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this is how pop star activism actually makes us less empowered

As Ellie Goulding admits her ‘feminist’ Brit Awards speech was staged, it’s clear the pressure on women and minorities to be ‘strong’ and ‘empowered’ is itself a factor of their oppression, making real systemic change even harder to achieve.

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12 April 2018, 9:19am

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At the Golden Globes, women wore black. Later in January 2018, at the Grammys, they wore white roses. The message was the same: Time’s Up. “Time’s Up for pay inequality, discrimination or harassment of any kind, and the abuse of power,” Janelle Monáe declared in her introduction to the Recording Academy’s prestigious event. “We come in peace, but we mean business,” she told viewers, “And just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.” Kesha then reintroduced herself to the industry, following her protracted court battles with Dr. Luke. Flanked by Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Andra Day, Julia Michaels and Bebe Rexha, and backed by the Resistance Revival Chorus, Kesha performed Praying, her powerful song about escaping an abuser, bringing the performers, and many in the audience, to tears. Lady Gaga gave a little whisper between songs – a quick “Time’s Up” after Joanne and before the piano intro to Million Reasons.

The Grammys ceremony appeared very much on message, with a range of powerful women getting their Time’s Up moment on the mic. Their unified voices almost eclipsed the pertinent issue of there being only one female award winner, Alessia Cara for Best New Artist; and the news that Lorde -- the only woman nominated in the Best Album category -- was reportedly the only one not offered a solo performance. It was going quite well in a PR sense, until Recording Academy president Neil Portnow was asked about the #GrammysSoMale complaint after the show, and appeared to suggest women essentially just need to pull their fingers out. “It has to begin with… women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level,” Neil told Variety, “[They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome.”

Women in the music industry were, of course, quick to convey to Neil the many and various ways they had been ‘stepping up’ for their entire careers. "Women have been stepping up since the beginning of time,” P!nk tweeted, “Stepping up, and also stepping aside. Women OWNED music this year. They've been KILLING IT.” She was retweeted by Katy Perry, who added, “We ALL have a responsibility to call out the absurd lack of equality everywhere we see it. I'm proud of ALL the women making incredible art in the face of continual resistance.” Halsey, Charli XCX, and Tegan and Sara also added their voices. Neil later apologised for not being “as articulate as I should have been”, clarifying that what he really meant to say was that, “women who dream of careers in music face barriers that men have never faced”.

When Ellie Goulding addressed Neil’s comments just over a month later at the UK’s answer to the Grammys, the Brit Awards, it appeared to be an impromptu decision to speak from the heart. Presenting an award alongside Adwoa Aboah, Ellie said, "It’s so amazing to see so many people tonight wearing the rose" -- referring to the white roses worn in support of Time’s Up. "We’re very proud to be women, and actually I think we can all agree that we’ve been stepping up for years." This dig at the president of the Recording Academy was cheered both in the arena and online, making headlines as another example of a brave woman speaking out about injustice. Just as Natalie Portman did, when she introduced, “the all-male nominees” for Best Director at the Golden Globes. And Emma Stone, who noted that “these four men and Greta Gerwig created their own masterpieces this year” while presenting the same award at the Oscars.

Except, Ellie Goulding hadn’t simply been struck by a rebellious, feminist desire to speak out. In a recent interview promoting her ambassadorship of Pantene hair products, Ellie revealed that it wasn’t actually her idea. “To be completely honest with you, I was asked to say that,” she told the Metro. “I didn’t want to say no, because I thought it was something that should have been said by someone. I was like ‘if no one else is going to say it, then I’ll say it’.” Which left us with some questions. Chief among them: who asked her to say it? It doesn’t feel quite as empowering, now we know she was used as someone else’s mouthpiece -- even if she did agree with the sentiment. “I massively respect the Grammys,” Ellie added, “I just think there needs to be a little bit more equality.” Which, presumably, is what passes for respectability politics in the polished world of pop.

“If we are at a point where young women artists are having their activism stage-managed, while they continue to conform to the strictures of heteropatriarchal, white supremacist beauty standards… well, Whitney Houston, we have a problem.”

If we are at a point where young women artists are having their activism stage-managed, while they continue to conform to the strictures of capitalist, heteropatriarchal, white supremacist beauty standards (to the extent that they are selected to promote its best-selling products), and while creating an image of resistance that happily sits within the existing structures of an oppressive system (without challenging the status quo in a meaningful way), well, Whitney Houston, we have a problem. Plenty of celebrity women have expressed their frustration at the pressure to be a vocal feminist in their public life. And so -- much as those women who do speak from the heart on issues of prejudice, discrimination, abuse and inequality are to be celebrated -- we must ask: is the pressure to be the perfect activist (on top of whatever talent you’re already winning awards for) just another oppressive expectation for women to live up to?

