by • June 9, 2011 • EditorialComments (0)379

Crafting Controversy: A Missive on Female Audacity in Pop Culture

I was reading this fantastic article by Steven Hyden on the AV Club today about controversial art, mostly pertaining to music (though there is a funny side-tangent about Larry the Cable Guy and Ben Stein), and something struck me: at the beginning of the article not one single female artist is listed among the “controversial” names. Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, NWA, Public Enemy, et al. All of them men known for brewing controversy, but not a single woman on that list.

Does this mean there are no controversial female artists? I’m not talking collegiate co-ed versions of the artist Evelyn refers to in Neil LaBute’s THE SHAPE OF THINGS creating “confrontational” art with menstrual blood. I’m talking honest-to-goodness controversial ladies in mainstream music and film, creating works meant to call your moral compass into question and dare you to subvert your perceptions of societal norms – to grapple with your personal moral boundaries and grey areas. Where are these women?

I see artists like Amanda Palmer write a song and make a video about getting date-raped and having an abortion with this very tongue-in-cheek style that I appreciate because it’s not condescending like the Lifetime network, which feels the need to point out to me every 2 minutes that I have a vagina and I should please it with chocolate and only the finest linens. Palmer posits that if you can’t joke about the darkness in life, then there is no point in living. Why should we mope around, throwing pity parties for all the injustice we as non-gender specific humans are subjected to if we can’t make light of it to cope?

Amanda Palmer is probably the best example of a woman crafting controversy in legitimate ways and not just trying to shock her audience for the sake of shocking. She’s a little androgynous and doesn’t shave her body, embraces her flaws and encourages her fans to do the same, and sings about topics typically considered taboo, ranging from abortion to masturbation to pubic hair. And she never apologizes for any of it.  One half of the Dresden Dolls, Palmer has released one solo album under the production of Ben Folds and an album with Jason Webley as Evelyn Evelyn. With Webley the duo perform as conjoined twins and their circus-inspired music tells a story of sheltered siblings, joined at the hip. It’s a bit precious but impressive, considering the commitment of Webley and Palmer who perform side by side in a giant custom-sewn dress.

This is proof that there are women out there creating music and art that isn’t as outright controversial and confrontational as say, using homophobic slang, or rhyming about beating women and bucking police authority. You say controversy, I say douche bag. It all sounds the same around these parts. And yes, I meant the parts in my pants because they are different from yours and apparently do not entitle me to use words like “fag” or make a half dozen songs devoted to the idea of murdering my ex-husband. I don’t think sexism is as rampant as it once was, and not as prevalent as some fellow female writers might have you believe in order to make their point, and I’m also not sure that sexism or any relative murky gender concept is to blame for why women aren’t more aggressive in their lyrics and art. Even the amount of female-fronted metal bands seem to have subsided since the late 90s. Maybe it’s the lack of testosterone that keeps us from getting up in your grill with politically incorrect verbiage.

The last great provocative female movement we had in pop culture was the Riot Grrrl movement, led by Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, later Le Tigre and now the Julie Ruin. Riot Grrrl sought to encourage women to get out there and create. Whether it was music or movies or ‘zines, this movement was there to liberate women from the idea that the only acceptable forms of music or art were defined by corporations as springing from the loins of men. The only use for women in music resided in the pop genre, where women were meant to dress in revealing clothes and sing songs written by men while they performed dances meant to entice men. It was the career of a glorified prostitute. Few women were succeeding without the help of men or corporate branding.

Bands like Bikini Kill, L7 and Sleater-Kinney paved the way for women to get out there and show off their artistic endeavors to the world, but they also encouraged something that I think is important: female on female criticism. Too often in the feminist charge women encourage each other blindly and ask others to do the same. The thinking exists among certain faux-feminists that you should support all female artistic efforts just because you share similar reproductive organs. It isn’t blatantly vocalized, but if you criticize your fellow lady warriors, then you’ve broken some unspoken earth mother creed and you’re branded a part of the sexist, elitist penis problem.

This impetuous thinking disregards all notions of subjectivity, which is the foundation for art and artistic understanding. It’s all about how we see and process things, which allows us to create works that can help others see things the way we do, and in turn inspires the critique of that work as others process how they understand what you’ve created. Art is the Circle of Life of entertainment. Hakuna Matata and all that.

I won’t apologize to another woman for not liking her work. I won’t be a dick about it either, unless it’s Courtney Love because you just can’t get through to that woman with manners.

Not since the Riot Grrrl movement have we had such a positive atmosphere for ladies in art, and not since that movement have we had women stirring the controversy pot in respectable ways that were also noticed by the mainstream media. We barely broke the surface then.

