‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.’ Have you heard these infamous words uttered by Rihanna in her S & M pop song? Words which were replicated on the facebook statuses of many teenagers across the world. The video that accompanies the song shows her writhing around in sexy latex outfits, tied up on all fours and suggestively eating a banana with a naughty twinkle in her eye. It is a dream for anyone with an actual S & M fetish! Rihanna, in fact, is not a porn star. Rihanna is a 23 year old music recording artist from Barbados. She has sold over 20 million albums and 60 million singles worldwide which makes her one of the best selling music artists of the last decade. S & M was released in January this year and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies across the world. The song was considered so sexually explicit that it was severely cut by Radio One in the UK and renamed. S & M was not an aberration from the rest of Rihanna’s video catalogue. The video for her latest song ‘We found love’, filmed in my home town of Belfast, depicts the young star in an abusive relationship getting up to things that normal young women do – you know, having illicit sex in public places, shoplifting and taking drugs until you vomit rainbows (yes, really)!
Why do so many young girls and even feminists perceive Rihanna as a vibrant example of a liberated woman? In (some) feminist discourses, she is hailed as a positive role model – a new woman who is empowered, free of any gender prescriptions or limitations and who is fighting back against society’s repression of female sexuality in the past. On my local feminist network facebook page, some perceive her as a cutting edge artist who is bold and addresses issues like domestic abuse in a fearless way. But is Rihanna an empowered young woman or a sad illustration of women being sexually objectified by the music industry for capitalist gain?
As a female in the music industry, Rihanna is unfortunately not an isolated example of a young woman who is relying on her sexuality to sell records. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Britney Spears... the list is endless. My criticism of the sexualisation of celebrities does not just stem from my own faith and moral values. Let’s take them out of the equation for the moment. Of course, female celebrities are free to display their sexuality. They are free to sleep with whoever they want and wear whatever they want. They are adults, after all and it is their choice. But the real problem is, whether they like it or not, they are role models for very young girls. I wish we could discuss the empowerment and/or disempowerment of female music artists in isolation but unfortunately Rihanna’s music videos are not just a harmless expression of her femininity and sexuality. As a famous celebrity idolised by millions, Rihanna is role model for the next generation of women. At a recent mission event for Girls’ Brigade Europe, I asked forty young women to complete the following sentence – Rihanna is... The (almost) unanimous response was admiration – beautiful, talented and a role model. Girls admire her and want to be like her. Girls want to emulate her behaviour as they believe it is the only acceptable way for them to act if they want to be popular and accepted. These girls are not empowered. These girls do not have choice. Faced with magazines, TV shows and movies disseminating the same depiction of sexually promiscuous femininity, no wonder girls feel so much pressure to dress provocatively to gain attention and lose their virginity before they have emotionally matured?
Female celebrities have huge influence. They affect culture. Their actions and music are prime contributors to the cultural definitions of femininity (and masculinity) in 2011. Every generation reproduces culture, transmitting existing cultural values and norms for the next generation, in a process which sociologists have identified as cultural reproduction. What then, are these ‘role models’ teaching young woman about how this society values the female sex? There are three main ideals about femininity, all fundamentally disempowering to the core, being culturally reproduced in the media and which we are constantly exposed to. In 2011, girls and young women are encouraged to:
1. Be ‘living dolls’
Too often, our society places the value of girls on the external rather than internal. Natasha Walters in her new book, Living Dolls, argued that living a doll’s life seems to have become an aspiration for many young women. At the beginning of her book, Natasha writes a fascinating account of her visit to the girls’ floor of a well known toy store in London and viewing the more sluttier and sultry versions of dolls that girls can play with. She observed: ‘this strange melting of the doll and real girl can continue way beyond childhood. Living a doll’s life seems to have become an aspiration for many young women, as they leave childhood behind only to embark on a process of grooming, dieting and shopping that aims to achieve the bleached, waxed, tinted look of a Barbie doll. ... the celebrities they read about in fashion magazines are often women who are well known to have chosen extreme regimes, from punishing diets to plastic surgery, to achieve an airbrushed perfection.’ You only need to look at the magazines which are marketed at young women to see the reality of the living doll discourse. We live in a world which pressures young women to value themselves only for their sexual attractiveness. They are encouraged to become ‘living dolls.’
