Camille Paglia Thinks Katy Perry Is Ruining Women: I Sincerely Disagree
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The past week has been a-buzz with Katy Perry’s proclamation in her acceptance speech of Billboard’s Woman of The Year Award that she is “not a feminist” followed up by Camille Paglia’s scathing article in The Hollywood Reporter blaming Perry, Taylor Swift and Hollywood for ruining women. While I felt disappointed that Perry made it a point to distance herself from being a “feminist,” I also felt the outrage over her decision to do so had been unfairly disproportionate to the act and perhaps more destructive to “the movement” than Perry’s statement.
Perry’s songs speak for themselves. I don’t question if she believes women should have equal rights. I don’t question if Perry believes she should earn less than a man or disagrees with the illegalization of marital rape or more specifically, the legalization of no-fault divorce. What I question is what has happened to the feminist movement that Billboard’s Woman of The Year did not want to be associated with it, while also qualifying herself as someone who does “believe in the strength of women.” In that same speech, Perry says, “I don’t really like to call myself a role model for my fans, but I hope that I am an inspiration.” What Perry attests to is something bigger than perhaps, say, branding herself a feminist. She does not want to be a symbol, a representation, or a mouthpiece for her gender. Katy just believes in Katy. She stated that her mantra for her film was, “If you believe in yourself you can be anything.” Some may argue that without the feminist movement, Katy could not have been anything. But why isn’t Katy believing in herself and spreading that message enough? Why are successful female celebrities expected to carry the torch for “their team” and mercilessly ridiculed when they politely decline? And would it have not raised controversy for Katy if she declared she was a feminist? Surely her “good-girl mask over trash and flash” as Paglia coined it, would be called into question.
Paglia goes after Swift with just as much vitriol, attacking her “golly, gee whiz” persona and her “monotonous vocal style” ultimately to say that she is disappointed in the 22-year old singer-songwriter for writing songs about boys. She calls out Perry’s “yawning chasm between her fresh, flawless 1950s girliness” and “the overt raunch of her lyrics” as also reflecting the feelings of her base audience: “nice white girls from comfortable bourgeois homes.” But this begs the question: So what?
In 2010 I was driving through Brooklyn by myself when Katy Perry’s “Firework” came on the radio. My instinct was to turn it off. This was exactly the kind of pop music that I loathed. I thought of Perry as another Britney – selling sex dressed as a schoolgirl, co-opting the sexual revolution part of the second-wave feminism movement and leaving out the rest. But then something happened; I actually heard the lyrics: ignite the light and let it shine. I was by myself, the windows were rolled up, I could get away with listening to just a little bit more. Slowly I increased the volume, lyric by lyric until I found myself with the volume pumped all the way up and me, singing my heart out. Even though I was ten pounds overweight, fighting depression, and headed back to a 450 square-foot apartment I could still barely afford, in that moment I was a firework.
Something shifted for me that night. I had found inspiration from an artist I had once judged as “stupid". Maybe it was okay to like pop music even if I didn’t always agree with what the artist represented. Much like I could dance with abandonment to James Brown despite despising how he beat up women, maybe it was okay to sing along to someone like Britney Spears even though she wasn’t exactly a role model. And more importantly why had it been easier to separate the art from the artists when it came to men and seemed treacherous to do so when it came to women? But Perry’s "Firework" was something I could feel good about enjoying. Who wouldn’t agree with what Perry was selling in that song? She was selling more than a catchy tune about empowerment; she was selling the divine.
For me, raised by a single dad surrounded by a younger brother and four male cousins I saw daily, I became an unflinching tomboy who looked down on anything girly, which at the time was quite possibly a way to feel like one of them. Somewhere in my mind “girly” meant to be weak, less than. To be a tomboy meant you were just as tough as the boys. Tomboys could play soccer in the rain and mud. Tomboys could steal the basketball away from their older male cousin. Tomboys could get scraped and bruised and not shed a tear because worse than the insult, “you play like a girl” was the insult “you are such a drama queen.” That tomboy-mindedness developed into feminism and combat boots in college. I had been raised with men and treated no differently than the boys, while also never skipping a beat alongside them. I was an equal. But why had anything “feminine” become something I refused to associate with? Why couldn’t I imagine myself as a strong woman who also wore lipstick and heels? Why was that image bad and combat boots and wearing no make-up better?