I have to come clean. I don’t watch music awards anymore or most award shows for that matter. I usually hear about what happened the next day via social media. So in December when I heard about a speech Madonna made about her difficulties coming up in a male dominated and sexist music industry and my interest was piqued.
Madonna made a lot of good points and was very raw and vulnerable about the decades of difficulties she faced being an artist. She’s been through a lot of terrible things and come out on top. But as I listened to her rant I heard a lot of inconsistencies. She’s human and so that’s expected but the confusion and pain she spouted was hard to ignore.
Her main bone to pick was that she felt alienated from feminists because of her brand of feminism. She experienced pressure to stay young. She did not have any real female mentors that she could trust and she was judged by the public for being sexual and risqué while she felt artists like Prince got away with similar behaviour.
At first I was shocked by some of the things she admitted going through. She explains that she was raped and her apartment robbed so often that she stopped locking the door. But as I listened to her, I felt that she in her own way added to the problems that she had faced in the music industry. It felt hypocritical for her to be complaining about peoples response to an image she created and still tries to maintain. She did receive backlash for being seen as very sexual but she also continued to use that to her advantage. Many female artists use their sexuality to sell music. It’s expected but not necessary. There is a way to show beauty and femininity without making yourself into a sex object. Artists like Nicki Minaj and Rihanna also happily portray themselves like sex objects and have become famous for shocking people while entertaining. Miley Cyrus is another example of going overboard while trying to garner attention.
Some of these women don’t consider themselves role models but it doesn’t mean that many young girls don’t look up to them as such. And one of the realest problems I see is the damaging position that many girls are putting themselves into as they follow what they see these stars doing.
Maybe they want to dress and act like these stars but there will be hell to pay at school and on the block. They will not be shielded the way some of these stars are. It’s impossible for young girls to get away with doing similar acts. Stars preach to young girls that they are empowered to do anything they want but is that really true? I’ve spoken to so many girls and boys that idolize Nicki Minaj but in the same breath would call a girl a ho if she dressed like Nicki at school. Yes some stars are criticized for how they behave but they still sell records and are deeply desired and famous. Honestly, the double standard between men and women will never end but I think female artists knowing what they know have a responsibility to educate.
But again this is the problem. Stars get away with doing things regular people can’t do.
These young (watching) girls might not get the same out of the deal. Instead these young girls will feel pressure to look older than they are, rush out to have experiences they are not ready for and possibly have body image issues. Trying to look like someone that literally has a stylist and makeup artist at their beck and call is a futile cause that many girls will never realize.
Madonna may feel like she’s empowering women but is she? Are we really being empowered by fake images and unrealistic standards? Imagine young girls trying to be “empowered” and acting like Miley or Nicki at their schools and future jobs.
Give in or get out?
Theses stars have sold themselves and are continuing to do that. It makes it difficult for other artists who refuse to sexualize themselves to be taken seriously or promoted. If I were to look out into the music world I can easily pick out many women that didn’t conform to the music industry standards and walked the long slow path to fame. Some didn’t have the staying power that Madonna did although they may have been much more talented, but I can imagine that they are ok with that because they were true to their conscience in the end. I love female artists and male artists that are role models. Art can coincide with mentoring and the younger generations will always need people that will pay that the price.
At this point women like Alicia keys are going against the grain and taking back femininity. With her recent decision to go sans makeup she’s telling everyone it’s ok to have flaws in front of the camera. You’re still beautiful. India Arie and other artists of the past have set their own standards. I’m not saying one has to wear a burlap sack and no makeup to be empowering, but I think the message we are sending young girls needs to be examined. Why are we acting like sex objects? Would we do it if there were no men around? This is something I’ve wondered as a woman for years and as a child and youth worker I see the impact on the kids. The product is girls that are trying to act sexy before they can actually read.
This is a problem.
We can do our part by promoting talented artists that might not be in the mainstream but are on their way to changing the world as we know it.
Nana Abraham is a speaker, youth activist and author of For Black Girls: The Shaping of a Young Woman– a handbook for life that discusses relevant issues for young women today.