Double Standards in Artistic Creation for Female Musicians

This post: Push(back) at the Intersections: Sluts, Bores, Attention Whores: How We Talk About Female Creators | Bitch Magazine, originally posted by Bitch Magazine Aug. 19, 2010.

By:  s.e. smith.

There’s a fascinating double-edged sword that comes out of the sheath when it comes to talking about women creators.

On the one hand, there’s an attitude that we should unreservedly support female artists. That they deserve a pass on some things because they are trying to make it in a difficult industry, and that it’s antifeminist to criticize female creators at all. Consumers should look for the intent, they argue, should consider the context, shouldn’t have such unreasonably high standards.

Britney Spears Concert - You Want A Piece Of Me?: Britney Spears, a young female artist, on stage in black latex and fishnets.

On the other hand, we have people who take advantage of the veneer of ‘criticism’ to spew misogyny and hatred about women. This includes people in feminist spaces who judge creators for everything from showing too much skin to not being feminist enough. This often feeds people who are not feminist and decide that since feminists said it was OK, they have carte blanche to trash female creators and to use really hateful language when doing so.

The polarization that surrounds discussions about works of pop culture created by women can sometimes make it really hard to fairly and honestly critique female creators. We all internalize misogyny to some extent and I am never surprised, though I am disappointed, when it expresses in pop culture critiques.

We have to be able to strike a balance.

It is necessary to evaluate and critique all pop culture, no matter the gender of the creator. Being a woman does not make you immune from criticism when your work is problematic. At the same time, we need to recognize that there is a history when it comes to talking about art created by women. A history of bringing discussions about personal lives into discussions of art, of picking female creative professionals apart personally, not just professionally, of expressing some internalized tropes in the way we interact with art created by women.

(Britney Spears, popular target for slut shaming and accusations of being an ‘attention whore.’)

There’s a reason that female creators on mixed-gender creative teams get all the blame for the mistakes while the men get a free pass. I’ve seen female creators accused of tainting or ruining the creative teams they work with, and this carries a whiff of some very old ideas about women and their supposed ability to poison and corrupt everything they touch.

There’s a reason that when people talk about music and other work created by female artists, they don’t just talk about the art, but also about the way the artists dress. The way they live their lives. I don’t see the same scrutiny being applied to male creators. Not many people say, for example, that a performance of masculinity by a male rap artist is problematic or offensive, yet people freely shred female artists for the way they present themselves. A woman who likes to wear miniskirts on stage is setting a bad example for the children! Artists who wear outrageous heels are reinforcing a harmful beauty standard! How dare actresses get plastic surgery! Actresses in a bad woman-centered film are treated to misogynist bile in their reviews, while horrible films starring men get a pass.

Miley Cyrus on stage. She is a young female artist wearing a black jumper and gesturing with her hands.Should we talk about how things like, for example, the way gender performance in pop culture plays a role in how we perceive gender in real life? Absolutely we should, but the scrutiny applied to female creators of pop culture seems to run much deeper to me. It often seems, quite frankly, like an excuse to bring on the hate. As Snarky’s Machine pointed out in comments on Monday’s post, it’s very telling to see what kind of work and creators get passes from the feminist community, and what gets ignored or trashed.

We must be able to discuss art without attacking the creator or engaging in endless prurient speculation about the creator’s gender identity, sexual orientation, ability status, and other personal matters. I do think that there are some things in the personal lives of creators that are relevant to their work—take Roman Polanski, for example. There are some things that provide important context, or a reason to boycott a creator’s work. It’s sometimes hard to sift out when it’s appropriate to bring in the context of a creator’s personal life and history, and to consider matters that are on the public record, and when it’s not, and yet this is precisely what we need to do.

(There’s a great deal of speculation about Miley Cyrus’ mental health, something that should remain a personal matter unless she chooses to discuss it.)

It’s time to step off the seesaw of either blaming women artists for everything and using their personal lives as a vehicle for misogyny, or giving them a pass on everything.

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Posted on August 20, 2010, in Pick Guards - Music Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Wow! I agree completely with the sentiments that you discuses in your post. Epically that the double edge sword of society placed on female artist who can be an incredibly talented women one day then a loss women the next for wearing a provocative outfit. For instance Miley Cyrus transforming from a Disney’s pre-teen start to an adult star. Her music is beautiful but for her to be portraying a middle school student for so long that is what society has identified her as a 12 year old. But in reality she is turning 18, an adult, so when she is shedding the school girl image and trying to form a new image as a grown up women she is being bashed for it. All female starts that started young and them turn into an adult society attacks them. Brittney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce Knowles are a few that I have grown up with and see take the gauntlet to adult hood. As you pointed it out the “reason that when people talk about music and other work created by female artist, they don’t just talk about the art but also about the way the artist dress” which is constantly judged by the media then that judgment is passed onto society to hold onto as a guiding light to judge female artists. What about the male artist who is in a music video is surrounded by scantily clad women is praised as a sex icon. While a women who is dressed in a short skirt is criticized as a slut. That double edge sword is skewing the image of women to society. I agree that society needs to “step off the seesaw” and look through a even gaze for both female and male artists.

