Do you prefer your feminists near-naked and twerking? Or fully clothed and raging against the twerk?
These are the somewhat unlikely questions posed by Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen. This week, each has positioned herself as a voice of feminism within pop music, stirring up a storm of controversy and backlash. But does either speak for the movement?
The timing is coincidental, but interesting. While Cyrus has been on everyone's pop cultural radar since her VMA performance with Robin Thicke in August, Allen hasn't released a new song in four years.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Allen decided to specifically make her return with a "feminist anthem." "Hard Out There" directly mocks Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video, tackles body pressures on women in the music industry, and skewers the white men that enforce the objectification and standards she perceives.
Her anger comes out loud and clear. In fact, her line "I won't be bragging 'bout my cars or talking 'bout my chains / Don't need to shake my ass for you 'cause I've got a brain" seems like a direct attack on Cyrus, or at least Cyrus' approach to pop music.
Meanwhile, Cyrus told BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat, "I feel like I'm one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women to not be scared of anything." She also told Cosmopolitan U.K., "I'm a feminist in the way that I'm really empowering to women. I'm loud and funny and not typically beautiful."
As Bernadette McNulty at The Telegraph poses it: "Lily Allen or Miley Cyrus: Who's the bigger feminist?" Cyrus' approach to feminism is a "knowing libertarianism," writes McNulty. "By shaving her hair or wearing DM's with her thong, Cyrus is flagging up her more independent edginess compared to the traditionally feminine image."
In other words, by rebelling against the soft, sweet, and virginal bubble-gum pop-princess model, she is breaking a mold and encouraging women to be as raunchy or as shocking as they want.
The Allen approach to feminism would argue that Cyrus is still playing the pop industry's sexist games. Cyrus may shock, but she's shocking with a body that's "gym-honed, waxed to exacting and rigorously standardized requirements, and presented to provoke desire," says McNulty. Allen wants to get rid of such standards for women altogether, and she doesn't want music to be about sexualizing women. (A side note: Allen's video is facing its own charges of racism that are definitely worth reading up on).
Of course, it's not that surprising that Cyrus and Allen differ on feminism, because most of us still aren't exactly sure what being a feminist entails. There are a lot of misconceptions and fuzziness around the term, which is part of the reason why a poll in April found only 20 percent of Americans identify as feminists (and only 23 percent of women), but 82 percent say they believe men and women should be "social, political, and economic equals." That latter conception is at least how Merriam-Webster essentially defines feminism.
The pop music world has been just as hesitant to embrace the term as the rest of America. Both Taylor Swift and Katy Perry made a point within the past year of declaring themselves not feminists. In contrast, Cyrus and Allen have very much decided to slap the label across their twerking or satirically nontwerking bodies.
The truth is that neither can claim the feminist crown because there isn't a single way to express feminism. Moreover, each of their approaches is problematic. As much as Allen is encouraging women to break away from body pressures and sexual objectifications, she's implicitly shaming women who do choose to express themselves in such a way. Meanwhile, as much as Cyrus thinks she's breaking the pop rules for women, she's still pushing a heightened focus on sexuality that encourages and pressures women to do the same.
And while it may seem silly to tease out each of these artists' feminist nuances, just because they're not Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer doesn't mean they do not provide insight into modern feminist discussion.
In fact, examining the debate reveals an important ongoing struggle, namely that we expect every prominent feminist, or for that matter every prominent woman, to speak for all women and all of feminism. That's not going to work.
"Feminism is an extremely broad church," writes Ellie Mae O'Hagan at The Guardian. "But often feminists are guilty of expecting every single prominent feminist to reflect their exact politics because there aren't enough opinions in the mainstream to choose from."
Because Cyrus and Allen are two of the few young women in pop music who have actively chosen to associate themselves with feminism, they are easy to raise as exemplars of different schools of thought. But they are not mutually exclusive, and neither is the single arbiter.
As O'Hagan writes in her own critique of Allen, "The fate of feminism won't seem to rest upon the strengths and weaknesses of one music video."
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.