Column: Art / Music / Theatre

How can you tell a good feminist pop star?

by Julia Tulloh , November 20, 20124 Comments


Photo credit: Osei (Ozzy)

After I wrote my first-ever Killings piece – in which I argued that the booty-shakin’ queen of pop wasn’t very feminist in her video for ‘Run the World (Girls)’ even though she kinda tried to be – I spent the following months terrified that Beyoncé would actually read the post and never want to be friends with me when I become an Academy award-winning, Hollywood-screenwriting billionaire.

Shattered dreams aside, I still hold to what I wrote. But the question remained for me: can I really be a feminist and love pop music? Or to be more succinct – can I remain both a feminist and a pop music fan? Can I still obsess over people whose lyrics I sometimes disagree with? Can I support women who seem to promote the objectification of other women? Is this even something I should be casting judgement upon? Let me elaborate by describing the examples that caused me the greatest mental anguish.

I like Taylor Swift. There: I said it – publically. When she’s on the cover, I buy the magazine. When I see Taylor Nation (her regular e-newsletter) in my inbox, I get excited about receiving discounts on blankets bearing her face, dressing gowns sporting her signature, and these things – whatever they are. But the thing is, T-Swizzle (yes, I can call her that, because T-Pain did, and he’s cooler than I am) sings so much about being a princess, being rescued, and being happy once she finds a man that even I’m like, ‘hey sister, pass me the sick bucket before I spew glitter and rainbows over all my friends who don’t even think it’s ironically cool for me to be into you’. Because even though Tay Tay’s been writing her own lyrics and guitar parts since a young age, and even though she dresses somewhat counter-culturally for the pop-music world (she rarely shows cleavage and never has a fake tan) and even though many interviews and documentaries show her to be spirited and feisty, suggesting that her loud and proud determination has facilitated her rise to fame, I still can’t imagine letting my daughter (should I have one, someday) listen to her songs without bleeping out the princessry and sparkle-arkle as if they were expletives.

I’ve already commented on why I love Beyoncé, but admiring an artist like Nicki Minaj opens a whole new can of scantily-clad worms. Not that scantily clad is necessarily a problem, but I still can’t get past Minaj squeezing bright pink viscous fluid across her bulging breasts in her ‘Superbass’ video. No matter which way I cut it, the action seemed objectifying and gratuitously hypersexualised. Nevertheless, no-one can argue that the girl’s not talented. Only Amy Heidemann of Karmin can rap better than Nicki can, and only in this cover. Plus, Minaj has multi-coloured hair and wears Dr. Martens, just like me (and I refer to the boots, not the weaves).

So the questions that arise when gazing at the stars in my personal hall of female-pop fame include: Am I erring on ‘slut-shaming’ when I say I don’t like Minaj’s visual tactics? Am I taking lyrics too literally when I criticise Beyoncé’s rhetoric of girl power, when I should just be going with the vibe of the thing? Should I just be thankful that there are successful, young women out there, no matter what they sing? Should I admire them based on talent alone, or is it okay to get sucked into the mass-visual appeal of gals like Lady Gaga? Am I committing a crime for wanting a perm to look more like Taylor Swift? (No seriously, am I? I need an objective opinion).

Deep down, I know that if I love a celebrity enough, I’ll find a compelling way to argue in favour of their feminism. Because feminism is about freedom, not rules, and trying to fit people I don’t even know into a paradigm I can’t even clearly articulate all the time seems a fruitless, self-righteous exercise for the most part. But the above questions don’t have easy answers, despite the apparently superficial nature of their origins, because they are about how I personally (or we, as a society) form our values, and highlight a potential disconnect between the values we may claim to espouse and the values we actually support and pay money to see or hear.

Julia Tulloh is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.


  • Uhila

    Didn’t like where this started, but u made the full circle.

    Perhaps this suggests that we live in a post-feminist society. Because you’re right, female expression can take many forms and the only rule is that of self determination. So if one chooses to be an object of sexual desire – that too is a valid expression.

    In a strange irony, the most vocal people who slut shame are the people who purport to be feminists themselves.

    Nice one Jules.

  • Tara Cartland

    Dang, that last paragraph is spot on. I’ve been a feminist and a pop-star apologist for a long time now. I adore Gaga, Minaj, and even Brit-Brit. I’ve argued for Lana Del Rey’s feminist validity (and stand by it).

    You’re right when you say that we all find a way to justify our love – I’m guilty of that – but I think that’s a positive, given the anxiety this type of conversation provokes. Feminism IS about freedom – it’s easy to forget that. Thanks for the read!


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