  2. Wow! I agree completely with the sentiments that you discuses in your post. Epically that the double edge sword of society placed on female artist who can be an incredibly talented women one day then a loss women the next for wearing a provocative outfit. For instance Miley Cyrus transforming from a Disney’s pre-teen start to an adult star. Her music is beautiful but for her to be portraying a middle school student for so long that is what society has identified her as a 12 year old. But in reality she is turning 18, an adult, so when she is shedding the school girl image and trying to form a new image as a grown up women she is being bashed for it. All female starts that started young and them turn into an adult society attacks them. Brittney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce Knowles are a few that I have grown up with and see take the gauntlet to adult hood. As you pointed it out the “reason that when people talk about music and other work created by female artist, they don’t just talk about the art but also about the way the artist dress” which is constantly judged by the media then that judgment is passed onto society to hold onto as a guiding light to judge female artists. What about the male artist who is in a music video is surrounded by scantily clad women is praised as a sex icon. While a women who is dressed in a short skirt is criticized as a slut. That double edge sword is skewing the image of women to society. I agree ,to your statement, that society needs to “step off the seesaw” and look through a even gaze to judge both female and male artists.

  3. Emily~
    I am currently taking a Women in Popular Culture class at Washington State University, we cover many current topics but unfortunately we are unable to cover and discuss women in music due to time restraint. This was a great post and you have brought up many of the things we are talking about in other popular culture fields. It is quite clear that our society/culture loves to dig into the private lives of female music artists. You wrapped it up very well explaining how we are “blaming women artists for everything and using their personal lives as a vehicle for misogyny”. We can see this everyday, from tabloids, magazines, and TV. The artist like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Winehouse and Miley Cyrus, almost have a non stop barrage of negativity thrown at them but this is mainly seen in the pop/top40 genre, most of the female artist I enjoy listening to are very well respected, such as Karen Carpenter, Carly Simon, Kate Nash, Florence and Taylor Swift, all being very strong lyricists about their lives trials and tribulations and are highly acclaimed for doing so. But it can clearly be seen by turning on the news that our culture has a obsession with talking top40 female artists mistakes and drilling them into the ground. The artist I named are truly not the norm but I do see a rise in expressive female artist, its the lime light of the top 40 genre where its been harder to break through to the ignorant American culture. Andi Zeisler saw this was happening and made a comment about it in her book “Feminism in Pop Culture” where she explained “But the man-equals-musician/women-equals-groupie dynamic that had persisted in music was about to be broadened and complicated by a new medium. It was called MTV, and it transformed almost everything about the way music looked, sounded, and was understood” (Zeisler 83). MTV allowed people that didn’t go to concerts regularly a chance to see what music had to offer, and many people connected with female artist during this time. I agree when you say “We must be able to discuss art without attacking the creator or engaging in endless prurient speculation about the creator’s gender identity, sexual orientation, ability status” and when my friends and I discuss an artist this really is besides the point, and i think the main issue here is that the pop/top 40 genre is such a large portion of music these days that the media just runs away with mindless issues, not just with women, but males as well.
    Excellent post and I look forward to reading your blog in the future, thanks for your time.
    -WSUcoug

    • Thank you so much for your comments! Indeed much of our culture loves to raise women up to then watch them crash and burn. I am reminded of that South Park episode and Britney Spears….

    • Oh! And please let me know more about your class! I have wanted to propose some women in music online classes to my grad school and I am always interested in what others are doing. I really would like to teach an online Riot Grrrl class and women in music video class as well. I am always curious to see what others are learning in classes and any ideas for future ones are welcome. 🙂 Feel free to email me if you would like to guest post on this blog.

  4. I completely agree, and yet regrettably i catch myself doing this on occasion and judging female artists primarily on their appearance and/or behavior. It’s so easy these days so just look at artists like Lady Gaga and immediately think: “She’s crazy, look at how she dresses! She’s a man!”- without ever really listening to her music. As a creator her music is hardly a topic for criticism as compared to her ‘crazy getups.’ Her image is just another example of how quick our society is to judge exclusively women on their appearance and presentation when they don’t fit neatly and nicely into what society deems appropriate for women these days. As mentioned above, we should discuss the image of women in pop culture but be less hasty to throw around intense criticism solely for being a woman creator. If scrutiny is to be made, an all around scrutiny of gender roles should be made as to truly determine the roles of these women in popular culture.

  5. Amen! There are so many times when criticism even of the artist’s work skirts the line. I found the recent criticisms of MIA – some of which were ostensibly about what she created rather than her personal life – to be one of those instances (I wrote about it on my blog). Plus, there comes a point when everyone piling onto an artist – MIA but also Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, or Amy Winehouse, to name a few recent, well-known instances – becomes a little too gleeful to be taken as serious criticism.

    • Oh yes! And criticism about their love interests and body functions. In the past few days, I have seen “news” on Pink’s pregnancy, Lily Allen’s blood poisoning/miscarriage, and Lady Gaga’s restraining order. Seriously! These are amazing musicians and should be discussed as such! While it is tragic some of these events, it always seems like that is what is focused on with women in music (along with the hem line thing.)

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