In recent years, as new chapters have been written in the historic struggle for progress, we have seen a change in the way musicians and other creative talents are marketed. Women are sold on their ‘feminist’ strength and power; LGBTQ artists on their defiant sexuality; PoC artists on their anti-racism credentials; and artists who struggle with physical or mental health issues on their heroic fight to be well. Of course, these are factors of the artist’s identity, and they should be free to express them without judgement. But it’s the gleeful way these issues are touted as ‘edgy’ reasons to care about them, via PR and marketing strategies, that feels uncomfortable. As Emma Garland wrote for Vice last year, “we're reaching a point where the term ‘mental illness’ doesn't have any tangible meaning... As with feminism, the term's over-saturation in the media gradually erases any to all nuance and it becomes another empty trend, designed to shift product or make a reader click on a headline or pay attention.”

“The onus is placed on oppressed people to endure: on women to be empowered; LGBTQ people to be defiant; PoC people to be endlessly strong; and unwell people to be boundlessly cheerful.”

The emptiness, and toothlessness, of such headline-friendly forms of ‘speaking out’ are not doing anyone any favours. Rather than putting pressure on society, industry and institutions to be less oppressive, the onus is instead placed on oppressed people to endure: on women to be empowered; LGBTQ people to be defiant; PoC people to be endlessly strong; and unwell people to be boundlessly cheerful. When heroic struggle is a selling point, there is no impetus to take the disadvantage away -- or even to acknowledge its true effects. As Kairol Rosenthal wrote, about her experience of cancer, and wellwishers’ constant assertion of her strength: “I think it is great to honour cancer patients and recognise the challenges we face. But don’t call me strong when I have no other choice. It discounts the many nights that I sobbed alone into my pillow and felt cowardice in every inch of my body. I don’t want to erase those moments with a clean sweep of ‘strength washing’.”

Black women, also, have noted how unhelpful the trope of the ‘strong black woman’ can be. “Referring to black women as ‘strong’ becomes a denial of our vulnerability because we’re expected to remain vigilant, unmoved and unemotional, even as the world violates us time and time again. Calling black women ‘strong’ disregards how this language has historically been used to harm and control us, to relegate us to a sphere where we could ‘handle’ anything thrown our way,” Evette Dionne wrote in a piece titled Stop Calling Me A ‘Strong Black Woman’. Contessa Cooper has written about the difficulty of getting emotional support as a black woman in her essay, An Open Letter To My Therapist Who Called Me A ‘Strong Black Woman’. And Vanessa Williams has explained how, “The overexposed image of the strong black woman... puts African American girls and women at risk for violence and harsher treatment by society” -- because of the assumption that they can take it.

Ellie Goulding told Metro that even though the speech wasn’t her idea, she thought it was a good opportunity to “remind women of the power they have in them” (“My manager is a strong female, my tour manager is a strong female,” she said). But, like the damage done by the mythologies of the ‘perfect patient’ and the ‘strong black woman’, it doesn’t help anyone if our pop stars’ politics are scripted, PR-friendly concoctions. Less still when activism, and feminism, become just another hoop famous women are expected to jump through -- turning the focus away from systemic change to personal endurance, dressed up as ‘strength’ and ‘empowerment’. Systemic sexism, racism and other oppressions endure because they have adapted to withstand a certain amount of dissent, while protecting the old hierarchies of power. Hyper-visible but completely toothless protest merely creates an illusion of progress.

“Rather than hide behind the flimsy facade of personal empowerment, our true power lies in our ability to acknowledge how intolerable injustice is, to be radically vulnerable and righteously angry.”

Boldly showing our anger and our pain is far more effective than hyperbolising about our strength. SZA honestly expressing her anger about not winning a Grammy is much more radical, because it is less expected -- subversive, even. 2017 was her year! The unfairness and injustice is palpable; it is situated right here, not somewhere abstract over there, that unfortunately we can’t do anything about. Women have, for too long, been ‘graceful’ in defeat, in oppression. That’s why Lorde taking an advert out in the newspaper to celebrate women artists is so triumphant, and the passage from Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays that she wrote out and had stitched to the back of her dress is so powerful:

“Rejoice! Our times are intolerable. Take courage, for the worst is a harbinger of the best. Only dire circumstance can precipitate the overthrow of oppressors. The old & corrupt must be laid to waste before the just can triumph. Contradiction will be heightened. The reckoning will be hastened by the staging of seed disturbances. The apocalypse will blossom.”

In exalting a mythology of defiant, super-human ‘strength’, oppressive systems have created a sleight-of-hand trick that forces us to tolerate the intolerable -- and places the blame on us if we cannot. Rather than hiding behind the flimsy facade of personal empowerment, our true power lies in our ability to acknowledge how intolerable injustice is, to be radically vulnerable and righteously angry. If we really mean business, perhaps we shouldn’t come so peacefully, so palatably. As Janelle Monáe herself said, “just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.”