Christina Aguilera's "Dirrrty" Received Sexist Backlash 15 Years Ago & We Still Haven't Learned Our Lesson
When it was released in 2002, Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty" caused a mass commotion. It wasn't just controversial by pop music standards — although it certainly was that and then some — the song, and the provocative David LaChapelle music video that accompanied it, drew a palpable outcry of disgust and indignation from the media. The response was unprecedented, and by modern standards, more shocking than the actual song or video is. Aguilera and "Dirrty" received a sexist backlash essentially because the then 22 year-old singer was simply expressing her sexuality, owning it, and enjoying it. Something which the singer was damned for doing by various corners of the entertainment press.
Disturbingly, many reviews for "Dirrty," shared the same nauseatingly misogynistic language upon its release. An MTV analysis of the "Dirrty" video, for instance, described Aguilera as a "pop tart" who is "spanked like the naughty girl she is." Time Magazine mocked Aguilera's appearance in the "Dirrty" video as looking like she had come "direct from an intergalactic hooker convention. (She earned that extra r.)" Meanwhile. Entertainment Weekly referred to Aguilera as being both "a dance-floor strumpet," and "the world’s skeeziest reptile woman," in a review for Stripped, the album from which "Dirrty" came.
Other publications were a little more thoughtful in their contributions towards the backlash against "Dirrty," but they were no less savage for it. The BBC, for instance, determined that Aguilera and Stripped, lacked "the class of Destiny's Child or Aaliyah," and bemoaned that the singer's "sweet innocence is long gone." Entertainment Weekly, on the other hand, lamented that "the burping, underproduced track is so scant and garish that you can almost imagine her wearing it."
It seemed impossible in all of these criticisms for the writer in question to express their opinion without making snide remarks against the manner that Aguilera was expressing herself. With "Dirrty," Aguilera was exploring her sexuality as a young woman, and she did so in a manner that appeared to primarily serve her own sense of sexual agency. With lyrics that were simply about having a raucous, messy night out with her fave girls, "Dirrty," wasn't a song made to specifically fulfill heterosexual male fantasies, just as the video wasn't necessarily doing that either. And critics didn't respond well to any of it.
It's worth noting by comparison that just a year before “Dirrty” was released, Britney Spears shed her own pretense of youthful innocence with the video for “Slave 4 U.” Despite the singer, in a barely there outfit, writhing around in a simulated orgy of dancers, Spears never received anywhere near the sort of vitriol that Aguilera did for “Dirrty.” However, Spears' sexuality, though skimpily-clothed and just as blatant, was also conventional and most importantly, perhaps, still presented under the guise of being virginal and pure. She was, as The Observer described her at the time, "the world's most politest...diva."
Unlike Spears, Aguilera's expression of being a "diva," wasn't polite. And she certainly didn't seem interested in following convention or maintaining a facade of prettiness or purity for the sake of being inoffensive. In retrospect, that was likely something that provoked the sort of shame-loaded criticism that she received for the song. "Dirrty," was grimy and subversive, and it had an overbearing aggressive sexuality that wasn't accessible to the masses. A fact made all the more evident by Aguilera's iconic choice of outfit — a tiny bikini, adorned by a pair of assless chaps. "Dirrty" provided such a visceral, raw expression of sex, that Tina Fey once joked that she'd caught a venereal disease watching it.
In an interview with Blender, Aguilera responded to the widespread criticism of "Dirrty" without apology. While explaining that she "loves to shock," the singer also defended the music video by highlighting the power of her sexual agency within it. Aguilera said:
Now 15 years old, it's easy to look back at "Dirrty" and see that Aguilera was actually ahead of her time in this respect. The" teen queen-turned-barely clad tart," was pushing back against a culture which wanted to enjoy her sexuality as a young female musician while also dictating the appropriate manner with which that sexuality should be presented. "Dirrty" felt like a protest against an industry which was more comfortable with women being used like music video props, than it was with women being bold with their sexuality on their own terms.
Nowadays, there's plenty of musicians who continue to challenge "appropriate" representations of women and female sexuality. However, the same tired, old backlash against such representations are still sadly active, too. In 2014, for instance, Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda," courted controversy for it's cover artwork, and later, for it's explicit video in which Minaj reclaimed female sexuality from the music videos of male musicians who had turned it into a background commodity.
While there were plenty of intersectional feminist readings of "Anaconda," that celebrated this angle and others, there was others such as All Hip Hop CEO Chuck Creekmur's open letter to Minaj, that denigrated it. In response to the "Anaconda" backlash, Minaj told V Magazine, "If a man did the same video with sexy women in it, no one would care," and added, "Shame on [reporters] for commenting on 'Anaconda' and not commenting on the rest of the oversexualized business we're a part of."
Minaj's response is eerily reminiscent of Aguilera's response to her own backlash, and highlights the same problem. Primarily, that sex sells, and that it's all too often encouraged as a prime selling point for young female pop musicians to lean on. As the backlash to "Dirrty," and to "Anaconda," made clear, however, there's evidently unwritten rules as to what are and aren't appropriate ways for that sexuality to be packaged up and presented to the public. And taking an autonomous approach to sexuality doesn't seem to be part of what is considered appropriate, to this day.
"Dirrty," was flamboyantly inappropriate — disruptive, even. And it was exactly what the music industry needed to happen in the early '00s — too dirty to clean it's act up, and ringing the alarm. All without a single apology.