Pop Queen Katy Perry just announced her next single, “Bon Appétit.” Described by Katy as a “pretty sexual” song, the single serves as the followup to her forthcoming album’s polarizing first single, the watered-down, wannabe-woke anthem, “Chained to the Rhythm.” As many pop culture pundits predicted, it seems Katy is abandoning her just-adapted “conscious” pop star persona (the star updated her Twitter bio to read, “Artist. Activist. Conscious.” when “Chained…” was released) in favor of bigger pop hits — and bigger bucks — further illustrating the hypocrisy of the Katy’s last single.
But you know what? That’s exactly what makes her a feminist icon.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying that completely abandoning her activist identity in order to return to her mainstream pop roots would reflect some larger problems — white women are always willing to turn their backs to important causes when they’ll profit from doing so, but women also are forced to make difficult compromises in order to survive in a patriarchal society (though it’s not like KP’s hurting for cash).
Not to mention, she’s problematic for sure — she constantly appropriates other cultures (even in the photo accompanying this article) and still hasn’t formally apologized for her homophobic, male-gazey and queerbaiting first singles — but the pop megastar actually gets some things about feminism and womanhood so, so right. And the ease with which Katy walks the line between being socially conscious and a sex symbol reflects an important of aspect of womanhood that some forms of feminism can forget.
I jammed to “I Kissed a Girl” when it first came out (the song is not without it’s problems, but as a young queer kid, seeing any kind of representation was exciting and empowering), but I first really fell in love with Katy when “California Gurls” came out. The song is a perfect summertime bop and the video is super-fun. But more than that, the video connected with me on a deep level — especially the controversial climax of the story, where Katy defeats an army of Snoop Dogg’s evil gummy bears by shooting whipped cream out of her breasts.
Some feminists have criticized the scene for reinforcing the idea that, even when women are depicted defending ourselves, it’s still done in a hyper-stylized and hypersexual way — why does the whipped cream have to come out of her boobs!? But for me, a baby trans girl still unaware of my own identity, that scene said several important things to me.
First, that being feminine and sexy doesn’t mean a woman can’t also be strong and powerful, and that being strong and powerful doesn’t have to come at the expense of her womanhood — you don’t have to be strong and powerful like a man. I totally get where other feminists are coming from — women shouldn’t have to be sexy all the time (or at all, really), and if you’re not into the traditionally feminine, that’s fine (and awesome).
Because we should, as women, be allowed to be strong and powerful in ways that are traditionally seen as masculine. But when feminists assert that embracing femininity has to come at the expense of your strength, I think that’s a problem. In some ways, it often does, but mostly because of misogyny — society has codified femininity as weak, it’s not always inherently so.
And that’s another thing that struck me about this scene — Katy was taking one of the most sexualized parts of her body and turning it into a weapon, thus using her womanhood as a source of strength, subverting the idea that womanhood is weak.
Of course, I now understand that using breasts as a universal symbol for womanhood is cissexsit, although I don’t think that takes away from the fact that that’s what they represent to her. It’s also important to acknowledge that, though most trans inclusive feminists now see this as reinforcing biological essentialism, breasts are symbolic of womanhood in most of society, and that’s exactly why they’ve been so sexualized. I’ve also come to understand that sexuality-as-a-weapon is a common trope for women that can reinforce those sexualized ideals but at the time, I didn’t see that image as anything less than empowering.
Katy used this concept again in her video for “Roar,” when she uses a tool fashioned partly out of a high heel shoe to collect food, appropriating a tool of the patriarchy as a tool for survival. I’ve since come to understand this scene with the same nuance of the “California Gurls” video. But regardless of the imperfect execution, it’s clear that Katy has been intentional in drawing strength from the trappings of femininity which, while not a flawless form of feminism, is definitely feminist — and a necessary reality of survival for many women (especially trans women), which adds further credence to the scene from “Roar.”
And I wouldn’t dare forget the epic final act of Katy’s clip for “Wide Awake,” in which she punches a prince. Sure, Katy was dealing with a divorce at the time, so the scene was more than likely targeted at cheating husbands, not at the institution of marriage. But still, seeing a woman who’s known for her femininity, and idealistic view of love and marriage, smack down such an iconic symbol of heteronormative romance is evocative and empowering.
Even if I can accept that the types of feminism Katy uses in these videos is completely wrong (though I obviously disagree), she’s explicitly expressed some ideas about womanhood that are pretty on point, at least for my brand of feminism.
Like most pop stars, she’s faced criticism for catering to the male gaze. Those are totally valid criticisms — again, “I Kissed a Girl” is a fun song but reinforces a lot of harmful ideas about queer women. But the thing is, Katy has some level of self-awareness about her sexuality. In her concert film, “Part of Me,” Katy discusses how she has used sexuality in her music and videos, saying, “I know that I have sex appeal in my deck of cards.”
This quote supports the message I got when I first saw the “California Gurls” music video seven years ago (OMG, was it really that long ago!?) — that things like femininity and sexuality are just singular aspects of womanhood that exist alongside plenty of others — and though it’s unclear if Katy was aware of this when she made this statement, I think that message is one of the keys to women’s liberation.
Because if sexuality (or beauty, or fashion sense, or empathy…) is one card in a woman’s hand, that means she has plenty of other ones at her disposal — including things like physical strength and intelligence. And if womanhood — or identity in general — is a deck of cards, it stands to reason that women don’t all have to have the same cards in their hands.
That’s to say that a woman isn’t less feminist if she advocates for reproductive rights while wearing high heels — and similarly, a woman isn’t less of a woman if she fights to overthrow capitalism and rejects traditional beauty norms.
Make no mistake — I’m no “choice feminist.” It’s important to be aware of the social norms and power structures that influence our choices. But at the same time, isn’t the goal of feminism to destroy those power structures and, in doing so, remove the unfair expectations placed upon women, so that all women — all people — could be strong, whatever that means to them; so that we could express and adorn ourselves in whatever manner we like, without it having to say anything about our gender or sex, our strength — or our humanity?
Obviously, I’m giving Katy a little more credit than she might deserve — I can’t be sure that these are ideas she meant to communicate. But while her attempt at socially aware pop music may have missed the mark — it’s hard to create a mainstream pop song criticizing the pop machine without a little more self-awareness — in some ways, her use of activism in art and in life (Katy is a vocal trump critic, has campaigned for democratic candidates and participated in the women’s march) represents a new wave of feminism and a new generation of activists. It’s the same feminism that Teen Vogue has helped shape since Elaine Welteroth took over as Editor in Cheif — this list of the magazine’s most-read articles of 2016 says it all:
I love this list of Teen Vogue’s most-read stories of the year. Girls contain multitudes. pic.twitter.com/XUa2G8gRFr
— Sophie Gilbert (@sophieGG) December 12, 2016
It’s a movement that embraces the traditionally feminine without limiting women to those trappings — that allows women to be interested in manicures and high heels, without shaming women who aren’t, all while encouraging all women to be engaged and informed.
Sure, it may be a bit of a reach to say Katy Perry has helped lead that change, but she definitely represents this shift. And though the movement is still trying to strike the perfect balance between these goals, I can’t help but feel we’re on the right track, even if we’re still, as Katy says, “Chained to the Rhythm.”