Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lily Allen and pop culture feminism

Note: the following includes profanity.

The activist Fannie Lou Hamer once said, "Nobody's free until everyone is free"; yet many movements treat their causes as issues within neat self-contained bubble wrap packaging like so many Fig Bars from Costco. (The moment my dad opened the box and realized that there was a plastic baggie for every 2 fig bars was incredulity concentrated.) Take examples from history--
  • The movement for African-Americans' suffrage split, controversially, apart from the movement for women's suffrage. 
  • Some questioned the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed as much for international peace as much as he did for civil rights at home. 
  • Many historians point to second-wave feminists' alliance with LGBT-rights activists as a reason why Americans, onboard with feminist advances but still wary of gay rights, failed to overwhelmingly support the ERA. 
There are others, but those spring to mind immediately.

In truth, though it may be politically convenient to do so, attempting to separate movements that all seek to promote justice just doesn't work. Even worse: setting them in opposition to each other. And that's what brings me to a certain British chanteuse with a sleek black ponytail and the controversy erupting over her new single, "Hard Out There." 

I remember when I first heard Lily Allen. I was a preteen who still made lip-sync videos with her older sister, and aforementioned sis started blasting "Smile" on the computer. This was back in the day when the F-bomb still made my ears perk up in surprise. 

"What's that?" I demanded.

"Just listen," she said in obvious glee. "It's such a good song. Watch the music video, it tells the story."

And so I watched Lily Allen's narrator give a cheating ex revenge diarrhea (not shown onscreen) thanks to laxative tablets and coffee. It was pretty damn satisfying. Her other songs--"The Fear," with its criticism of conspicuous consumption, the realistic and human portrayal of female sexuality in a relationship in "Not Fair," "22"'s discussion of ageism and women--can all be interpreted in feminist lenses.

And then came "Hard Out Here." Its bountiful twerking and balloon letters seem to poke fun at pop culture icons Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. The events at the beginning of the video show a cause-and-effect of an entertainment industry, and public, that pushes unrealistic expectations for women's bodies--Lily Allen on an operating table, undergoing liposuction while a villainous manager clucks disapprovingly about how she let herself "go so far" (gain so much weight). The trend continues, but with the introduction of several new characters: twerking African-American dancers, who provide the foils to Allen's "Don't need to shake my ass for you 'cause I got a brain" persona. 

Some choice lyrics:

"If I told you about my sex life, you'd call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one's making a fuss
There's a glass ceiling to break, aha, there's money to make
And now it's time to speed this up 'cause I can't move in this space

Sometimes it's hard to find the words to say
I'll go ahead and say them anyway
Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits"

It's unapologetically profane, challenges the slut/player double standard, and even uses "glass ceiling" for probably the first time in a pop song that's received over 2 million views on YouTube.

So what's the problem?

This: by setting herself apart from a gaggle of nameless, voiceless background dancers, Lily Allen isn't changing that pop paradigm of fully clothed white males (holla, Robin Thicke) singing with gyrating close-to-naked women behind them -- she's only switching out the Pit Bull or Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake and replacing him with Lily Allen. 

That's not a feminist victory, because equal rights--breaking that glass ceiling--isn't just Lily Allen's movement. It's those twerking ladies' movement, too. Intersectionality isn't a pop culture buzzword, but maybe "Hard Out Here" can help it become one. (As Geek Feminism Wiki defines it--"Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Third Wave Feminism, especially, thrived on the concept of intersectionality in order to redefine Feminism as inclusive. The concept first came from legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 and is largely used in critical theories, especially Feminist theory, when discussing systematic oppression.")

I still like Lily Allen's songs. I think that it's difficult, if not impossible, to be a perfect advocate for anything. Simply by pointing out societal issues as bluntly as she does in her music, she's leaps and bounds ahead of most pop stars I can think of. In fact, I'm grateful for "Hard Out Here"--because it's started a conversation about race and feminism, and it reminds us all to remember those words--nobody's free till everyone's free. 

Not even you, Lily Allen.