The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Female empowerment has been a central concept and motive of many artistic ventures of recent times. A theme that has been repressed and neglected for centuries, has had an air of tentativeness to it when approached, has now become a much referred to subject now. Not only in direct conversations but in other forms of media too. Look at movies, look at books – in the context of this article though, look at music. Specifically, the mainstream one. This theme is abundantly dabbled in by female musicians. It may happen in different ways, but it does nonetheless. Great, isn’t it? It is obviously a win for a society that is constantly striving for freedom and equality. However, this representation seems to be extremely tilted towards what I can’t help but perceive as an increasingly exploitative and exclusive dimension.
Art thrives when it builds off of feelings. As French painter Paul Cezanne put it, “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” While many emotions have been mined into for inspiration in the field of music, the ones which have been gaining immense ground in this field are those regarding sexuality, an inextricable component of life which has been gradually shedding its surreptitious social character.
When I think of female sexual expression in mainstream music, the first thing my mind automatically conjures up is the image of Madonna in a wedding dress, humping the stage during her infamous 1986 VMAs performance of Like A Virgin. I stumbled across this iconic moment when I had just been sucked into a whirlpool of obsession over the pop icon – thanks to the monochrome masterpiece that is Vogue. It was while swirling in there that I also landed on her monumental work Erotica, a rhythmic enterprise surrounding sex and romance which was welcomed by controversy. Despite its explicitness, what actually captured me about this project was the underlying aim to not only highlight female carnal desires but also to address the stigma around the LGBT community and AIDS. This experience made me realize the significance of sexuality as a tool to express sexuality. The taboo attached to a topic can only be reduced by discussing it. And obviously, it has worked.
The current music scene is rife with themes related to promiscuity and romantic relationships. You have a generation-defining artist like Ariana Grande singing the lines “Can you stay up all night? F**k me ’til the daylight” unabashedly while SZA’s 2017 CTRL, known as an R&B masterpiece, is known for its complex take on love and sex. Musical titans like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj have constantly experimented with these themes. But while the unrestricted musical expression of sexuality opening a wider forum for creative discourses on female empowerment is an undeniable fact, the real meaning of the movement is being skewed.
The norm of using sexiness to promote sex positivity isn’t inherently negative – indulging in it excessively, however, might just overpower the essence of the message. Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, an indelible moment in pop music, was famously very generous with its visuals of… well, asses. While the rapper claims to have wanted to instate body love in curvy women with the video, I think I can vouch for the fact that the song is remembered as ‘the one with the butts’. It remains to be recognized as an example of pandering to the male gaze. Incorporation of lines like “my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns” in the song renders the whole aim moot. Why is the value of a woman’s body being calculated based on whether it is desirable to men or not?
Sometimes there is no aim – sometimes the sensuality of the female body is used to garner attention by entertaining the lust of the viewers. The exploitation of an already controversial subject for profits just adds to the negativity surrounding it and most importantly, aids the opposite of the desired reaction i.e. objectification of women. Songs like WAP are hailed as feminist anthems, even though they are literally talking about how women’s sexual prowess is what makes the men appreciate them. Everything related to sex isn’t supposed to make an argument for feminine empowerment.
Why is sexual liberation being exclusively equated to showing off your body? Why is it being equated to being explicit about your sexuality? These aren’t necessarily bad things, but the whole movement appears to be revolving around such ideas with the exclusion of many others. Sexual empowerment, at its core, is about being in control of your sexuality. It includes being covert about your sex life or not having one as much as being open about it without being shamed for it. It includes not necessarily exposing one’s body to a shocking extent to express oneself sexually – it can be done with varying degrees of clothing. Mainly, it is about being comfortable in your own self and not feeling coerced to fit into some standards.
I might be sounding like a middle aged man. But sexual liberation’s significance has been reduced to crude genitalia talk and body displays bordering on exhibitionism when its much more than that. You might say that this is an expression of freedom, something we have fought for for centuries. But what good is this freedom if it doesn’t provide what it promised to? What good is it if it defeats the purpose it is trying to accomplish? What is its significance if it can’t capture its true and full essence?
At that point, it becomes vital to step back, reevaluate ourselves and map out a new plan so as to not fall back to what we are trying to escape.