Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
So, did ya’ll know that Taylor Momsen fronts a rock band? I guess that’s why she’s always sneering each time I see her on Go Fug Yourself. All this, and Leighton Meester working toward a pop career too!
Now, I don’t want to seem snide or condescending, especially about a veteran child actress transitioning into adulthood. I don’t want to speculate that her interest in music has developed just as the once-hot teen soap she’s on is starting to cool. Who am I to suggest that the Gossip Girl star’s musical forays aren’t sincere?
Apparently Momsen’s been singing for years and fronts a band called The Pretty Wreckless. While essentially a solo project with some (male) hired-gun musicians, she is the act’s vocalist, costume designer, and primary songwriter. The group has been putting on shows and has recorded a single, “Zombie,” which has a raw sound that suggests Momsen’s listened to a lot of Courtney Love.
Momsen’s done a lot more to suggest she wants to explore music beyond adding another hyphenate, like one-time would-be pop singers Hilary Duff, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Nicole Richie, who at one point was in a band with model Josie Maran called Darling and was supposed to be working on an alternative-influenced solo project that may or may not see the light. Momsen even plays a bit of guitar as well. I’d hazard she’d do more of it if she’d bulk up. Have you seen her twiggy arms? Homegirl needs to eat all kinds of sandwiches.
But I am a still little incredulous, as I am about Momsen’s entire hipster image, which became public just as Jenny Humphreys was becoming the UES’s edgy It Girl on Gossip Girl. There’s something just way too pre-fab about all of it that makes me wonder if there’s any real difference between Momsen wears skinny jeans and when, say, the Jonas Brothers do it (or, as Jonah Weiner points out in an article Kristen sent my way, when Miley Cyrus hires producers who swipe from lesser-known songs for indie cred). After the controversial but transformative presence Rachel Zoe had in reinventing Nicole Richie’s public image, I work under the assumption that all celebrities have stylists and that Momsen’s no exception, even if she herself is interested in fashion. I can’t help but wonder if similar industrial mechanisms are at work for her and her musical aspirations.
Maybe I’m just being snobby about medium and public image. While I have my doubts about Momsen’s musical pursuits, I never questioned when fellow former child actress Jena Malone released a seven-inch with Social Registry back in 2007 and continued on as the lead singer of The Shoe. Assuredly this has much to do with an appreciation of Malone’s experimental sound.
But I’d be lying if I said my enjoyment of Malone’s music wasn’t informed by my pre-established fandom of her turns in indie-friendly fare like Cheaters, Saved, and Donnie Darko. It probably didn’t hurt matters that she has lesbian parents, legally emancipated herself as a minor for financial reasons, and appeared in public with a bald head. In short, her outsider persona matched her acting and musical choices. It seemed, to employ that ickiest of value judgements, “authentic.”
That said, I support Momsen’s right to rock out. But I’ll have to hear and see more before I call myself a fan.
So, before I go into my post about Anna Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired Target collection that launched last summer, I’d like to first announce something totally superfluous but strangely encapsulating. I am down to the dregs of my Anna Sui Dolly Girl perfume. My mom bought it for me several birthdays ago and it is a delightfully flirty fragrance that I only wear when I need to feel publically sexy. If I went to your birthday party, going-away party, theme party, house-warming, wedding, or any other BIG EVENT, this is what I smelled like before I got sweaty and/or drunk. Priced at $35 and lasting over several years, it has definitely served me well.
Delightfully flirty and publically sexy seems to be Gossip Girl‘s chief M.O. The CW teen drama, created by O.C. mastermind Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, is now in its third season and based on the popular tween book series of same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. It focuses on the soapy, bitchy, frothy excesses of a gaggle of teenaged haves and (to a lesser extent) have-nots and their parents in New York City. Importantly, its wardrobe is in essence a principal character, largely due to costume designer Eric Daman’s keen eye for established and emergent talent in contemporary fashion. The show has launched once-fledging talent like Blake Lively, who has appeared in pictorials for Vanity Fair and on the cover of Vogue. It has also scored previously unknown actresses like Leighton Meester into a spokeswoman deal with Reebok.
The show has proven itself bit of a taste-maker. How else to explain why this “silly” teen soap (with a considerable hip twentysomething following) got the coop of having Christian Dior’s Miss Dior Chérie advertisement air for the first time during the “Bonfire of the Vanity” episode? Oh, and let’s not overlook who directed the spot — Ms. Sofia Coppola, herself a hipster icon, fashionista, erstwhile clothing designer, sometimes design collaborator, and friend to folks like Marc Jacobs and, yes, Anna Sui.
BTW, I remember this really interesting feature Seventeen did back in 1993 with Sui, Coppola, and friends Zoe Cassavettes and Donovan Leitch, but cannot find it on the Interwebz. If curious, please contact your local library. When you find it, note the crocheted shawls, chokers, matte lipstick, and other hallmarks of early-90s fashion they’re wearing that are now making a comeback.