2. Have superficial aspirations.
The equation of empowerment and liberation with sexual objectification is now seen everywhere, and is having a real effect on the ambitions of young women. Too many capable, gifted and bright young women are aspiring to be part of this sexualised ideal. Many girls are given no other alternative. Today, role models for young women include heiresses, WAGs, glamour models and reality TV stars whose success does not depend on intelligence, talent or hard work. For example, in a recent survey conducted by Go Girl magazine, 1,800 young women (aged seven to twelve years old) were asked what their main aspiration in life was. Twenty per cent of the girls simply said that they wanted to be famous. This came above developing a fulfilling career and having a family.
3. Believe that to be liberated means to be sexually promiscuous.
As a result of socialisation through the media, many young women believe that to be truly liberated means to be sexually promiscuous. Young women are growing up in a hyper-sexualised society. For example in June, the government-commissioned Bailey Review stated that sexualised imagery is now a mainstream part of children’s lives. It forms the ‘wallpaper’ or backdrop to their everyday activities whether in public places through billboards and shop windows, or in the home through television and other media. We only need to look around at the world we live in to see the truth of this - advertisements have now begun to share the aesthetic values of soft pornography and TV shows have considerably more sexual content before the watershed.
Female role models and the celebrity culture are actually trivialising sexual issues oppressing women worldwide. Lady Gaga has been named one of the most influential female music artists of all time on the Forbes Top 100 list this year. She is the first female music artist to have one million viral hits on the internet primarily as a result of this music video for Bad Romance. In this video, she pretends to be working in a brothel and sold to the highest bidder. Today, there are over 27 million enslaved people in the world today. The trafficking of people is worth over 32 billion dollars. Shockingly, two children are sold every minute. And what does Lady Gaga do? Make a video glamorising it.
Young women are being socialised through a variety of mediums to believe that their only value is as living dolls and that to be liberated and empowered is to be sexually promiscuous. The effect of this transmission of such a narrow version of femininity is devastating. It is disempowerment in action. When I asked a group of young girls that I worked with last year, what are the messages that you get from magazines that you read? Their answers were heartbreaking. I am not pretty enough. I am not talented enough. I am not thin enough. I am not enough. There are many young women in 2011 who believe that they are not enough. It is not surprising that the UK has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe. 1.1 million people have an eating disorder in Britain (in a Beat survey, 92% of sufferers said that they couldn't tell anyone). On Sunday, a Schools’ Health Education Unit survey found that 68 per cent of 14-15 year old girls are unhappy about their weight. How can anyone argue that the narrow view of femininity which our society is culturally reproducing is empowering to young women?
Sadly many young women are not experiencing ‘life to the full’ that Jesus spoke about in John 10:10. In reality, the thief has destroyed the identity and self worth of many of our young women. My ministry in Girls’ Brigade, a mission organisation with 200,000 members worldwide, is to inspire, equip and empower the 14-30s young leaders. In GB, we call these young leaders the Esther Generation, named after the Persian beauty queen who saved her people in the Old Testament. We believe that this generation needs to be empowered to rise up and speak words of bold truth against the current culture, just like Esther did thousands of years ago! But currently, many are in chains of crippling self esteem or lulled into a false belief that their only value is to be aesthetically beautiful... just like Esther was in the king’s harem. So what can we do? We can be the ‘Sarahs’ who help to raise up counter-cultural Esthers. If you work with young people, don’t be afraid of addressing culture. Why don’t you use music videos and TV clips to help stimulate debate and an exploration of the hot topics? One of the greatest things that we can do is to help young people read culture and equip them to distinguish truth from lies. Signpost girls to more worthy female role models, and be a role model yourself, a strong woman with your identity firmly rooted in Christ. Try to avoid ‘fluffy’ girls’ work (pamper parties etc) which only perpetuates that a girls’ worth is based on her external attractiveness. Instead ensure that your youth programme is based around developing and using young people’s God-given gifts and talents. This will actively demonstrate that they were created uniquely by God for a very special purpose and their worth is based more than the size of their waist. Be a Sarah. Together, God can use you and I to raise up the next generation of Esthers.
Claire Rush is the Esther Generation Project Facilitator for Girls’ Brigade England & Wales