Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Problematic Gender Politics of Katy Perry

Because I find most of it nauseating, I tend not to listen to pop music. When I was in grade school, I used to have a little radio that I would secretly plug my headphones into to hear to Top 40 on Sunday nights. My mother did not approve of pop music and it was a major battle between us during my adolescence. I don’t listen to the radio anymore mostly because I don’t drive and because I listen to music on my iPod and/or on my computer. Also, I really like industrial/EBM/synthpop, etc. which they do not play on the radio. Last week I got a ride to Brussels with my cousin and his twelve-year-old daughter. Like I did when I was her age, she really wanted to listen to pop music on the radio. This is when I came across the song “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry.

When I first realized what Perry was saying, I thought ‘how progressive… a lesbian on pop radio and here is my little cousin singing along.’ That is until I listened closer and heard these lyrics:

"This was never the way I planned
Not my intention
I got so brave, drink in hand
Lost my discretion
It's not what, I'm used to
Just wanna try you on
I'm curious for you
Caught my attention

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry Chapstick
I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don't mind it
It felt so wrong
It felt so right
Don't mean I'm in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it

No, I don't even know your name
It doesn't matter
Your my experimental game
Just human nature
It's not what, good girls do
Not how they should behave
My head gets so confused
Hard to obey

Us girls we are so magical
Soft skin, red lips, so kissable
Hard to resist so touchable
Too good to deny it
Ain't no big deal, it's innocent."

This is one of those backlashy situations where we make a small step forward while simultaneously taking several steps backward. While Perry does say that she enjoyed kissing a 'girl' she says it within the context of a safe heteronormative relationship which is reminiscent of all those drunk college girls who make out with their girlfriends to impress the boys (or was it just my friends...). "I kissed a girl just to try it/I hope my boyfriend don't mind it."
There is no greater capitulation to the patriarchal powers that be than feigning lesbianism for male approval. Perry's song, from the album One of the Boys, was obviously written with a male gaze in mind. Perry sings, "I don't even know your name/It doesn't matter." In her attempt to be "one of the boys" Perry too must objectify the women around her.

In the video for "I Kissed a Girl" there isn't a man in sight. This could be seen as a radical statement of woman-centeredness. However, I see it more as Andrea Dworkin might. Though I don't have the text with me, I am fairly certain that she wrote that girl-on-girl porn does not need a physical man present to be a creation intended for a male gaze. Dismembered female bodies abound in this video. It seems Perry is more concerned with being seen by heterosexual men than about making a radical lesbian political statement. Further, her depiction of femininity consists of fishnet stockings, lacy bustiers, red lipstick and mascara.

Beyond just that one song, lets take a look at Perry's other well-known tune "UR so Gay." Considering the controversy surrounding satire and irony in mainstream media lately, I think it is important to say that the video for this song is obviously a satire. However, the song alone does not immediately come off that way.

"I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf
While jacking off listening to Mozart
You bitch and moan about LA
Wishing you were in the rain reading Hemingway
You don’t eat meat
And drive electrical cars
You’re so indie rock it’s almost an art
You need SPF 45 just to stay alive

You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys...

You’re so sad maybe you should buy a happy meal
You’re so skinny you should really Super Size the deal
Secretly you’re so amused
That nobody understands you
I’m so mean cause I cannot get you outta your head
I’m so angry cause you’d rather MySpace instead
I can’t believe I fell in love with someone that wears more makeup than…

You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys...

You walk around like you’re oh so debonair
You pull em' down and there’s really nothing there
I wish you would get a clue that its not all about you

You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys...
No you don’t even like… PENIS"

As far as I can gather, not considering the video, this song does not seem all that ironic. It seems to be about a woman using the term 'gay' to insult her ex-boyfriend who she deemed too effeminate. The themes of homophobia and woman hatred seem to permeate Perry's work. When I consider that many of Perry's listeners are 12-year-olds like my cousin in Freedom, Wisconsin, I am concerned that they aren't in on the 'joke.' And frankly, I am not sure Perry really means it as a joke. Calling someone gay and/or equating him with femininity as an insult AND feigning lesbianism for male sociosexual approval are the furthest thing from progressive.


Kandee said...