Bringing publications like Seventeen into the discussion make inevitable the show’s fanbase and target audience, who tend to be pre-teen and tween girls. Thus, there’s probably a fair amount of aspiration that can be marketed toward (a euphemistic term for “exploited”). And while I feel kinda icky about the proceedings, especially since Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired togs tend to be mid-range ($30-$70), I at least can recognize that these clothes are more affordable than, say, Louis Vuitton, or even some of the garments sold at mall retailers like Express, Banana Republic, and The Limited.
The market-driven desire to dress like a gossip girl suggests a particular cultural power, perhaps one not since seen since Carrie Bradshaw became a game-charging sartorialist (and Sarah Jessica Parker became her). The Gossip Girl cast’s on- and off-screen wardrobe (and, in Taylor Momsen’s case, the merging of the two) has also provided fodder for fashion blogs like Go Fug Yourself, much in the same way that producer Josh Schwartz’s name-making franchise The O.C. Gossip Girl has even taken its fashion-plate status toward self-reflexive ends. In the season two episode, “The Serena Also Rises,” a fashion show seating chart appears on screen, with Fug Girls Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks’s names on it.
Thus, the show, like other Schwartz-helmed programs, is known for its intertextuality. So it seems fitting that a television show — particularly one as creative as marketing and distributing itself in an increasingly digitized and convergent media climate that young women have been especially adept at traversing, would try marketing its show through clothes. It’s a move with a bit of recent history (Grey’s Anatomy for New York & Company) and a bit of current cross-promotional play (Mad Men for Banana Republic, which Jonathan Gray has critiqued).
But having Sui team up with Target to design for Gossip Girl it is interesting, and smart in terms of the show’s investment in fashion, both as an industry and as a bridging cultural practice. Like Gossip Girl, Sui’s work has been characterized by her ongoing interests in popular music. Gossip Girl‘s music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas defines the show by its of-the-moment “indie” sound, which in turn gets referenced, idolized, and critiqued at length by the show’s characters in much the same way it was on The O.C.. Likewise, Sui is often inspired by popular music — particularly 60s garage rock, 90s Britpop, riot grrrl, and mod culture — and incorporates the attitude and aesthetic into her designs.
Both the show and designer have a preoccupation with the 90s — for the show, it is an era that commercialized alternative rock and, for hip dad and former rocker Rufus Humphrey, it is an albatross. Sui might feel similarly about the era, which was her zenith period and was not repeated in the 2000s when peer designers like Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and Stella McCartney made the career move to be house designers for Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, and Chloé, respectively. Sui instead followed in the footsteps of designers like Betsey Johnson and continued to cultivate her brand from a slightly lower tier, opening boutiques around the world and continuing to create new collections, but largely outside of the elite world of haute couture. Likewise, Gossip Girl is not a big player on television with colossal ratings. It’s not on a big-four network or on a prestige cable channel like HBO.
(Note: Obviously, if one wants to read into Sui’s professional position her marginalized status as one of the few Asian American female clothing designers, there is ample room for this. Admittedly, I have not done so here, but would be very interested and encouraged by what others might have to say on the matter.)
But both designer and show have cultivated their kitschy, hip brands toward less-travelled though no-less-populist ends. Thus, it makes sense that Sui would link up with Gossip Girl (apparently, her favorite television show), and that they would link up with Target, a big box chain with affordable prices, a cooler and more ethical socioeconomic reputation than Wal-Mart, and a relationship with designers like Isaac Mizrahi, as well as M.I.A.’s former roommate Luella Bartley and Michelle Obama’s go-to guy Thakoon Panichgul who, like Sui, have created limited edition collections for the retailer.
Now, having already discussed the problematic nature of fixing a price range and marketing a clothing line toward an intended audience in such a blatant way, I’d like to close by casting a critical eye toward the clothes themselves.
One issue I have with the collection is how focused it is on dresses and skirts. While supposedly each outfit is designed with a particular gossip girl style in mind (specifically Serena’s boho chic, Blair’s classic glamour, Jenny’s runway punk, and clearly cast-aside Vanessa’s vaguely ethnic intellectual look), all of these items can easily be paired together because of their overt, unproblematized femininity.
Another issue, and one that Target faces with all limited collections, is whether big-name designers cater toward in-between or fat body types. The clothes’ sizes range from extra-small to extra-large, leaving out women and girls who are bigger. What is more, while these clothes appear to be well-made, many of the designs in Sui’s collection seems to principally flatter a long, lean body type. As a short, curvy girl who wears a size four (which, if we recall The Devil Wears Prada, is the new size six), I would have to belt pretty much all of these dresses so they wouldn’t look like gunnysacks on me (that is, the ones that aren’t so short that they would fail to flatter my thickly proportioned thighs). And don’t even get me started on how stumpy I’d look in a pair of checkered, bowed pedal pushers. NEXT!
So, while interesting in many other ways, I feel like Sui’s collection suggests that only certain shapes and classes get to be gossip girls when it comes to fashion. I don’t think we needed Target to tell us that, but I hope it inspires other women and girls to either make the styles their own or, better yet, start picking up the needle and thread and putting their own outfits together.