Monday, November 17, 2008

Sasha Fierce and what passes for empowerment these days

I am always interested in the messages women in pop music send about womanhood. After all, the Beyonces and Britneys have more sway over the minds of young girls than the Women's Studies set. I love bell hooks, but my seven-year-old niece is more interested in what Rhianna and Duffy have to say. And maybe these women don't make such bad spokespersons for the female condition. After all, they have to know more than a little about the burden of sexism, particularly as it relates to beauty, femininity and sexuality. They are judged, exploited and commodified in a way that average women are not. On the other hand, despite feints at grrrl power, most pop princesses make their millions acquiescing to and exploiting the very sexism that constrains all women. It is contradictory, no? The you-go-girl sentiment of asking all the women who are independent to thrown their hands up at you is diminished when several videos later you are gyrating on all fours in booty shorts. Unfortunately, when most female pop artists talk about what it means to be a woman, it sounds to me like the same old gender-bias and tired messages.

Take for example "If I Were A Boy," Beyonce's new hit currently riding the sales charts on iTunes. In the song, the former Destiny's Child member laments not being able to live the carefree life that "boys" do:

If I were a boy
Even just for a day
I'd roll out of bed in the morning
And throw on what I wanted and go
Drink beer with the guys
And chase after girls
I'd kick it with who I wanted
And I'd never get confronted for it
Because they'd stick up for me

It is true that women are judged more harshly for what they wear, how much they drink and who they hang with. But rather than call foul on that double standard, the song gives in to unfair and antiquated gender roles. Most women I know recognize that one needn't be a boy to toss on a pair of sweats, drink or chase members of the opposite sex. In 2008, we're more liberated than that, aren't we?

More troubling to me is when the song hints that being a "boy" means being a selfish, philandering liar, while being a "girl" is to be a foolishly trusting doormat, waiting home for said boy.

If I were a boy
I would turn off my phone
Tell everyone its broken
So they'd think
that I was sleeping alone
I'd put myself first
And make the rules as I go
Cause I know that she'd be faithful
Waiting for me to come home (to come home)

If I were a boy
I think I could understand
How it feels to love a girl
I swear I'd be a better man
I'd listen to her
Cause I know how it hurts
When you lose the one you wanted (wanted)
Cause he's taken you for granted (granted)
And everything you had got destroyed

Have you ever noticed that women who believe the "all men are dogs" trope always seem to wind up with, know. This is dangerous thinking because not only does it give men license to follow their presumed "nature," but it also takes away the agency of heterosexual women. We are powerless to choose if all men are the same. In truth, there are good men and bad. No woman need waste her time on a jerk playing cell phone games, but too many women make the mistake of believing bad romantic behavior is part of what makes a "boy."

"If I Were A Boy" is the latest single from Beyonce's upcoming album "I am...Sasha Fierce." The singer says of her alter ego, "Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I'm working and when I'm on the stage."

Modern women ought not buy into the Madonna/Whore Complex. It is disturbing to hear a grown, married woman talk about needing an alter ego to indulge enjoyable expects of her personality. Between the alias and the lyrics to her latest song, one might think that Beyonce believes women are to be subservient, long-suffering, quiet, passive and tame "good girls." I hope not.

But I am reminded why it is so important for young girls to have strong, smart women in their lives--women to teach them to take charge of their romantic lives, skip "boys" in favor of men who treat women with respect, and to live juicy, adventurous, courageous lives. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said that well-behaved women seldom make history. That's true. They seldom have any fun either.

Someone tell that to Beyonce.


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