Katy Perry is problematic, right?
From “I Kissed a Girl” to “Ur so Gay” on her debut album “One of the Boys”, to openly disowning feminism in 2012 and misunderstanding it in 2014, I thought it was obvious.
Her latest video, “Never Worn White”, complete with baby announcement, felt like the final nail in the coffin. So heteronormative, so traditional, so unquestioningly basic.
She’s no queer icon Lady Gaga, no feminist hero black-lives-matter Beyoncé. Katy is of the mainstream, and hugely successful with it. “Chained to the Rhythm”, a societal critique, is naive at best, and shallow and hypocritical at worst. A behind-the-scenes video confirms it’s about appearances being deceptive, how something that looks beautiful can be painful and lonely.
She’s a rampantly prolific artist. In her wildly successful videos, Perry over-does sexy for comedy, like her iconic California Gurls whip-cream bra, or when she’s kneaded like dough in “Bon Appetit“. Male artists just can’t do this. In a man, these scenes would look creepy and weird, but when it’s woman, her sexuality is playful and acceptable. It’s non-threatening.
A prolific artist like Katy has to experiment, it’s not all sexy-bread woman or sexy-alien woman or sexy-Mrs Santa. She has some under-stated videos like Unconditionally, or Rise, which don’t challenge or invoke sexuality. More importantly, she has videos specifically exploring gender roles. For example, in Hey Hey Hey, the lyrics and visuals are clear about how Katy sees strength and femininity:
In Part of Me, she repeats this message. The character joins the marines following a breakup. To symbolise strength, she becomes visually more masculine, even though that’s not a requirement. Other characters in the video still have long hair, and it’s never been a requirement to bind your breasts to join the military (especially not with bandages, as this can be dangerous!). At the same time, there’s shots of Katy applying camouflage with a make-up mirror.
You could say she’s simply a successful star who plays it safe. She conforms to gender roles whilst pretending to challenge them. She doesn’t need to be outspoken to be popular. Politics can be divisive. It’s safer to not get involved if you want to be profitable and successful, and there’s no question that’s what Katy wants. She’s unspeakably good at being a music creator, she doesn’t have to be a politician too.
But people are more complicated than narrative. Even though her image is simplistic and mostly conformist, she has been involved in LGBT+ activism. I had to Google it to find it, and 2 of these six items are PR-quotes, but it exists. It’s not changed or hurt her “neutral” brand image, but it would be lying to say she is actively pushing the straight agenda. She’s supported The Trevor Project and even received the Human Rights Campaign’s National Equality Award in 2017.
Our interconnected and media-saturated world can make us feel like we know someone. It’s easier than ever to find resources to support our story, but it doesn’t mean it’s true. Perhaps celebrities should try harder to be outspoken, perhaps the media doesn’t cover their beliefs like it should, perhaps all her actions are corrupted by PR and spin…
But ultimately, she’s one (very successful, hugely privileged, enormously influential) human woman living very far away, who’s happy and proud of herself. We can’t pin societal problems on any individual, even if it is easy to see how they’re problematic, or wrong, or we disagree with them. Equally, if someone tries to make a difference, their difference won’t substantially affect the world either.
Celebrity humans are a product of our society too, and we don’t control them. We control ourselves. If we want to dismantle the norms in our lives, we need to start as far as possible with ourselves. If everyone was trying to do that, we would all be happier people, in a kinder world, not “Chained” to anyone’s “Rhythm”.
So congratulations for Perry and her news. She might be a sexy naive capitalist; talented songwriter; human-rights advocate; cynical marketer…
But at the end of the day, she’s an ordinary human, like everyone else.
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