Madonna’s “Woman of the Year 2016” acceptance speech discusses her struggles with image and feminism, eventually accepting herself as ‘a different kind of feminist…a bad feminist”.
There seems to be a dichotomy present in mainstream pop when it comes to the concept of female empowerment. Whilst eighties pop stars such as Madonna and Annie Lennox have used image-changing costumes, makeup and Bowie-esque gender-blurring videos to express their female identities, Sinead O’Connor went down the route of forsaking the use of image-enhancing makeup and and clothing, choosing to present herself as herself, rather than a chameleon. Looking at the images of Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keyes and Sia, how can we evaluate the image choices of female popstars in 2016?
Miley Cyrus and her “movement” documentary cites Madonna and Brittney Spears as big influences in her evolution into the ‘bad bitch that she really is’. She wants to shock, blur gender boundaries, and MTV and her diehard Hannah Montana fans are right behind her. Presented in an almost wholesome way, the documentary which accompanied her release, ‘We Won’t Stop’, showcases her journey from her double Disney alter ego to ‘being herself’. The point that this is all her own creation down to every detail, from her twerking with what look like drugged teddy bears and dwarves, to her working with top name Hip Hop producers, is reiterated throughout the documentary.
Sinead O’Connor, who is surely her polar opposite image-wise, came into Miley Cyrus’ heady mix in a rather unexpected way when she was cited as her inspiration for part of her controversial Wrecking Ball video directed by Terry Richardson. It resulted in an ‘open letter’ from Ms O’Connor to put the record straight on their artistic differences.
In stark contrast, Alicia Keyes does seem more akin to the imagerial ethos of Sinead O’Connor, choosing to go makeup free on all appearances, to let go of the constant struggle to be captured as a perfect chameleon, stating that she doesn’t want to cover up anymore. Her alternative stance towards makeup has become a counterculture, beckoning a different kind of movement that drops the disguise of the ‘contour’ generation.
Sia on the other hand has opted for full disguise, appearing live as a dress, and using giant wigs and bows to conceal her identity. Daft Punk have adopted a similar stance, but are not urged to ‘show their face’, perhaps pointing to some of the fundamental differences in expectations of male and female artists. Using dancers and staging to create visual imagery that avoids her having to show her own identity, she uses videos not featuring herself at all.
Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys and Sia’s portrayals of femininity and sexuality in 2016 are very different. Cyrus adheres to the MTV ethos, seen as liberating in the ways of sexual awareness and identity and getting everything out of the closet and into pop culture. The Daily Mail’s 2010 article, “How pop became porn” highlights Liz Jones’ exposure to watching 24 hours of MTV (Hesmondalgh, 2013, p78) I would argue that this has now become the predominant discourse in pop. The Madonna-esque boundary-pushing has has lead to the normalisation of sex in the media. Whether or not such displays of sexual liberation are a help or a hinderance to feminism is another debate altogether, with Hesmondalgh arguing that videos may be more evidential of narcissism than objectification and not necessarily the damaging and moral concerning degradation that they are presented as (2013, p79).
According to Rosalind Gill, the shift from an “external male judging gaze to a self-policing narcissistic gaze” (Hesmondhalgh, p81) is evident. Though Alicia Keyes, Sia and Miley Cyrus’ music is on a par creatively, with all three artists working with similar producers and having similar levels of success, and recording essentially love songs, their choices for how to present themselves alongside those bodies of work is drastically different, and apparently self-regulated.
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Anon., 2013. Sinéad O’Connor’s open letter to Miley Cyrus [online]. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/03/sinead-o-connor-open-letter-miley-cyrus
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Mossman, K., 2016. Sia: ‘Everyone in entertainment is insecure. We’ve been dancing our entire lives for your approval’ [online]. The Observer. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jan/31/sia-everyone-in-entertainment-is-insecure-observer-music-interview
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