When one thinks of controversial female musicians, a few names come to mind. Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and their predecessors Madonna and Lil’ Kim. I would hardly call these women controversial in the strictest artistic sense, except for maybe Lady Gaga, but her increasingly obvious self awareness has revealed her to be little more than a smart business woman whose support and labor for gay rights borders on exploitative for personal gain. More and more Gaga appears to me as this duplicitous entity representing the best and worst of pop culture, and if this is part of her plan I probably shouldn’t short-change her business acumen too much, but I’m sorry – I can’t get on board with a song about a “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)” because parentheses are useless unless you’re ee cummings and even he’d roll his eyes because he did pretentious better. You know, before it was cool to be pretentious.

Lil’ Kim and Minaj bank on their sexuality, and their art is more about reclaiming their bodies from the male rappers and objectifying themselves. This sort of argument is hollow to me because it sounds like those girls I went to high school with who thought they were on to something by being promiscuous. Their logic was that if they used men, then men couldn’t use them, and if they dressed provocatively to bait men, it was okay because they had all the power. This was pre-college feminist thinking and it’s incredibly immature and flawed. Exploitation is exploitation, whether you exploit yourself or someone else. It’s hypocritical to say that a man can’t exploit your body to satisfy his base desires when you’ll practically give it away under the distinction that it’s your choice. Either way, you’re still provoking the reaction that you were so uncomfortable with from the opposite sex in the first place. I think Whitney Houston calls that, “It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay).” Again with the useless parenthetical punctuations (which, by the way, are the clothes of the word world so maybe there’s some underlying subtext to parenthetical use in provocative female pop music, but I doubt it).

I don’t open a magazine or turn on the TV and see the women who are making meaningful, controversial music being showcased. Instead I see Gaga in avant garde headgear, prancing around in repurposed jazzercise gear from the Fonda collection circa 1984, singing about how she was born this way while hiding under four hours’ worth of work by some vaguely ethnic stylist at Paul Mitchell. I know she means “born this way” in the deeper sense, but it rings a bit false. It also fails to impress me when she engages in stage banter about her hatred of money and tells her fans that money doesn’t matter when tickets to her concert are excessively priced, her shoes alone cost $4,000 and she isn’t exactly promoting economical growth and reform. Like, thanks for using your platform to spread the love for your gay fans, but can you speak to your local and state representatives about job creation and unemployment rates, or is that not in your power as Lady Gaga? Maybe I should contact Congressman Gaga.

I’m just not sure how else to explain why women don’t feel the need to strut around threatening to beat dudes up for stepping to them on a day ending in Y or calling them derogatory names. How many derogatory names are there for men anyway? I’m gender blind when it comes to name-calling, but most people aren’t and still associate words like “slut” and “whore” with women only when I easily know more slutty men than women. Easily.

I’m just asking questions here because I don’t see a blatant answer. I see many shades of gray and nothing that absolutely asserts that one thing out of many is the absolute answer. But I’m ready to see some female controversy that doesn’t involve a bald vulva on the cover of Enquirer and a drastic hairstyle change. I’m ready to support more women who are in it for their art and for having a voice and who do business their way.

What does Nicki Minaj even rap about? Don’t get me wrong, she has a fierce voice and she’s adorable, but I wouldn’t call her controversial just because she wears American Apparel and hangs with Yeezy and Jay-Z and is blatantly self-aware of every curve on her body. It’s not controversial to know you’re sexy and exploit it. It is controversial, however, to use your body to grab the attention of everyone in the room and then maybe rap about something sensational like birth control or the Green Zone (the real one, not the one with Matt Damon, but feel free to play around with this idea). Here’s a radical notion: speak to me candidly about your personal experiences so that I may relate and have a voice that speaks for me. No? Lady Gaga says she’s the voice for all outcasts, but since when did a catchy number 1 hit like “Just Dance” speak for the disenfranchised youth of America? Maybe it’s because women like Minaj and Gaga are there to make things happier for all of us, and conveying real-life experiences to their audience is deemed too depressing. Or maybe they just remember what happened last time people stopped being polite and started being real.

Perhaps the reason women don’t resort to hurling racial and homophobic slurs and insinuating the use of violence against their loved ones is because we don’t have to. Maybe this isn’t a case of sexism and what’s considered acceptable by the media. Maybe this is an instance of women being keenly aware of the controversial power of conveying honesty and plumbing their emotional depths for experiences they can intimately share with their audience. Is it that women have a stronger sense of what it means to be intimate, and that some of them relate controversial material with being naked in the figurative sense, and thus being naked? Are we just classier than our male counterparts? Whether they communicate these stories with comedy, music or film, women don’t feel the need to see how many times they can rhyme the word “homo” to elicit a response from their audience.

