We Can’t Stop Limiting Female Pop Stars

Hello, everyone! My first year of college is over. I’m so excited to be back in my house where no one can bother me. But enough about my antisocial tendencies. If you’ve been on Youtube lately, you might have noticed that Miley Cyrus’ newest song “Malibu” is among one of the most trending videos. The music video showcases an entirely “new” side to Miley, one that embraces the softness, delicate femininity, and pure wholesomeness that Cyrus, and all women, have been supposedly hiding beneath their overly-sexualized exteriors.

To get a taste of the average person’s opinion of the new Miley, just read the comments on her “Malibu” video or even on older videos like “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” which once incited a firestorm of media ire for being too provocative, too sexed-up, too unlike the Miley Cyrus the world had grown accustomed to through Hannah Montana.  One commenter writes that “it looks like Miley has finally found herself” and another who says that she’s “the old Miley again.” Another common comment refers to an alleged personality switch between Miley and Katy Perry, whose new song “Bon Appetit” has gained notice for its controversial, overtly sexual video. These comments beg the question: since when has a pop star only been allowed one “acceptable” public image, and why,  WHY does it have to be a pure one?

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All singers have phases, but Cyrus’ has had more sharply delineated phases than others. There was her rise to fame as Hannah Montana at age 11, a mild transition to a more mature, teen audience with her Breakout album, and then a provocative (to pearl clutching grandmas) shift to her “Party in the USA” performance and “Can’t Be Tamed” music video. After that there was a bit of a void, where Miley languished in mediocre teen films and released generic dance hits. And then came Bangerz, the permanently stuck out tongue, the naked wrecking ball, and the Robin Thicke twerkfest. The consequences of this “transformation,” as the media called it, was that Miley’s semi-respectable status as the grown-up Disney channel star was reduced to that of a desperate, twerking sex pot. This image prevailed throughout the following three years, even as Miley founded her Happy Hippie Foundation, released a new album with The Flaming Lips and uploaded a collection of videos for her personal channel that demonstrated her eclectic taste in music. Now that she’s released “Malibu,” and her hair is sort of brown, as opposed to that drastic platinum cut that defined her fall from grace, Miley is being accepted again. She’s “back to her old self.” Cyrus’ history has resulted in a dichotomy: the Old Miley, pure and innocent, and the New Miley, corrupted and sinful. This “Malibu” Miley is not a new New Miley, but a return to the Old Miley. She can only ever be one Miley or the other, but to imply that Cyrus could possibly be both, and many more personalities, too, implies that women are complex. But we can’t have that.

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One of Cyrus’ problems throughout these tumultuous phases has been a lack of subtlety. She threw herself completely into her Bangerz phase with the haircut, the tongue, and the twerk. Her songs, which have some merit (especially “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You”) are overshadowed by her videos. Audience members found her “We Can’t Stop” music video tasteless, but ignored the song’s message, in which Cyrus scolds listeners for judging her superficial qualities and claims ownership of her words and actions, including that tasteless video. It’s almost as if Cyrus intended to distract audiences with her shocking visuals, almost as if shock and awe might sell tickets. Who would have thought that Cyrus would be intelligent enough to manipulate her image for fame and money? Not the audience. Perhaps her transition from Hannah Montana to tongue wagger would have been smoother if she’d taken the Ariana Grande root, transforming from the star of Nick’s Victorious to a walking, talking sexual innuendo so slowly that you might not even notice. Even though both performers exhibit their sexuality with a wink, Cyrus’ wholehearted dive into foam penises and twerking was less palatable than Ariana’s sexy little girl schtick. That’s the deal with American pop music. Female sexuality is only permitted in pop stars if it’s implied, not explicit. Anything beyond suggestion merits punishment.

