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She Got the Power
Can pop music promote feminism? Can young women be empowered by female pop music performers?
These are some of the questions that led Masters’ student Ruby Cain to her sociology thesis topic “She Got the Power”: The Intersection of Gender, Feminism and Pop Music.
“I have been fascinated with feminism in contemporary pop music since my first year at uni when I completed an essay for a 100-level paper on the objectification of women in the pop industry,” Ruby says.
“Some pop music performers are arguably using their global platforms to combat sexism, gender discrimination, gender-based violence, and promote gender equality. However, this is happening at the same time as many young women distance themselves from feminism, and I wanted to examine that tension further.”
Ruby’s research involved individuals’ creation of a music portfolio and two focus groups with six young women, and centred on their views and responses to the songs and lyrics of pop artists Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Little Mix, Kesha and Halsey.
“I used these artists and their music to explore how young women made meaning from pop music and if they identified this music with feminism or gender-related issues.”
Ruby played songs from these artists to the group and asked what they noticed, what resonated with them, and why. She also discussed what feminism and empowerment meant to the women and how the music, including the lyrics and videos, made them feel.
“It was interesting that participants considered those videos they thought to be ‘sensual’ more favourably than those they considered to be overtly ‘sexual’. They rejected the overt sexualisation of women, which raises questions about contemporary feminism, including women’s agency and ideas about sex positivity.”
Ruby also noticed that songs that were perceived as less aggressive, for example Kesha’s Praying, had a more positive emotional impact on the women.
“The women seemed to value performers’ ‘vulnerable’ lyrics, rather than ‘aggressive’ ones, which is fascinating, as it shows a return to the gender binary in which women are policed into narrow expressions of traditional femininity that deny women those emotions that are usually aligned with masculinity,” Ruby says.
Ruby’s research showed young women have ambivalent positions about feminism, regardless of whether they personally identify as feminist.
“On the one hand, they value the principles of gender equality, but distanced themselves from feminist rhetoric they associated with a ‘radicalised’ feminism. On the other hand, they valued performers they considered to be radical in their subversion of gender norms. Participants felt empowered by performances they deemed overtly feminist.”
Ruby’s conclusion is that young women are ambivalent to music that appears to advance women’s bodily autonomy. She has also found that the young women often revert to more traditional expressions of femininity and masculinity.
“I think the research raises questions about the future of contemporary feminism,” she adds. “While ambivalence might appear at first glance as uncertainty and therefore of little value or concern for a feminist agenda, I think that it can be read as productive and generative, and has the capacity to foster societal change.”
Created: 02/09/2021 | Last updated: 02/09/2021
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