Though it’s hard to believe now, there was a time before Robin Thicke's “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus made twerking a global spectacle. Ah, the good ol’ days of about seven months ago. But, looking back, these past 12 months were volatile ones for women’s rights. Many feminist issues were tested this year, and not just in the courts or on especially heinous men's blogs. No, feminism was also challenged and promoted in the music we listened to (or were forced to hear incessantly on repeat) over the course of 2013.
Some of the most popular songs and artists of the year ended up being used as a platform for discussions over rape culture, reproductive rights, and the evolution of feminism. And the controversy and conversations that some of those songs elicited actually crossed over chatter surrounding women-centric policies. Would the upheaval over the military's sexual-assault problem have been as pronounced if “Blurred Lines” wasn’t stuck in our heads all the time? Would Wendy Davis’ now-famous filibuster over abortion restrictions in Texas have struck such a national chord if Katy Perry didn’t encourage women to “Roar”? Probably. But it’s also plausible that conversation surrounding female empowerment (or lack thereof) in pop culture helped fan the flames even further.
After all, they say art imitates life. Let’s take a look back at how pop music and politics intersected in 2013:
Robin Thicke Blurred Lines of Consent…
It's been dubbed "the most controversial song of the decade." Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" ignited a firestorm during the heat of the summer for being "kind of rapey." Thicke, who has aviator sunglasses permanently glued to his face, oozes sleaze as he repeatedly croons "I know you want it" and mocks a former paramour who "tried to domesticate you."
In the NSFW version of the song's video, three topless women prance around Thicke and his posse while the men remain fully clothed. The song prompted a tirade of hate from the Internet, even as Thicke defended it as "feminist" and said it was about his wife, actress Paula Patton. Meanwhile, Thicke was voted "Sexist of the Year," and students in the U.K. actually lobbied to have "Blurred Lines" removed from college campus pubs.
But director Diane Martel — yes, a real live woman directed a bunch of topless models to traipse around Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. — defended the video:
It forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators. I directed the girls to look into the camera. This is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I don't think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck.
…As Sexual Assault Reports Skyrocketed in the Military.
As the "Blurred Lines" debate raged on the Internet, the debate over sexual assault in the U.S. military was just gaining steam in Congress. In May, the Pentagon released a sobering survey: A whopping 26,000 people in the military said they were sexually assaulted in 2012, a sharp increase from 19,000 in 2010. In reaction, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced a bill to take cases of sexual assault out of the military's chain of command. Throughout the rest of the year, more complaints concerning military sexual abuse were reported and military schools like the Naval Academy saw its own cases of alleged rape. In December, the National Defense Authorization Act got the okay to move forward to President Obama's desk. Even though it does include provisions that are promised to curb the sexual-assault issue, Gillibrand's proposed amendment wasn't included, but it may receive a standalone vote in January.
Miley Cyrus Twerked at the VMAs…
It was the twerk seen 'round the world. MTV was probably very pleased that Miss Miley made the Video Music Awards semi-relevant again when she got up on stage grinding all up on Robin Thicke with a foam finger in August. The rest of the world was left with shocked/awed Twitter reactions, repeated awkward cable news broadcasts, and the word "twerk" being added to the dictionary. Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post summed it up best in her post-TwerkGate commentary:
If you’re a male performing artist and you want to appear edgy and sexy, all you have to do is, I think, stand there in a suit. If you are a woman who wants to appear sexy, you can stand there in a suit, but it has to be your birthday suit.
And sexologist Dr. Jill put her two cents in:
If you think a woman in a tan vinyl bra and underwear, grabbing her crotch and grinding up on a dance partner is raunchy, trashy, and offensive but you don’t think her dance partner is raunchy, trashy, or offensive as he sings a song about "blurred" lines of consent and propagating rape culture, then you may want to reevaluate your acceptance of double standards and your belief in stereotypes about how men vs. women "should" and are "allowed" to behave.
No matter what, Miley and her omnipresent tongue ruled 2013's charts.
…On the Heels of Plan B's Expansion.
As Miley Cyrus let Robin Thicke "liberate" her during that "Blurred Lines" VMA performance, young women knew they wanted something else — easier access to birth control. In June, President Obama lifted age restrictions on the morning-after pill Plan B, allowing it and its generic versions to be sold over the counter to young women. Of course, some people weren't terribly happy about this news. Former Deputy Assistant to President George W. Bush Brad Blakeman told Fox News, "This strips away the moral fabric of our country" (a criticism often targeted at Cyrus as well).
Katy Perry Made (Almost) Everyone "Roar"…
When we first heard Katy Perry's super-smash "Roar," it seemed like a refreshing chant of empowerment (besides ripping off Sara Bareilles' "Brave"), with lyrics like: "I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire/'Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar." Rawr. But then we saw the video. And it was rather ... disappointing. Perry plays the damsel in distress after being stuck in the jungle, but she soon learns how to survive — with the help of animal friends, natural makeup, selfies, and plenty of cleavage. L.V. Anderson at Slate commented on the video's "mixed messages":
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with liking stereotypically feminine things. But given that the song is ostensibly about survival and inner strength, the focus on appearance is baffling.
