Is Ariana Grande's "Dangerous Woman" Feminist?

by S. Atkinson

Ariana Grande's new album Dangerous Woman is out in the world, and the most common critical reaction seems to go something along the lines of "Holy sh*t, this is an album full of right-on feminist dance floor bangers! I am changing society and shaking it at the same time!" Ariana's half brother Frankie Grande's interview with Fuse TV built on this perspective; in it, Frankie argues that the changes in the album (renaming the album Dangerous Woman and cutting the single "Focus" completely) reflected the growing importance that Grande places on gender equality. And, look, I don't doubt that Ariana Grande has some feminist beliefs, and there's a great deal of evidence to support that Grande's very tuned in and smart about her responses to sexist language. But is Dangerous Woman the album feminist? Not as much as Twitter would have you believe.

Still, there are some who disagree. Frankie cited the time Grande responded to questions about her ex-boyfriend and a man she was rumored to be dating and how she responded. She said:

"'No, I'm not anyone's property. I'm not anyone's ex, I'm not anyone's future wife, I'm not anyone's future girlfriend, I'm Ariana Grande.' I think literally that moment she was like, 'What the f*ck is happening?! We need to educate the world right now.' And I think it pushed her in a different direction with her album where she was allowing that inner, dangerous woman to come out. It's also a celebration of everyone's dangerous woman. There's a dangerous woman inside of you and you can choose to let her out. You can choose to not let her out. You can choose to keep her in your bedroom. That's the point — feminism means you get to choose. And that's what the whole album is: Her making very strong decisions."
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But, that doesn't seem to have translated to her music. Even the first verse of the album's title song, "Dangerous Woman," feels lazy. It feels like Grande's taken lines from every lady-friendly pop anthem over the last few years and put them in a blender.

Don't need permissionMade my decision to test my limits'Cause it's my business, God as my witnessStart what I finishedDon't need no hold upTaking control of this kind of momentI'm locked and loadedCompletely focused, my mind is openAll that you got, skin to skin, oh my GodDon't ya stop, boy

These lyrics represent knee-jerk sex-positive feminism. The tonality reminds me of an advertisement or a horoscope: it's vague enough to be universal (See: "You'll have problems with a dark haired stranger this week"). Who doesn't want to test their own limits? Who doesn't want to take "control of this kind of moment"? The text is so unspecific as to be totally meaningless, and it's hard to be empowered by something that could apply to just about anyone in the known universe.

As I examined the lyrics of the songs which make up Dangerous Woman, the significance of the album's title became clear. Dangerous Woman isn't about Grande as a danger to others: it's about how her obsessive love endangers her own sense of self. It's hard to read it as a feminist how-to guide when Grande barely seems to exist outside of her relationships. In "Thinking 'Bout You" she sings: "I ain't got no choice, cause I'm here all alone/I know I can't wait 'til you get home." To be alone is always to be lonely in the songs on this album. Grande confesses "I tried to make it through the night, but I can't control my mind" before slipping into the chorus, a looping refrain of "Thinking 'bout you/Thinking 'bout you/Thinking 'bout you." We see pretty much the same sentiment at the opening of "Everyday," when Grande sings plaintively "Anytime I'm alone, I can't help thinking about you." If you ever wondered what Grande thought about when alone, at least from the lyrics presented on the album, it seems like she's always far more fixated on the man she's seeing than herself. Her sense of self seems obscured by her obsessive fixation on her man.

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It's the same story in "Let Me Love You," in which Grande could feasibly be in a place where she might want to rock it solo for a while: she's "just broken up with" her ex. But this isn't a song celebrating independence. She sounds uncertain when she says, "Now I'm out here single, I don't really know what's next." At this point the more cynical amongst us might argue that this isn't as telling as it might seem. The line could be dictated by the rhyme scheme: "ex" rhymes really neatly with "next," right?

But even Lil Wayne, her collaborator on the song, knows what's up. He raps: "She just looking for love/She says she single and I'm her feature, oh, my God." Grande cheerfully acknowledges "I ain't tryna rush you, but godd*mn, I'm a mess." Grande, or the character she's portraying on this album, can't exist without love or at least some guy to fool around with. Without that, she's in the dark, and by her own admission, she's a mess.

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Grande's equally clear about her need for romantic love on "Leave Me Lonely," when although she claims that she'd rather be on her own than have her boyfriend walk out on her one more time, she still describes her boyfriend turning her away "like I'm begging for a dollar."

But this focus in her songs doesn't mean that Grande can't be an empowering icon. Post Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In- style feminism, where chapters like "The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" present real women who choose to be homemakers as being unconsciously influenced by the negative stereotypes surrounding female ambition and opting out of careers because of this, a woman's right to set their own priorities has been limited. All those copies of Lean In sold don't lie: many feminists feel pressured to be career women first and foremost. Grande's honesty and vulnerability on the album certainly demonstrates her half-brother's very legitimate reading of feminism: that feminism means "you get to choose." And if we really believe in this interpretation of feminist values, then Grande as a broken, obsessive girlfriend shouldn't be any less valid than her as a fulfilled, fully evolved individual who doesn't rely on anyone. It's certainly a whole lot more real.

So let's get this straight: sure, Grande's album isn't anti-feminist. But maybe it's not as much of an album packed full of feminist anthem after feminist anthem as the Twitterverse claims it to be.