I very much agree and was turned off by her music after the first round of the album.

Sabertoothed Screaming Lemur said...

Thank you and I agree! Performative bisexuality pisses me off; also her lyrics were kinda... misogynistic. HellOn Hairy Legs has a blog about this song too. (
I still haven't figured out how to do the link thing, sorry!
But glad I'm not the only one annoyed by that (admittedly catchy) damn song.

Queers United said...

what i dont like is that she implies that there is something wrong and "sinful" about bisexuality and even in light of that she tried it. there is nothing wrong with it, so if she wants to try it cool and if not whjatever.

megan said...

she is amazingg and so is her music
so keep hating!!

Anonymous said...

"what i dont like is that she implies that there is something wrong and "sinful" about bisexuality and even in light of that she tried it."

You have every right to not like it, however miss Perry has every right to imply that it is sinful. First step to acceptance is to accept that not everyone is so accepting. Those who are bisexual or homosexual do not have monopolistic rights of opinions of the lifestyle.

Erika said...

You know I like this song. I like it because it's fun, flirty, catchy, and in some way it IS challenging the norm. Okay yes, it's not the best example by any means. But it is pointing out that girls kiss girls and it's OKAY to like it. I can only speculate, but based on Katy's appearances to the media, i'm pretty sure she likes it. And like most people in the buisness, they are told/forced/contractually obligated to sell their voice with someone elses limitations. Yeah, this song falls into the heterosexual dichotomy BUT, how many other pop songs do you hear talking about kissing the same sex AND liking it. It's a step, very small, but just keep that in mind.

kat said...

So, I just heard this song for the first time this morning. Perry was on The View (yeah, don't even ask why I had it on....).
My first observation is that, like many pop singers, she sounds like crap live. That's a bad sign. That means that however she sounds on a cd or on the radio is due entirely to the studio's engineer, who has tweaked and fiddled until she actually sounds like she can sing.
I hate that. A talented singer should sound the same live.

Second observation is that the song reminded me of those plastic blond girls in college who would make out with each other at frat parties for guys' titillation.

It's offensive because just like Lemur said, it's performative. It's not real, and it manages to give a lot of people the impression that lesbianism, or more specifically bisexuality, is fake. There's already enough bullshit about homosexuality being a choice, we don't need more.

oh yeah, plus the misogyny...

John said...

Katy can't sing worth a lick but she's pretty hot

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny that you sit around in your spare time, picking apart songs and lyrics that you deem "offensive". How about this, instead of focusing on relatively-harmless artists such as Perry, turn your attention to the truly woman-hating artists such as Eminem and 50 Cent. These "rappers" constantly talk about their "bitches and hoes", which, if I'm not mistaken, is truly demeaning.
It seems to me that, if you can't appreciate something as creative and free as music at face-value, then you're nothing but a sad, closed-minded music poseur. No amount of proper grammar and big words are going to change that.

Cortney said...

Actually anonymous, you might be interested to know that I spent over a year working on a lengthy textual analysis and ethnographic study of hip-hop music videos. That research won me the UWM research paper award and I also presented that research to a large audience at the National Women's Studies Association Conference. Perhaps if you read more of this blog you'd have seen that. Are you familiar at all with the field of ethnomusicology? Look it up.

petpluto said...

Excellent post. I absolutely hate this song and the messages it espouses, so I never bothered to listen/look up any of her other ones. UR so Gay sounds absolutely atrocious, and just sort of reinforces the heteronormativity of her CD as a whole.

kat said...

Uh, anonymous, music is rarely free. Especially if it's mainstream, studio produced stuff.

Besides which, you think Perry should be taken at face value but rappers shouldn't? Double standard much?

Anonymous said...

Clearly all mans fault.

Anonymous said...

StraightWhiteMale says:

Oh god, another red herring for feminazis to cluck about. Listen up bitches: First of all, if she's got a boyfriend and kisses someone else, don't you think he might have a right to be pissed off about it? She's fucking cheating! Secondly, if he or any other man gets "titilated" or aroused at watching 2 girls kiss what's the problem with that? Why is it ok for girls to get aroused by whatever arouses them, but if something pleases a guy it's all of a sudden wrong? It's perfectly liberated and empowered to be a bi-curious woman who enjoys kissing girls and enjoys that it turns her boyfriend on. Once again, radical anti-male feminist prudes are reacting to something irrelevant and failing to focus on true threats to women's empowerment, such as the spread of radical Islam, republicans, Christianity, etc...

