Britney, Christina and the upside of ‘raunch culture’: AKA ‘Sometimes you just want to dance, mmmkay?’
My boyfriend doesn’t like Britney Spears. According to the list of desirable qualities in a man I wrote up around the time of my eighteenth birthday, this brings him one step closer to perfection. But given that my present day self recently forked out an obscene amount of money for an obscenely good seat at her concert in November, it also can result in some good natured arguments.
I can’t remember how the most recent one started (possibly when I told him he thought any man holding a guitar qualified as an ‘artist’, regardless of their actual talent - something he’s not alone in, if the Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time is any indication - zing!), but it got interesting when the subject moved to feminism: namely, the way in which many of the songs I enjoy listening to portray women.
"I know girls think it’s empowering and all that, but what do you think teenage boys think when they see a bunch of girls gyrating their hips and singing ‘F-U-C-K me’ or ‘I wanna be Dirrty’?" he asked.
Now, intention and interpretation are not always - perhaps even are rarely - the same thing, and he knows that as well as I do. I’ve written about this before. In an essay for The Australian last year:
…those short shorts, pouty MySpace photoshoots and suggestive song lyrics are barely construed as sexual at all to the young people creating or consuming them. As a teenager in the 1990s, it took me three years to figure out where the oral sex reference was in Alanis Morissette’s song ‘You Oughta Know’. The miniskirts I wore on weekends weren’t intended to provoke the men I passed on the street, but to emulate the outfits I’d seen Cameron Diaz wearing in Dolly.
Similarly, most of the time, when girls are gyrating around the dance floor to Britney, Christina or more recently, Lady GaGa, they’re not thinking “fuck me” or even “wow, I feel so empowered” - they’re just having fun. It’s a pleasure rooted in theatre and play-acting, less about having sex than about performing sexiness, or equally - and perhaps this is where the pseudo-“empowerment” bit comes in - about performing confidence. Much like my dressing up as Cameron Diaz back in 1998, it’s about being the “hot”, glamorous chick for three and a half minutes.
After all, if you actually listen to the lyrics of ‘If You Seek Amy’, Britney’s not really asking anyone to fuck her.
Love me, hate me, say what you want about me
But all of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy
No, she’s bragging about the fact that everyone wants to fuck her, and suggesting that so long as they do, nothing else much - whether you love her or hate her, for instance - matters. Which, and this is probably what my boyfriend was getting at, is raunch culture to a ‘t’. And which is also rather problematic.
Or so I thought until I listened to another song by Britters, ‘Overprotected’, which I rather liked and related to when it first came out (don’t judge). Specifically the lyric:
Things that I’ve been told, I can’t believe what I hear about the world…
One of the things teenaged me was alarmed to discover about the world was that people might look at me as an object rather than a person. That when they looked at me with desire, that didn’t mean they’d treat me with kindness or respect - often just the opposite. And it’s not just me: growing up female in a world that views young women’s flesh as something to be feasted upon is a scary thing for a lot of people.
I’d be kidding myself if I argued that pseudo-soft porn songs and video clips like those that dominate popular radio and music television don’t play a role in that (even if, as I said before, the problem often lies less in the lyrics or images broadcasted than in the way some people interpret them). But I think that part of the psychological appeal of raunch culture is that, to some extent, it subverts those fears, even as it boosts the thinking that fosters them.
When you’re dancing to ‘If You Seek Amy’, being an object of desire doesn’t seem like something that puts you at risk of cries of “slut!” or, worse, physical attack. It seems fun, fabulous, free. And you can’t blame people for wanting a few moments of escapism.