Monday, December 01, 2008

Pop music divas, gender play, and empowerment

1) Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy" (embedding has been disabled by Youtube, so I only have a link)

The video for this song, off of Beyoncé's new album, features an incredibly serious and surprisingly subtle inversion of typically masculine and feminine stereotypes. It then surprisingly inverts them near the video's end in a way that could rightly be criticized as heavy-handed or obvious, though I would suspect that it's also a case of Beyoncé understanding that her intended audience might need more than a mere hint to get the point.

One of the reasons that this point - a statement on male privilege, where Beyoncé takes her boyfriend for granted, cheats on him, and laughs off his concerns - might need the explicit twist at the end is because the video's inversion doesn't totally work. Rather than becoming "a boy", her masculinized self has had masculinity grafted or added on to her femininity rather than replaced it. The inversion works for the most part during the exchanges with the boyfriend, but falls apart in public (her attractiveness is still coded in typically female ways - tight pants, hourglass figure) and in her interactions with other men, who stand above and behind her in conventionally familiar ways. One imagines that even the masculinized Beyoncé would not be immune to charges of being a whore, as little sense as that may make in the context of her song, because her "boy" character might be just as easily read as "ice queen" or simply "bitch".

All that said, this stuff probably constitutes the least important details of the video. Part of the lesson appears to be price of becoming like the boys - namely, the double-standard that exists when you fail to transition from the rules governing girls to a category of rules governing boys and are instead trapped inside both, subject to adhering to both at once. And the sudden transition to a stereotypical relationship between the two characters near the end also goes a ways to illustrating the tentativeness of women's masculine power, too - that is, even if you can hold a degree of masculine and feminine power at once, it's an anxious balance that's easily stripped away by those who wield more, and more secure, holds on that same privilege. And so the video fails because it's an exercise in realism.

2) Britney's "Womanizer" (again, embedding disabled)

But even if we found more to dislike than like in "If I Were A Boy"... well, thank god for Britney Spears, who lends some perspective by reminding us that while Beyoncé's video is flawed it could have been sooooo much worse.

Britney's various characters are also asserting some sort of power, a sort of campy masculine domination over an ostensible "womanizer" that's wronged them. But it's a wholly fantastical power, as the video's cheeky delivery undermines empowerment of these women in its joking presentation. This is the sort of thing that women might dream of doing, but it's not the sort of thing that any woman would actually do.

It's even sadder when we consider that the video's version of this woman's fantasy actually seems quite a bit more like a hegemonic man's fantasy. When the womanizer is being mobbed, we could be forgiven for wondering whether we should actually feel sorry for him - at times, it's not even entirely clear whether his punishment (?) is sex or... well, I'm not entirely sure what else it could be. Throw in the shots of a gratuitously nude Britney, with the womanizer seemingly showering in the background, and the audience can only be reasonably left with one conclusion: fantasy or not, being a womanizer is hot.


James said...

My name is James and I approve this blog.

omar karindu said...

Not to miss your points entirely, but it also certainly doesn't help that "Womanizer" is in and of itself a genuinely terrible song. The beat is flat, the refrain is rhythmically problematic -- there's a reason no one's ever built a song around the title word before -- and the lyrics themselves seem stuck between rejecting the title character and wanting to remain a sex kitten stereotype.

The annoying bit in the video, to my eyes, is that the guy doesn't actually, er, do any womanizing. Leering isn't seduction, as any random night at the pub could tell anyone. Instead, Britney in various guises throws herself at him, then rather oddly and nonviolently rejects him. Rather than a fantasy of rejecting male manipulation, the video becomes a male fantasy of the woman who submits by making sexual advances, by doing the work of male desire for the man in question.

Of course, that's pretty much Britney's entire career, innit? "Girl power," which is precisely the way patriarchal structures reincorporate the incipient resistance of sex-positive feminism. The woman's still an objet, but an object permitted to appear as a proxy for the male fantasy inscribed on her actions and garb. So waitress-Britney grabs the "womanizer's" tie and drags him from table, and then faux-slaps him and mobs him with stereotypical hotties.

But I wonder if anyone really finds this fantasy compelling anymore. (Of course, and multitudinously, no doubt.) But at a certain point, having someone else realize the fantasy -- and thus display both the absurdity and transparency of its power dynamics - rather ruins it.

Frankly, the most affecting parts of the video for me are Britney's scene-accelerating come-ons, less for their aggression then for their lapse into a kind of behavioral uncanny valley, somewhere between domination and submission that is not parity, between flirtation and rejection that is not relationship. She comes across to me not only as someone you'd never want to talk to (read: call the day after), but someone you wouldn't want within a hundred miles of your person.

neilshyminsky said...

"the lyrics themselves seem stuck between rejecting the title character and wanting to remain a sex kitten stereotype" - which makes the video a perfect fit, then.

But Britney has always functioned in this space outside of the requirements of normative romance - in, as you say, "a kind of behavioral uncanny valley". So the criticism that we never see the man womanize and that Britney's come-ons seem absurd and unprovoked actually strikes me as quite consistent with Britney's established persona. The video seems a natural extension of the character from, say, "Toxic", who is likewise a sex kitten composed of pure id. No, she's not really someone you'd ever want to meet, but none of us will ever meet Britney Spears so that's a moot point.

Obviously, there's something worth discussing in your point about how it is that the Britney persona remains compelling when she so brazenly reveals the transparency and falsity of her own ostensible sexual empowerment. And maybe it's because we can no longer discern where the line that separates Britney-as-pop-fantasy and Britney-as-human-being lies. Or that the latter actually exists.

omar karindu said...

I say this without malice, but it seems to me that Britney actually has the same problem distinguishing herself from the constructed persona in which she succeeded.

Of course, the limit is fairly easy to find the moment real-Britney actually runs into things like consequences and continuity of presence, i.e. immediate existence. Then she ends up in mental hospitals, in terrible marriages, and finally -- and perhaps even more boundary-blurring -- as a celebrity playing up her wild side while all her finances and personal decisions are micromanaged by her parents and staff.

I'm not sure she's "composed of pure id," though -- she seems to me more to be an object managinbg an ego compromise of sorts: "I came on to you, I willingly debased myself and called it empowerment, so you, hypocrite voyeur, mon semblable, mon frere, can enjoy all and go not just unblamed, but sanctioned by me, the object."

I agree that she's always inhabited that behavioral uncanny valley: that's sort of the weird and compelling paradox of many recent pop star sex idols.

But while we'll never meet Britney Spears, it may be pertinent to ask whether the bizarre performance of sexuality she and other similarly-branded pop personae market is actually a performance that real people try to imitate. It's not sustainable, of course, but that hardly deters mainstreaming or mainstreamed sexual display in any era.

The really sad thing to me is that the market Britney et al. operate in is one aimed at people whose fantasies are so bankrupt or whose ability to fantasize is so fragile or threatened that they need some outside referent, one with the immaterial stability of the hyperbranded and overplayed media spectacle, to make it work.

Christ, people can't even be bothered coming up with their own wet dreams anymore :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil,

I'm reading through this entry right now (I needed some intellectual stimulation), and I really like the way you've deconstructed these vids :). It's something that's really hard for me to do.

Your comment about Beyonce reminded me of the Matrix. (I always wondered why Trinity's outfit was so tight.)

Anyhow, hopefully school will restart soon. :)