P.S. I agree with you on the "Gay" song. I think it's wrong to use that word as an insult and that is indeed what Ms Perry is doing. I also think it's wrong to degrade effeminate men.

Mistina said...

I was curious if there is a place where I could read your research paper on your ethnographic study of hip-hop music videos.


Anonymous said...

Why does anyone here care about whom Katy Perry wants to scew or not? She did not call lezbians awful or hateful and she is being rather cheeky in the video about the fact she is singing about kissing a girl as a titalation. What I would like to know is why is it that every time a straight woman has an opinion we now have to be oppressed in our thinking not only by men but lezbians too? I have nothing against either myself.....I too have kissed a girl and liked it. Remember ever using the insinuation that chocolate or icecream was sinful or bad? It was simply a way to describe the sensation related to the kiss....and why did the kiss'ee not let her know what her name was? I think most of us have had the fantasy of something anonymous or taboo to a degree. Let lezbians be the forward thinking and progressive group they claim to be and be the grownups and let this go instead of trying to find a deeper meaning in what one girl had to say about playing with a fantasy she had in her head. Don't you remember the days when kissing a girl was a fantasy before you came out? Do you not remember what it was like having your thoughts repressed? It is just one girls opinion after scary is it really?

Cortney said...

I am not trying to suggest that Perry's desires are 'bad.' In fact I made a point of saying that the song is simultaneously progressive and oppressive. I don't think Perry is a lesbian or has ever even self-identified as queer. This isn't about queerness and that is my problem. This is about impressing boyz at barz or doing something sassy to get attention. I just think that queerness is already misrepresented, under-represented and misunderstood enough in media that portrayals like this do more harm than good.

Cortney said...

Also, Mistina, if you are interested I can post parts of that paper here or I could e-mail you an abstract. It is pretty long (30+ pages) not sure you'd wanna read the whole thing. Let me know!

Lameface said...

Really over thinking a song I see.
its merely a song let her do what she wants be drunk mess aroung call people gay who cares she has boss music if you get past these two songs. Its no worse then some of the other ridiculous meaningless pop songs that go around so dont complain.
And she does infact not sound like crap live saw her at warped and she sounded fantastic

Joe Bonanza said...

merciless mercantilism and cynical capitalism: exploiting people since...well... the beginning

Paparich said...

i agree with you too! love katy perry

ThingsOFARandomCollegeTeen said...

If she likes kissing girls, why does it have to be a performance? This in not normal for her and her ilk, but for everyone else, it pretty normal.

The second song is interesting. Maybe she got it from the fact that 20% of teenagers who commit suicide ARE gay.

Blissful ignorance scares me at times.

Anonymous said...

Yes ... I agree that this song is taking one small step forward and several steps backwards. I like how you articulated that. It is depressing, even moreso knowing that some idiots still consider this type of entertainment genuinely "progressive" and productive for women in our time. It is not productive. Katy Perry is not gay. And she is stereotyping gay culture as well with her lyrics about her exboyfriend. Stupid katy perry.

Anonymous said...

To the people who say 'it is just a song' and cortney is 'overthinking it' - that's the trouble, people think this stuff is just fun, but it works to normalize the idea that women are trivial and just there for entertainment/looking at, and normalizes the idea that this is what women want, which clearly we don't!

And Straighwhitemale, by examining lyrics like this and pointing out how they undermine women, feminists are not attacking individual men but the system, which also craps on men - as you so rightly pointed out yourself at the end of your post. Its nothing personal :)

Germaine Greer said...

"Yeah, this song falls into the heterosexual dichotomy BUT, how many other pop songs do you hear talking about kissing the same sex AND liking it."


Yeah, all the other gay pop songs are about gay love but a severe dislike for it.

Anonymous said...

