issue…

    I am absolutely an advocate of sexual empowerment and expression for women — I was a randy and reckless 19-year-old once, too — as well as the erasure of the prevalent double standards about sexual appetite. But nevertheless I find myself rather put off by hyper-sexualized displays and performances being billed as feminist. Does that automatically make me a prude? Is there such thing as prude-shaming?

    I have a four-year-old daughter, and though it may be a little cliched and overbearing, I can’t help but look at this from her point of view. She likes Katy Perry, she likes Gaga, she likes Beyonce… (In fact, she asked me what ‘sexy’ meant after listening to Naughty Girl — “It means she feels good in her body!” I told her, which may or may not lead to some interesting playground exchanges) What troubles me is that she only sees, in a general way, how these women look — how they dress, how they pose, how they wear make-up — not the nuances of their social critique or subversion or reclaiming or co-optation or whatever. She sees beautiful women in make-up and sexy clothes. Which, ok! Good! Women are beautiful and sexy. But I’m afraid the overall message is still this: as a woman, you MUST be beautiful and sexy in order to be worthwhile. (To say nothing of the accompanying dangers of the male gaze and commodification culture)

    I kind of think of the evolution of feminism as a pendulum, swinging between extremes… From the man-haters of the 80s to the cleavage-lovers of the new millennium! Maybe somewhere in the middle is women dressing how they choose, being taken seriously no matter what they look like, and enjoying equal pay and benefits and government-subsidized child-care. I’d dance in my undies for that.

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    1. I agree with most of what you say above, but I don’t see the pendulum swinging back anytime soon. In fact, I’m not sure the pendulum has swung in the direction of modesty and some kind of understanding of the human body having objective dignity in over a century now.

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  5. I appreciate your post and applaud your intellectual and emotional courage for engaging such tough topics. I am a survivor of a brutal and horrible rape so I appreciate especially men who challenge rape culture and who challenge the selling of one’s sexuality as liberation. I detest Gaga’s song “Do What You Want With My Body.” I don’t care that she intended to be ironic. The surface message is what the average person will hear; it’s exactly what happens and what is believed. Women’s bodies are used to sell cars, liquor, music, candidates, clothes, lifestyles, lies. The body is part of the human and to try to separate it from the spirit or soul and the heart just chisels away at humanity. Have your body violated over and over and then get told you asked for it or you were mentally ill and imagined it and tell me that you still own your thoughts, your heart, your body, yourself and it doesn’t matter what is said about or done with your body.

    Thank you for writing this and for challenging this kind of feminism. Yes, women have a right to own their sexuality, to express it, to engage it, to define it, but be clear that when you say “do what you want with my body,” someone is all to happy to do just that and all your agency, all your clever irony, all your perceived power goes right out the window.

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  7. Awww, how gorgeous!! I always wonder how extensions would look in my red hair. I’ve had short hair for as long as I can remember and you’ve sort of inspired me with this post!

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  8. It was very painful to read this today. I’m 76 and remember Baltimore N.O.W. having this debate and actually inviting speakers (ALL MALE !) to come and talk about prostitution as a viable option. You would not believe some of the comments, i.e. men who go to a prostitute often are just lonely and want someone to “talk to”. Right……anyway, we had a Prostitution Task Force with a woman who was an ex prostitute heading it…(she aged out of her “profession”). It was to say the least extremely frustrating. I headed the speakers bureau and wrote an article challenging this in the paper. But, it was a real mess, I can tell you. Lots of women very confused…some very angry and me and some others very very frustrated. I couldn’t finish reading all you wrote but I’m copying and saving it for a re-read when I’m not so upset. It is sad how little has changed. I get that feminists want to be inclusive but how can this be anything good for girls and women?
    Thank you for writing such smart, strong , plain common sense ideas for all of us who are female or care about girls and women, who care about what will move humanity forward, not backward. Thank you for your courage. We need more of you.

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