Why Critics Shouldn't Be So Quick to Shame Katy Perry

Critics of Perry's disavowal of the "feminist" label missed a crucial opportunity.

I was taken aback last week when Katy Perry accepted Billboard’s Woman of the Year award with these words: “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” Ouch. When a successful (or any) woman denounces the ideology that paves the way for other women to fulfill their dreams, it stings. Still, it does not necessarily translate into her rejection of gender equality. The daughter of an evangelical Christian minister, Perry has unleashed musings on her own evolution to a worldly, open-minded human who supports Planned Parenthood, marriage equality and liberal ideology at large. People change and grow up, and Perry seems like one woman who could come to understand how her views align with feminism.  

Unfortunately, many women responded to Perry’s dismissal of feminism by saying, “Duh, of course YOU aren’t a feminist,” and picked apart Perry’s failure to live up to a model of what a feminist woman should be.  But Perry is not just a sexual object of a celebrity; like all women, she is complex. In judging Perry’s person as wholly and intentionally anti-feminist, we are missing an opportunity to explain Perry’s inherently feminist values. Shouldn’t all women be able to subscribe to the feminist ideology, even if they do not agree with or understand every bit of it?  Perry’s rejection of feminism could have been a teachable moment and way to reach out to her millions of young, female fans. Instead, it became a hardly-informative, slut-shaming fest.  

Whipped Cream Boobs

Central to critiques of Perry’s antifeminism are her “whipped cream boobs,” the click-in whipped cream-blasting canisters Perry attached to her bra and then fired away like machine guns in her video for “California Gurls.” Her critics act as if cupcake/whipped cream boobs have made young girls think they will never achieve fame without imitating Perry and putting candy on their chests. But it’s likely Perry has a more complex understanding of her expression.

Perry has said she used the whipped cream boobs “because that was my ammo,” adding that, “I had to slay those Gummi Bears that were very evil. I had to show them who was boss in Candyfornia: the Gurls. The California Gurls, of course."

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Some might say that there are dozens of other ways Perry could have delivered the same message without “objectifying herself.”  But Perry’s breast-objectification appears to be a reaction to the shame she felt for having boobs at a younger age. “Someone in sixth grade called me ‘Over-the-shoulder boulder holder,’” Perry told Rolling Stone about her experience with breasts, “I didn’t know I could use them. So, what I did was, I started taping them down ... probably until I was about 19.”

Female sexuality, and breasts in particular for some reason, are incredibly policed by the masses.  If your boobs are big, you cannot show them without being called a slut. Apparently, you can’t say, “fuck you” and shoot whip cream out of them either.

Perry is the first female artist (and tied with the legendary Michael Jackson) to count five #1 singles off one album. But rather than acknowledge her successes, many critics seem stuck on her body. Still, despite what other people say, Perry believes her music and inspiration to young girls should speak louder than her whipped cream-coated breasts. 

From Vanity Fair:

Perry is adamant that, regardless of what else is going on in her life, her music should be her main draw to her fans: “I don’t care what people say about my relationship; I don’t care what they say about my boobs. People are buying my songs; I have a sold-out tour. I’m getting incredible feedback from my music.”

“I don’t take anything for granted ... There are 500 other girls right behind me. And I know that, because I was one of them. I remember what it’s like to be someone who’s always trying to get there—sending out tons of e-mails … trying to connect with some person who could connect me with some other person. And I wouldn’t be working at this pace now if I didn’t truly know that fame is fleeting.”

She delivers a message our culture is clearly hungry for: You can do it. 

Katy's Lyrics

Another source of Perry-shaming has been her vapid lyrics. While Perry says she writes and treasures them, many of her words are empty, and even those with meaning are typically cliché. But as bad as some of us may think they are, a heavy-handed, blowhard dissection of Perry’s lyrics as anti-feminist is not the best way to communicate with young girls about her message. Perry has sold millions of albums in the U.S., and trashing her music and image as something you’d have to be an idiot to enjoy is not exactly going to swing more young women over to the feminist cause. Instead, we could recognize where Perry does promote women, and link up Perry's "You're a firework" message with a feminist understanding of why young girls are often so angst-ridden and shamed. Let's tell girls to forget about what the boys, magazines or teachers say, and instead play up Perry's "It's okay to be weird" rhetoric to say "love yourself," and one day your dreams will come true. The boys who mocked your "mosquito bites" or threw water on your "camel's back" are only putting you down to make their lives easier. Follow your dreams, and they'll be tiny specks on the ground as you shoot over the sky like the "firework" you know you are.  

A Jezebel article dissecting Perry’s lyrics is full of unnecessary Perry-bashing, beginning with the author’s brash assertion that the song “I Kissed a Girl” is about making out with another girl as “fodder for male masturbation fantasies.” Perry says in the chorus “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it,” but otherwise the song is focused on Perry’s own lust for another woman, despite what society may call her for doing it.  The boyfriend-made-me-do-it claim is likely the same pretense under which reporters questioned her about the kiss. According to Vanity Fair, “Perry admits she didn’t discuss [the kiss] honestly at first because a couple of ‘sleazy’ male journalists made her uncomfortable.” Perry told Vanity Fair, “So I said no, I hadn’t experienced it, even though I had, because I didn’t like where the guys were taking the interviews.”