Katy talked to Russell Brand on Radio 2 about the song. It's actually about when you see someone so beautiful that it goes beyond gender barriers and you just want to kiss them, whether they're male or female. It's not as shallow as whether shes a lesbian or not.

ox said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I think you need a life. There is a guy in the video, and i think katy perry ROCKS:)

kater said...

i think that katy perry rocks. and who cares if she sings about kissing a girl..... also there is a guy in the video....

JR said...

Wow, I had listened to this song but had never grasped it in all its entirety.
Now, some homophobes are in delight that she admits to kissing a girl yet stating that it's wrong and shameful.
This woman is an idiot desperate for attention, as she herself puts it, "I'm outrageous and will do anything for attention".
It's not naive to imagine that this "anything for attention" involves a bit of homophobia displays.
That's so sad, like someone once so wisely put it, "it's so depressing to be hated for being something that you cannot change." We're going to have to live with these homophobes hating us for the rest of our lives, I can live with that, but not without fighting and taking them to hell if needed, giving them a bite of their own poison.

Anonymous said...

its a fuckin song, jeeeeeeeeeeeeeez.

Anonymous said...

i dont like katy perry...she also goes for shock and awe a lot...and it's just insane for parents to make kids (or even adults, really)listen to her music. kids (and adults) learn a lot through repetition and if your awareness isn't so well developed, you tend to absorb it much more than you realize. Kinda like how it became cool to say "fuck" in public...
Besides, Ms Perry reminds me of a skinny witch...her eyes are good though...i wouldnt buy her records though... :)

Anonymous said...

She is a pop star and she isnt trying to make a political statement. you are just being foolish. and no, im not her fan and yes, iam a woman. and no i dont need your approval.

Anonymous said...

I think you're being uptight. I'm a huge dyke and a huge feminist, and I totally understand why you would get upset if someone's lifestyle were like this. But she's an artist, and it's her job to entertain. She isn't less of a human being because you don't think what she sings about is shit. I try to keep my politcal ideas out of my music taste, and I think I do pretty good with that. I'm an anarchist and a feminist, but I could gladly sit down and listen to Eminem or Katy Perry or The Unseen or Dead Kennedys any day.

Open your skull a little and relax. It's just music. It's not liek girls weren't already kissing girls to get a rise out of guys. Flip out at the ones who make it their weekly routine, not someone who's just trying to have fun with music.

Jeez louise.

Anonymous said...

Everything you wrote was DEAD ON exactly EVERYTHING that has been bothering me about Katy Perry. I'm glad you took the time to write it out. Kudos!

And just not to truly be "anonymous", my name is Ivy Boersma. You rock.

Anonymous said...

You know, really... while I don't really like this song, I think honestly that a lot of people look at it the wrong way.

I mean, a lot of people think if a girl kisses a girl she must be a lesbian. If she's not she's experimenting or she's faking, or something.

Sure, on one hand, the line about "hope my boyfriend doesn't mind" kinda screams, "Hey, you're screwing around on your boyfriend, what the hell?" But really, I think the message here is, and particularly with that line (I may have misquoted, sorry, it's late), "Be yourself, and don't worry about labels and what other people think about you."

That line, the way it's inflected in the song, sorta makes me think that the unspoken part is, "Tough shit if he does, though."

The problem I think with it is that it goes a little too far the other way; it seems as though the "narrator" doesn't care about anyone's feelings - her boyfriend, the girl she kissed, the person hearing this story.

I think it could represent a conflict with labels, perceptions and barriers inflicted by society and "peer pressure" or whatnot, but at the same time it flirts with irresponsibility in regards to how one deals with one's fellow human.

Charlotte Mayes said...

Although I agree with your post, I tend to think Katy Perry herself doesn't buy much into her music, at least in regard to "Ur so gay." She is, after all, engaged to marry Russell Brand, who wears far more makeup than she, and pants so tight it's remarkable. He also seems one who would gladly head outside with his much beloved, dog-eared copy of "The Sun Also Rises" at the slightest feint of a cloud.

avalon said...

THANK YOU for articulating why I've had an issue with her since her first single dropped.
I had never even heard UR so gay, and am appalled. Even her hot/cold song is riddled with misogyny. UGH!!

Kaitlyn Rotten said...

Agreed completely. I'm actually writing an essay for a contest about feminism and sexism in pop music AND it mentions Katy Perry A LOT.