Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Contradiction in Terms: 'Girl Power'

During my President's Week break, I started watching dvds of the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which might be my favorite television program of all time. The last season, which aired during the 2002-2003 season, is an overtly feminist exploration of what series creator Joss Whedon claimed to be the show's original theme: "It's not about right or wrong -- it's about power."

In the first episode of this season, The First Evil, as in, the first, undiluted evil that came out of Pandora's box, closes the show with this quote, telling the character Spike that it's about power. It's a chilling scene that was made even more chilling for me because this time, it reminded me of something I'd seen a few months ago. Back in October, on a particularly lazy Sunday, I watched the Frosted Pink with a Twist! benefit: a musical extravaganza that combined today's pop stars and gymnasts with the goal of raising awareness of cancers that affect women. The show was quite the cheese fest, even for a cancer survivor support event, and perhaps its corniest moment was when Carole King performed this gem:

(This is a situation where I'm kind of sorry that there isn't a video of the actual performance of this song at the benefit, but at the same time, part of me is glad that I didn't have to see it again. It was fairly horrifying.)

Perhaps Carole King, who is of course one of the original women pioneers who fearlessly went forth into the vast male-dominated musical hinterlands back in the 1960s, deserves credit for her foray into rap. But even if you don't find her emcee skills cringe-inducing, what about the use of the expression "girl power"?

I'm one of those radical feminists who hates this 'girl power'. It's unacceptable to me for a few reasons: 1) it implies that 'girl power' is inherently different from 'actual' power; 2) it implies that girls cannot or should not have access to 'real power', but that it's okay for them to have 'girl power'; and 3) it's a blatant co-optation of some actual female empowerment that started to happen in the 1990s.

What is 'actual female empowerment'? How is it different from 'girl power'? Well for starters, female empowerment isn't a marketing slogan, and it isn't linked to say, the Spice Girls, five middle to upper class white women who made a brief career of performing songs of questionable quality in generally skimpy outfits. Also, it's not "a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness, and individualism." (That's the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of 'girl power'.) No, legitimate female empowerment isn't just about individuals, and it isn't just about 'ambition' or 'assertiveness': for me, female empowerment is about something much broader, something bigger than individual women. Empowerment is about fixing (or, more often beating) a system that works against you.

Which is not to say that individual empowerment of girls is bad. Nor is it bad for girls to have the aforementioned self-reliant attitude, assertiveness, or ambition. It's just the expression, 'girl power' that grates on me.

You might be thinking that this is an issue of mere semantics. You'd be half-right. It is about semantics, but semantics are never 'mere' -- semantics shape the way we think. Language isn't just words and spelling and grammatical rules; language is concepts. Languages are systems of meaning, and words determine the way we conceive of everything around us. Words tell us what is possible. And this is why 'nit-picky' feminists still argue about how to spell 'woman', and insist on naming things: because we know that power -- the real kind, not the 'girl' kind -- is expressed through language. As I see it, 'girl power' tells us that it's okay for us girls and women to be bold or forceful or purposeful or desirous, so long as it's on an individual basis or small scale, and as long as it's related to sexuality or one's career. So long as it doesn't turn into actual sisterhood or community, or a larger movement to improve conditions. So long as you never start to think "what, really, is Girl Power?", and so long as you never start to think about what we as women could accomplish if we worked together.

Because if we did start to think about what it could be, we would realize that Girl Power is the potential for women to collectively create serious, positive change in all aspects of life and society. And the people with the 'real' power -- governments, religious groups, financial institutions, etc -- don't want us to think about this.

This is why Carole King's use of the expression bothers me so much. As far as I can tell, Carole King did what I just described: before beginning her solo career in the 1970s, she worked as a songwriter. She worked with male songwriting partners, but she wrote songs for female performers. She wrote songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow", which was groundbreaking at the time (along with other songs that were less groundbreaking), and she helped to make female singing groups and solo artists commercially viable. You could argue that those women worked together to change the music industry in the 1960s, and they didn't do it with 'girl power' -- they did it with talent and hard work. Talent, skills, the time, energy and resources to commit oneself to hard work -- this is the social capital held by people who have 'real' power. Women like Carole King who have this social capital, who changed things, have to be clear about how they did it. How else will we learn from their example, how to make things better? In the music industry, or anywhere else?

1 comment:

teresina said...

I'm annoyed by the phrase "girl power" for all the reasons you listed, but also because it is "girl". Its infantilized. Am I as a grown person to be like, "GIRL POWER ROCKS" even though I'm not a girl? No.

Also lol in a pathetic way at Carol King.