With all of the hype surrounding Lana Del Rey's debut album release at the beginning of the year, many critics have been concerned with her image of femininity. She has been accused of presenting a cosmetically-altered, passive femininity that could be harmful to young women. Admittedly, the tone of the album Born to Die
combines an image of the helpless victim of violent love with the shallow image of a beautiful, fake woman, however infectious and powerful her pop ballads may be. There have been constant debates about the harmful effects of many images of masculinity and femininity in the music industry over the years. Take Chris Brown, for example, whose notorious beating of Rihanna was front page news a few years ago. More recently, a rash of Twitter updates from young women appeared online in response to Brown's 2012 Grammy's performance. Many women stated that they would let Chris Brown hit them in return for his love, a chilling dose of reality for those skeptical about the state of gendered relations in the United States. With these kinds of issues springing up around icons in the music industry, concern is definitely called for. Admittedly, Del Rey's message serves as a problematic example of the popular music industry.
Yet very few critics have taken such a strong stance on the messages produced by pop industry darling Kelly Clarkson. After her success on American Idol
about a decade ago, Clarkson continued to produce smash hits, including tracks from her newest release, Stronger
. The title of the album implies modern femininity, female independence, self-respect, and responsibility. With the theme of moving on from bad relationships and emotional mistreatment, the title track revives the no-sass style of Clarkson's "Miss Independent" or "Behind These Hazel Eyes." The lyrics, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger / Stand a little taller / Doesn't mean I'm lonely when I'm alone" suggest the confident affirmation of adult female singlehood, a hopeful overall message for women in the American cultural landscape.
Because the title track sustains that powerful image of independence, what is shocking is the bonus track, "Don't Be a Girl About It." The track implicitly suggests that women are somehow inferior, more likely to fight in sarcastic, backstabbing ways. The title of the track serves as the chorus, repeated over and over throughout the song. Girls and women in this song serve as the unwanted counterpart to standards of rationalized masculinity. "I knew a guy who changed my world / And then he grew to a little girl /This metamorphoses is just too much / You're crossing lines that I just can't let go of." This verse also suggests that heterosexual relationships require a strong masculine figure, one that shows no emotions in order to counter the weak, weeping figure of the female who requires this masculine partner in order to survive.
Ironically, Clarkson's tough stance in the song and her determination to rid herself of her feminized ex-lover reverses the gender roles. She embodies the idealized, self-controlled masculine stereotype, while her ex-lover presents the weeping, needy, mean-spirited feminine stereotype we are all so familiar with. She is crying for the traditional roles to be restored to her, so that she can once again be the feminine counterpart to a strong man. Ironically, she wants to recapture femininity, while implicitly claiming the traditionally masculine tone of assertion and anger.
What kinds of harmful stereotypes and assumptions about femininity are portrayed in this song, a song that is clearly marketed for young women in the United States and Europe? It suggests that it is degrading and embarrassing to be female, that women use the "pity" card to get their way, and that they never play fair. The song rests on essentialized and mythologized gender categories, which always portray the women as inferior and needy within the monogamous relationship formula. It also derides men that may exhibit traditionally feminine characteristics.
Critics may be concerned with the hyped-up, manufactured image of Lana Del Rey and tracks such as "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans," but we might want to take another look at the hyper-glossy singles that stars such as Kelly Clarkson produce in droves. While the cover of Stronger
may appear to stand for strong, independent womanhood, her songs hint at self-hatred, uncertainty, and gendered expectations that reintroduce the patriarchal, heteronormative rhetoric that degrades individuals for falling out of line. Perhaps images and songs like Clarkson's spur on the self-hatred of young women on Twitter who crave mistreatment from men like Chris Brown, an occurrence that reveals the normalization of masculinized brutality in today's society.