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This song is one big sexual innuendo. So is the video. But Ariana gets a pass because subtlety, no matter how little of it, is considered better than actual sexuality

This brings me to the subject of Katy Perry. Her new song “Bon Appetit” has incurred some ire for its video, which features Perry being made into a meal, and the lyrics, which are balanced unevenly between fun innuendo and explicit sexuality. This isn’t new for Perry, who made her name with a whipped cream bra in the “California Gurls” music video, but what is new is that she’s being compared to Cyrus. With her new blonde crop and her brazen video, she’s the newest pop star to be admonished for stepping outside the boundaries of acceptability. It makes no sense that female pop artists are confined to “this” or “that” images. Miley can be the “We Can’t Stop” Miley or the “Malibu” Miley. Perry can only be the “Roar” Katy or the “Bon Appetit” Katy. When Justin Bieber’s image changed from tween dream to twenty-something bad boy, his music was praised for showing “a more mature, sexual side.” Bruno Mars has faced no backlash from the jump from his early sickly sweet tunes like “Grenade” to his sex-heavy hits like “Locked Out Of Heaven” and his entire 24k Magic album. Zayn, Harry, and Niall completed their transition from innocent boy band to sexy solo artists with nary a scratch on their images. Shawn Mendes has yet to pen a sexy single, but I wouldn’t rule it out yet. The point is that these boys have been given free reign to express their maturity and sexuality through their music, but their female peers are reigned in by a separate set of rules.

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Zayn’s song “Pillowtalk” is all about sex. So is “Like I Would.” Yet no one clutches their pearls over him.

Perhaps the outcry is over Cyrus and Perry showing nudity in their videos and performances. And I guess, for a prudish country like the US that would be be legitimate, if it weren’t for the fact that the male artists I mention above use female nudity all the time in their videos and no one bats an eye. Zayn’s “Pillowtalk” shows a flower emerging out of a vagina, but that’s okay, since it’s ART. The video is beautiful (one of my favorite trippy music videos), but hell if that’s not a double standard. Bruno Mars uses scantily clad girls like furniture in his recent videos. Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean” prominently features a half naked girl and his video “Sorry” revolves around female dancers performing in a way similar to Cyrus’ raunchy twerking at the VMAs. So the question remains: when is it “acceptable” for there to be female nudity, and when is it not? From what I’ve seen so far in the pop industry, female nudity is only “acceptable” when it’s at the behest of male artists. As arm candy, dancers, living art, or in the case of “Blurred Lines,” walking butts and boobs, female nudity is “acceptable.”

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“Acceptable” nudity
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“Unacceptable” nudity
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“Acceptable” explicit nudity
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“Unacceptable” nudity
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“Acceptable” nudity
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“Unacceptable” nudity

The difference between these two categories of nudity is that when a nameless girl is naked or semi-naked in a male artist’s video, she’s following society’s “natural” order. But as soon as a female artist claims her sexuality and attempts to exhibit it publicly, there’s a backlash. Are Americans consciously aware that they prefer anonymous naked women over those with agency? Maybe not. Nevertheless, our society actively rewards men for using naked women like props to serve their musical careers and punish women for trying to use their own bodies to do the same.

The only women I’ve seen thus far who has been able to control and capitalize on her own sexuality is Nicki Minaj and I think she’s a rare case. She’s almost always scantily clad in her videos, but there’s a kind of power and self awareness in her videos that you don’t find in the videos of other female artists. Even in “Anaconda,” which shocked audiences with its display of those horrid boobs and butts, she’s completely in control of her body, using it almost to mock those who are scandalized at her daring.

The video is the exact opposite of a video like Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side,” which is playfully sexual, or Selena Gomez’s “Good For You,” which is sexy in a casual, almost non-existent way. “Anaconda” is all out sex. No suggestion. And Nicki’s in control of it all. She didn’t get a pass for “Anaconda,” not in the least (she was called “attention seeking” to no end), but she hasn’t stopped dressing scantily in most of her videos. She does it so often that you almost stop noticing her clotheslessness and just focus on her performance. And unlike the blindness we see towards the hundreds of anonymous naked women paraded through music videos and commercials and movies on a daily basis, it’s a good thing, because it’s how Nicki wants us to see her. Just look at one of her newest songs to see that while she’s toned it down, she’s still in complete control of her sexuality.

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Restricting female agency, especially pertaining to control of their own sexuality, is not a new development, and it certainly won’t disappear anytime soon. Society can’t change in a second. All that matters is that as audience members and consumers of pop music we recognize the limitations to which female pop stars are beholden and try to suspend our judgment. If Justin Bieber isn’t forced to be one version of himself, we shouldn’t limit Miley, Katy, or Nicki either.

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