The Jezebel piece also states that Perry’s “TGIF” lyrics reference date rape and “unprotected sex:”

There's a stranger in my bed
There's a pounding in my head
Glitter all over the room
Pink flamingos in the pool
I smell like a minibar
DJ's passed out in the yard
Barbies on the barbeque
Is this a hickey or a bruise?

Certainly, date rape is a huge problem in America. But hook-up culture, too, is a huge part of the young American life, which means drunken one-night stands with someone you might hardly remember in the morning is not a rare occurrence. This song does not sound like it is about waking up full of anxiety or regret. Instead it sounds like she got drunk and had sex with a guy whose name she doesn’t remember, while some other crazy stuff happened that resulted in some marks on her body after one big, wild night of uninhibited debauchery. And, according to her lyrics, she wants to “do it all again” next Friday night. It was a fun time.  Men continue to get away with risky sex and substance use more than woman, so why are we continuing to slut-shame Perry? Let’s save the date-rape shaming for the perpetrators, and not turn Perry into some kind of rape promoter because she talks about drunk sex.

Part of Me

When it comes to messaging, the often-wide gap between Perry's intent and reception seems to signal the pop star's rhetorical problems. While the video for 2012’s “Part of Me” is problematic for its failure to recognize the grave problem of women’s sexual assault in the military, it is about acknowledging your own power after a break-up, hence, “This is the part of me that you’ll never ever ever take away from me.” It’s also the theme and title of her 3D documentary Katy Perry the Movie: Part of Me, the major message of which is that Perry’s career is the most rewarding part of her life, and more important than a man — her former husband Russell Brand. The film’s biggest moment comes after a rare break down (presumably related to their divorce) before Perry must take the stage. Still in tears when her helicopter candy-cane circle discs boobs start spinning, Perry’s tears turn from sadness to joy when the crowd starts chanting, “We love you” in Portugese.  As Perry muses in the film, she never thought that she would have to choose between a man and her career, because she thought her husband would love her completely for who she is. But, for Perry, things didn’t work out how she planned. Life is not a candy-coated fairytale — and for Perry, it never was. 

Seeing Feminist Potential

Of course, Perry’s life and lyrics can be analyzed endlessly. But these are a few examples that illustrate how Perry is not only misunderstood, but also is a feminist in her own way. This is what we can embrace, while trying to comprehend why Perry is hesitant to wear the feminist label.

In fact, Perry's past was strange and oppressive. And while Perry appears to believe that she was robbed of the conditions of a normal childhood, she also makes a clear effort to separate herself from the Christian oppression under which she grew up.  Still, despite all Perry's valiant attempts at open-mindedness, she is who she is, and growth and healing take time.

From Vanity Fair:

“I didn’t have a childhood,” she says, adding that her mother never read her any books except the Bible, and that she wasn’t allowed to say “deviled eggs” or “Dirt Devil.” Perry wasn’t even allowed to listen to secular music and relied on friends to sneak her CDs. “Growing up, seeing Planned Parenthood, it was considered like the abortion clinic ... I was always scared I was going to get bombed when I was there. … I didn’t know it was more than that, that it was for women and their needs. I didn’t have insurance, so I went there and I learned about birth control.”

To me, at least, Perry’s anti-feminism, which may be predictable, makes me sad. As feminists promoting the advancement and happiness of all women, we should take pride in inclusion and compassion, especially when it comes to women who were victims of extreme oppression. Perry has shown ability to open her mind and expand her understanding of the world beyond what she was taught by the church and her tongues-speaking parents. For Perry, that seems to include sexual freedom, partying and anatomical celebration instead of suppression. She clearly wants to be a symbol of female creativity and inspiration. And that’s exactly what many of her female fans consider her — despite the fact that she symbolizes female strength as boobs with whipped cream launchers.  Perry might not call herself a feminist yet, but the idea that she may one day is within reason.

Of course, Perry is not a perfect — or maybe even a “good” — feminist. But who is? Every action I take, unfortunately, is not for the betterment of women, though I wish the opposite were true.  Still, should I decide to react to the suppression of my body by shooting whipped cream out of it, or have a wild night out with some regretful consequences, I would much prefer an outstretched hand than a slap in the face for not realizing and announcing to the world my own oppression. The sad reality about being a young woman in the modern world is that there’s a good chance you have not encountered too many supporters of feminism. Without any real knowledge of what feminism means, the word is stripped bare to its bra-burning stereotype, one that only a certain kind of girl can fit. 

If you want people with different views to join you, you need to be empathetic, to take the time to understand their past and see their potential. Dividing people is the same tactic patriarchy uses to make men superior to women. We should embrace and reach out to women like Perry, not shame them for being victimized and taking longer to come around.