Female comedians like Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman get out there and break societal conventions every single day with their controversial humor and very little of it has to do with talking about people they sleep with; Lisa Lampanelli is not your friend, ladies. But comediennes are the one exception. I turn on the TV and see them everywhere. I suppose the comic’s stage is the one place we all sort of feel okay with when it comes to controversy, especially from women.

Film is a different form of expression entirely. Music allows the artist to channel their feelings and experiences in more literal ways, whereas a director is telling a story which may or may not show us a piece of herself, however cryptic and metaphoric that piece may be. A controversial female director is one who is controversial for what she creates, not what she has to say in public.

Sofia Coppola is controversial because she approaches women with candor. All of her films have this dreamy quality that only sort of washes over the darkness and despair of her central characters. They’re fairytales for the indie set. The Virgin Suicides, a film as powerful as its literary predecessor written by – gasp! – a man, finds the teenaged Lisbon girls killing themselves one by one, too stubborn to accept life and all its flaws and limitations. It’s controversial because it’s damn honest and it all but romanticizes suicide. Marie Antoinette was similarly controversial because it empathized with a woman many in Europe still believe to be responsible for economic ruin in France hundreds of years ago. There’s also a strong hatred of Monarchy over there whereas most Americans find Monarchy to be adorable and fancy.

Mary Harron was likewise controversial with AMERICAN PSYCHO, another case of women (in this case Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner) adapting a male’s literature, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel. Patrick Bateman is a misogynistic, egotistical and paranoid yuppie prick who sets about objectifying and murdering women. The film itself is notorious in this objectification and graphic depiction of sex and it sort of has to be because Patrick Bateman is just so matter-of-fact about everything from Huey Lewis to anal gratification to stabbing someone in the face.

Kathryn Bigelow is controversial because she makes raw films filled with action and bravado and testosterone. And maybe she’s the best example here because she not only made an audacious war film (THE HURT LOCKER), but she won an Oscar for it, beating her ex-husband James Cameron and his silly little movie about aliens fighting cartoon military villains for the future of Fern Gully.

It’s almost as if the controversy of being a woman and being a filmmaker is that you have the sheer audacity to not be a man. And I’m not sure that this is purely a case of men rejecting women as filmmakers in Hollywood, as I’ve heard from several men and women in the industry that this isn’t as true as some would have you believe. There just simply aren’t more women making movies, at all. And maybe part of this is some residual understanding of how things used to be which has fomented some ignorance and lack of desire to enter into a career of filmmaking.

This last week Rihanna released a video in which she is the victim of sexual assault and takes revenge on her rapist by shooting him. It’s classic rape/revenge fantasy and cinephiles are no doubt familiar with the formula. The video has caused nothing short of an uproar. Where were these people every time a man objectified a woman and called her a ho in a video? I hear arguments of, “my little girl looks up to you!” and I guess we wouldn’t want your darling future housewife learning to exercise her demons in a healthy way by freedom of expression, so you tell her to look away from the TV and go play with her toy kitchens and cash registers. I guess it’s okay for her to be called a trick or a ho, but if she were to stand up for herself figuratively, that might be a little too much. Do parents ever say to Kanye or Jigga, “my son looks up to you!”? I don’t seem to hear any complaints from parents of men because boys will be boys, AMIRITE?

Also released this week is the video for Kanye West’s “Monster” featuring Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj, names you’re familiar with from their work in this article. I love this video. I love this song. In the video, Yeezy positions dead, lifeless sexy corpses in provocative poses and I think it has something to do with being frigid in bed, but I’m not current on my rapper symbolism. No one is making a fuss about this video. Not that they should, and they shouldn’t make a fuss about the Rihanna video either. On the one hand, people being angered by art is a good thing and shows that art is doing its job because it’s facilitating conversation about that with which we’re comfortable, much as the aforementioned AV Club piece discusses.

I’m all about controversial art (I love films like Martyrs, Serbian Film and A’l’interieur, and I think Bill Hicks was the second coming of your preferred personal savior) and pushing your audience by using rash words and images to confront them, causing them to question their moral verisimilitude. But the closest mainstream women get to this is taking off their clothes. Rihanna expresses some personal anger via a revenge fantasy (and seriously, who are we to judge anyone for wanting to hurt Chris Brown?). Have expectations been set too high for women? Eminem banks off of his spousal abuse rhymes; do we shrug our shoulders because he’s a masculine Neanderthal and we expect more from our women?

Isn’t the sexism problem that exists, then, that society places too much value on women over men? We expect too much from them. We tell them it’s okay to be controversial in very calculated and exact ways. We tell them that it’s okay for men to be assholes because they’re men and it’s expected of them, but we must never, never act like men.
But sometimes when we shirk these notions of gender specifics and boldly share our art with the world, we’re rewarded. And I think that’s proof enough that being controversial doesn’t always equate to being a dick.

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