Compare this with Perry's kickass Rocky-esqe VMA performance, and it's even more baffling.
…Right after Wendy Davis Filibustered Against Abortion Restrictions.
One woman who didn't back down from a fight this year is Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis, who staged an 11-hour filibuster to cap off a heated debate over abortion restrictions in Texas. Even though it was all for naught — Gov. Rick Perry signed the law into effect, banning abortions after 20 weeks and requiring clinics to meet surgical center standards — Davis became an overnight superstar in women's rights circles (along with her pink shoes) and is now running to take over Perry's position. Even though critics say the law has substantially limited the services of a third of the state's clinics, the Supreme Court upheld Texas' abortion restrictions.
Britney Spears and Lily Allen Had Different Definitions of “Bitches”…
Britney Spears and Lily Allen, both mommas on a comeback, dropped new songs this year. (Finally!) Even though Brit's "Work Bitch" anthem sounds empowering (and comes with a hearty dose of common sense): "You want a hot body ... a Maserati? You better work, bitch" — her video tells a different story. In between shameless plugs of her perfume, she whips her models and carries them around like dogs on leashes. As Renegade Chicks wrote of the video:
“Work” is the central theme of the song but is translated in the video to a form of slavery under Britney’s reign; women are shown as objects and subjected to Britney’s whip. On one hand Britney is telling these “bitches” to work for their own, but how inspirational can this be for a woman if you are calling her a female dog while treating her like one?
Meanwhile, Lily Allen took a swipe at the image-obsessed pop music industry — making fun of Robin Thicke's antics while crooning "There's a glass ceiling to make/I've got money to make ... It's hard out here for a bitch." But some lambasted Allen for being racist as she tried to twerk — and failed — with black backup dancers.
… As States Had Different Interpretations of Roe v. Wade
Though pop stars think women can and should take control of their lives, it seems some politicians still don't. Other states besides Texas were at the forefront of new abortion debates this year — with many restrictions being determined by old men, not women. North Dakota debated passing a law that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, New Mexico tried to drum up support for the country's first municipal-level abortion ban, North Carolina plugged abortion limits into a motorcycle safety bill, and Oklahoma attempted to ban abortion-inducing meds.
Lady Gaga and R. Kelly Promoted Consent (Sort Of)…
Someone who had a less-than-stellar year? Lady Gaga and her ARTPOP album. Maybe she should stay away from collaborating with people like R. Kelly. (Seriously, was no one else available?) Even though lyrics like "Do what you want, what you want with my body” signal clear consent, some think the message is fuzzy, namely that "it’s sexy for girls to be treated like objects." And did we mention R. Kelly was once arrested in a child porn case? One thing's for sure: Please don't let these two back on Saturday Night Live anytime soon.
… As Twitter Rape Comments Presented Real Danger.
This was scary. In the UK, Caroline Criado-Perez, a feminist who petitioned to have Jane Austen on a banknote received a barrage of death and rape threats on Twitter. Other female Brits, including Stella Creasy, a Labour Party member of Parliament, were targeted after expressing support for Criado-Perez. They retweeted many of the worst ones, and police were called in to intervene. What did Twitter do in response? Simply developed a "report tweet" button for users.
Beyoncé Stunned the World With Her Sexy New Album…
Queen B shocked the world when she dropped an unannounced album on iTunes because SHE CAN DO WHAT SHE WANTS. After grabbing a hold of it, some listeners had the same reaction: "It's dripping of sex." Just look at these lyrics, translated from French:
Est-ce que tu aimes le sexe? Le sexe, je veux dire l’activité physique, le coit, tu aimes ça? Tu ne t’intéresses pas a sexe? Les hommes pensent que les féministes détestent le sexe mais c’est une activité très stimulante et naturelle que les femmes adorent
Do you like sex? Sex, I mean the physical activity, coitus, do you like it? You’re not interested in sex? Men think that feminists hate sex, but it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love.
Is Beyoncé the realization of "having it all?" Maybe, but that doesn't bode so well for the average Jane.
… As Conservatives Seek Limitations to Female Healthcare Access.
While Beyoncé was doing her thang, conservatives were looking to quash full access to healthcare — only for women, though. Because Obamacare is the worst thing that's happen to this country ever ::sarcasm::, a good chunk of states have already slashed the Affordable Care Act's abortion coverage — most recently, with Michigan's "rape insurance" bill. The Supreme Court is also set to hear a case over crafts retailer Hobby Lobby refusal to include the mandate to provide contraception to employees through their health plans.
Even though pop music delved into some uncharted territory, it's clear that artists and the consumers that gobble up their hits are still conflicted over how women's rights should be presented and critiqued. The lines are almost as divided as Congress itself. As PolicyMic noted:
Now, the man doesn’t matter, if he’s even there. Fame, success, and recognition are what the ladies of pop thrive on these days. The men? Well, let’s just say they could learn a thing or two from these women.