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Can You Be a Feminist and Love Problematic Artists?

As an intersectional feminist who loves all things pop, analyzing pop culture and art comes naturally to me.  Within my online activist circles on Facebook and Google Plus, it’s often our bread and butter of daily discussion.  

Every song, every movie, every book, and every television show are representations of our culture.  They often promote and maintain the power paradigms we live in. When I discuss these integral components with other feminists, I always learn something new.   It often brings up structural questions on the music industry:  Why did this song get recorded?  What forces contributed to this artist getting a record deal over someone else in the business?  Now that this artist has made it big, what are their obligations to support other voices or speak out about their politics?

It’s vital that those of us in the intersectional feminist community discuss these issues.  When we speak together, we focus and get to the core of the ideas. We look at what celebrates diversity and empowerment.  We identify how this part reinforces the dominant power paradigm, and what will make it better, more inclusive, and more representative.  Then we can really hone in on our own opinions, and take that information to our friends and family, encouraging themto look critically at the art they consume.  If we can talk about media and the status quo that gets supported by particular art and artists, we can affect how that happens.

When a new young woman artist becomes a media sensation and is quoted with some variation of “I’m not a feminist.  I like men,” media outlets have a responsibility to ask them to clarify that, to think critically.  Why do you think the first sentence proves the second?  Why would you say that?  What’s wrong with the f-word?

When Raven-Symone said “I’m not an African-American; I’m an American” or declined to accept the label of lesbian, I wanted so badly for Oprah to jump on that, to start a REAL conversation about identity politics.  Instead, she kind of trailed off with what we all were thinking (“Twitter is gonna BLOW UP”).  These sound bites are not enough; sound bites support the status quo in a way that is self-prophesying. By not having the deeper conversation about identity politics and labels, we give those labels power and allow them to be defined by those who eschew them.  We allow them to continue to divide communities into “us” and “nope, not us, not ever.”  It’s silencing, especially to those of us outside the dominant power structure; those of us who already get such little consideration in the Greater Conversation, in politics, in power, in society.  It further ‘others’ us into tiny boxes of afterthoughts.

Pop artist Iggy Azalea has become a central figure to this conversation about problematic art, both online and in print media.  She is promoted on a sexist pop culture pedestal, weighing on the shoulders of Southern Black Women while the influential power-ups in hip-hop often ignore women rappers of color.  Which in turn means that those women rappers of color get less play and influence in pop culture.  Where is the radio play and crossover collaborations with pop artists for Yes, Iggy’s shiz is catchy but when we move our attention and our money in her direction, what kind of cultural scale of value are we supporting? I believe the more we talk about it, the more we can work to influence these trends in a more positive, inclusive and less culturally-appropriative direction.

When I first heard Iggy, I loved her sound.  “Fancy” is so damn catchy.  It’s a really well-crafted pop song; it has all the classic elements of toe-tapping beat, clever lyrics, and it makes you want to dance and sing along.  Then I saw the video, which on the surface I also loved because it’s homage to one of my favorite movies of all time, Clueless (which in turn is an interpretation of my all-time favorite book, Emma by Jane Austen).  Then I started reading articles about Iggy, who she is, was, and how she landed such a successful record deal with such overwhelming marketing support.  And I thought, huh, she’s not a Southern Black woman yet she uses an accent and vernacular that is clearly not geographically or culturally appropriate considering she’s from Australia.   Part of her marketability is indeed the way her whiteness translates to accessibility and tangibility.   We’re hearing Iggy way more than other women rappers, how much of this is due to the way she fits into societal norms of attractiveness?Is there some dearth of awesome woman of color rap artists that I don’t know about?

There are countless articles and tumblrs discussing Iggy’s problematic lyrics, social media updates, and interview quotes.

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After reading a lot of her quotes, her hit songs did become a little less infectious for me.  Yes, a lot of these are clearly the off-the-cuff remarks of a very young, rather ignorant and privileged white woman who never expected to be so analyzed and critiqued.  But I disagree with her stance on so many issues and, after some real thought, find her promotion over women rap artists of color so problematic that it has taken the shine off quite a bit.

No art or artist is going to line up with your personal politics and morals 100% of the time. That’s not the point of art, even pop art.  But for those of us who analyze the entertainment media that passes by and through us, we have a line an artist can cross to become no longer supportable.  I’ve been thinking a lot about where that line is for me, as it does seem to move around a lot.

As a person invested in anti-oppression politics and moving towards a freer and more equal society, I feel a responsibility to think critically about the media I consume.  When I choose to listen to, watch, or read one piece of art over all others in that moment, I want to be sure I am supporting someone who is somewhat in alignment with my basic goals for humanity.  Who is benefitting from my choice?  I want to be able to choose wisely, but also not to overburden myself because it is not my responsibility to single-handedly fix these issues.

And sometimes I do just want to shake my ass.

 

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Written by Bethany Farmer

Bethany is a writer, a mother, and a work in progress. She earned her B.A. in Sociology from Mary Washington College and is considering a return to formal schooling to pursue a graduate degree. Her interests include analyzing pop culture, pissing off the kyriarchy and painting tiny designs on her fingernails.

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