Taylor Swift, Beyonce: When celebrity feminism goes wrong
When pop star Taylor Swift recently won album of the year at the Grammys she was applauded for delivering a “message of empowerment” to young women. In her acceptance speech, which even Ms magazine reposted on Facebook, Swift took to task critics who had dismissed her as managed and manufactured. She was responsible for her own success, she asserted.
Over the past year Taylor Swift has been very busy building her US$200 million fortune while reinventing herself as a celebrity feminist icon, delivering watered down political statements in her ubiquitous magazine interviews and social media postings.
Swift has joined that other female pop icon of the moment, Beyonce, in flashing the feminist label to round out her carefully constructed mediated personality and online presence. Most famously, Beyonce struts onstage in her concerts as a kind of warrior goddess while the word “feminist” lights up in colossal letters behind her.
You go, girl?
In her lyrics and concert performances, Beyonce instructs “girls” to “run the world”. But on the next track she is commanding her audience to “bow down bitches," invoking the kind of unrepentant misogyny that made rap infamous decades ago.
Beyonce is also not above the self-aggrandizing hyper-materialism of mainstream rap culture, giving it a new “feminist” twist. She has tied rap culture to traditional femininity too, frequently boasting she is both an independent woman and the “Mrs Carter” part of a pop power couple.
Appearing on stage in crown and jewels, “Queen B” – as she is known – presents a kind of pop culture personification of the ideal neoliberal woman who has it all – career, man, marriage and money.
Beyonce has long replaced Madonna as the pop culture power woman of the moment. Swift has also apparently learned the lessons of 1990s popular or celebrity feminism and is using it to her advantage. In the late 90s, the all-girl pop group the Spice Girls reinvented feminism as “girl power”, turning pop stardom into a narrative about modern “can-do” femininity.
Like Swift, the Spice Girls were accused of being fake or commercial feminists, put together and managed by middle-aged businessmen who saw a marketing opportunity, a profitable gap in the culture industries. Certainly, with their multiple endorsements and appearances, the Spice Girls charted new territory in the link between pop feminism and global money making.
Although it may not be their intention, the most lasting legacy of the new-style pop-star feminists may not be gender equality so much as reinventing female empowerment as “getting paid”.
Behind the claims to sisterhood is another reality that fits neatly with the neoliberalization of identity and femininity in Western culture. The youthful, beautiful pop star is paid so well because she is the acceptable, attractive face of some pretty ugly realities.
In contemporary neoliberal society and economy, power is defined in terms that are increasingly competitive, individualistic and ruthless. As that other emerging pop power woman Rihanna puts it: "Bitch better have my money!"
The focus on getting rich at any price (“or die trying”) doesn’t pull women together, but rather pushes them apart and sets them in cut-throat competition with other women (or, increasingly, girls).
For women, success is now defined in ever more youthful and hypersexual terms. Although young Swift (Tay Tay) is much more conservative than Beyonce (Queen B), the underlying message is still the same: that a woman must be “sexy” to be heard above the media noise – even when she is talking about feminism.
Apparently, it does not occur to the sexy feminine icon to challenge the sexist ideals that made her a star in the first place.
It is illuminating that Beyonce is referred to as “Queen B”. Back in the 1970s, researchers talked about the “Queen Bee syndrome” as referring to women who celebrated their own success in a way that was unhelpful to other women. So-called Queen Bees can actually be tougher on other women than men, because they think they made it to the top so every woman should be able to – if they are good enough.
Certainly, pop star feminist celebrities like Beyonce and Swift may do more harm than good in promoting the exceptional woman ideal. “Sure, you too can have it all,” they seem to say, “so long as you are exceptionally smart, beautiful, sexy and talented – like me.”
The consolation prize for the aspiring masses of ordinary wannabes, who inevitably fall short of the exceptional ideal, is to buy the product, the message, the music, the make-up, the fragrance, the clothing line, which will supposedly make us more like the empowered ideal woman.
As the face of Covergirl cosmetics, Swift probably makes almost as much from her lucrative deals with the beauty and fashion industries as from her music. Keep working on yourself, our culture seems to say to women, and you might get there one day – you too might be wealthy enough, beautiful enough and famous enough to have your political statements go viral on the internet.
This focus on exceptional individuals can help to legitimate or excuse an unfair system. It may be more helpful, for promoting gender equality, to look outward and work on society as a whole, rather than just looking inward and working on the self.
It is certainly true that, in the real world, successful women are often not given due credit for their achievements. However, is it really possible for someone who became a multi-media “star” as a teenager to be a truly self-made woman?
These feminist pop stars mostly owe their wealth, power and privileged speaking position to the backing of cultural industries and ideals which may actually be harmful to women as a group.
It may help the pop star feel good about herself, it may be inspiring for some of her followers and it may also work very well as a marketing strategy. But the myth of the self-made pop star power woman also simultaneously undermines the solidarity and collective action that produce real social change and gender equality in the long term. – Rappler.com
This article first appeared on The Conversation. Lecturer in Communication, University of Southern Queensland.