With March being Women’s History Month and widespread concern over men’s rights group Return of Kings, feminism has been discussed perhaps more than usual lately. And pop star Kesha's highly publicized allegations of sexual assault against Dr. Luke have pushed the topic of feminism in music to the front of conversation.
Kristyl Dawn Tift, a University of Georgia graduate teaching assistant and PhD candidate in theater and performance studies, has long considered the implications of women as both creators and subjects in music.
“Feminism is the lens through which I see the world,” Tift said. Her involvement in feminism at UGA has included teaching courses in the women’s studies program and conducting research on the intersection of popular media such as music and women’s issues.
Last semester, Tift presented for C.L.A.S.S. Advocates, a UGA housing organization geared to support and provide resources for students of color. She gave the students a condensed look into her research as she presented an analysis on the implications of women’s bodies in hip-hop from the 1980s until the present contemporary scene. Her commentary on the sexualization of young pop stars touched upon the situation surrounding Kesha.
According to Tift, the prevalence of and expectation for young, provocative female entertainers can be traced back decades in American culture, with popular early examples including Madonna and Britney Spears. The promiscuous reputation cultivated by these entertainers causes the public to, in the words of Tift, “conflate reality with the entertainment world.”
“I think all of those images impact the way that we believe or disbelieve women that say they were sexually assaulted,” Tift said.
Tift went on to say, as a result of balancing personhood with persona, women are forced to negotiate their public sexuality. At times, the repercussions of being perceived as overly sexual can lead to disbelief or judgment in the lives of figures such as Kesha.
Julie Saxton, a senior UGA violin performance and psychology major, has combined her academic interests in psychology and music to become involved in the study of gender issues in music. She seconds the notion of public perceptions coloring views of Kesha’s situation.
“I would imagine that her representation of herself as a party girl doesn’t help her case for a lot of people,” Saxton said.
Saxton believes that this tendency applies to all women, regardless of background.
“It’s always very hard for people to believe women making accusations of rape or assault,” Saxton said, “and if they’ve already portrayed themselves as easy or reckless, it’s even more difficult for people to believe.”
Tift and Saxton disagree somewhat as to what the sexualization of women in music promotes and signifies. Saxton believes that harm comes primarily if it is not the artist herself making the decision to be sexual, if her image is a result of production grooming instead of personal pride.
Conversely, Tift worries about the implications of sexualized artistry, regardless of who is making the artistic decisions. She names Nicki Minaj as an artist whose feminism seems undeniably linked to her sexuality, which she says many may perceive as objectification. Still, she keeps an open mind on the matter.
“I don’t know if I agree with it,” Tift said, “but that’s okay, I don’t have to. Women are responding to it in very complex ways.”
Nevertheless, both women believe that female sexuality in music is even further nuanced, as they agree that race is a component in message and perceived meaning.
Tift, who as a woman of color incorporates race theory into her espoused feminist views, believes that the history of “hyper-sexual” identities given to female minorities creates a “dangerous territory.”
These potentially difficult interpretations can be vastly exaggerated when the woman is a public figure.
“When you’re an artist,” Tift said, “you’re always at risk of being overdetermined, misinterpreted or misunderstood because of underlying racism and underlying sexism that intersect.”
Examples of female music artists negotiating the lines between sexuality, femininity and race include Rihanna, whose dancehall hit “Work” was accompanied by a highly sexual music video, and Beyoncé.
While Tift views the former as primarily an entertainer maximizing her audience, she cites the latter as a progressive figure.
“We can see her as a sign of change, someone who is saying ‘I am a feminist,’” Tift said.
Despite her oft forward strides, Beyoncé is still facing criticism from the public on several fronts, from those condemning as well as celebrating female liberation. Her open sexuality, her political stance in her music video “Formation” and her seemingly culturally appropriative appearance in a music video set in the slums of India – Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” -- have all incurred the disapproval of various sects, most vocally on the internet.
The disagreement among listeners, including feminists, was noted by Saxton.
“Feminism now isn’t really the organized movement that the former waves have been,” Saxton said. “Everything is so intertwined. Social issues are so intertwined in music, as they always have been.”
The backlash and rallies for and against Kesha since the decision was announced, as well as the abundance of commentary during Women’s History Month, show the many facets of feminism in the modern scope. Saxton remains rather optimistic that, regardless of potential ignorance or problematic artistry, “all music has value.” Tift remains somewhat more cautious, with advice to media consumers both male and female.
“There [are] messages in those words,” Tift said. “You owe it to yourself and other people to analyze those words and critique them. It’s hard, but it’s necessary. Stand on some kind of ground, whatever it is.”