• Thu, Jun 9 2011

Kathleen Hanna, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

Kathleen Hanna is pretty much Teflon to me. Ever since someone first told me my high school band sounded like a shitty Bikini Kill (sending me scrambling to Napster to see what they were referring to), I’ve been completely enamored with her music, her ideas, and her unapologetic feminism. You can only imagine my delight, then, when CNN posted a huge interview with her as part of the promo for her new documentary “Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour.”

She’s generally her sharp, funny, awesome self in this interview, but there’s one paragraph that gives me pause:

CNN: What do you make of singers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Ke$ha who are seemingly touching on themes of gay empowerment in their music, but for some reason it doesn’t quite resonate?

Hanna: I mean, is it really that different when it’s a skinny white woman in a bathing suit singing these things? None of these women ever wear pants, first of all. Second of all, just because you’re wearing a goofy hat doesn’t make it performance art. I mean, that’s just my feeling about it. A lot of the music just sounds like bad Euro disco, though that first Ke$ha song “TiK ToK” was good. But (Katy Perry’s) “I Kissed a Girl” was just straight-up offensive. The whole thing is like, I kissed a girl so my boyfriend could masturbate about it later. It’s disgusting. It’s exactly every male fantasy of fake lesbian porn. It’s pathetic. And she’s not a good singer. I don’t want to trash other women. I mean, I think Jason Mraz is horrible. It’s not just like I hate other women performers. Jason Mraz, and the new James Blunt song is the worst thing that has ever been created on the face of the Earth.

This statement is problematic to me for a number of reasons.

1.) Just because you’re “a skinny white woman in a bathing suit” doesn’t mean you can’t speak up for the rights of minorities, women and LGBT folk. I mean, ahem:

There are many things one can accuse Lady Gaga of (self-importance, excessive pantslessness), but she does seem to genuinely care about her fans. There’s no real way of knowing if it’s sincere or if she’s only speaking out about LGBT issues as part of some evil corporate plot to sell records, but the fact is, she’s out there telling people it’s okay to be themselves, and that can only be a good thing for the millions of young kids listening.

2.) She seems to be conflating aesthetics with content. You think this stuff sounds like bad Euro disco? Fine. But don’t hold that up as a damning character flaw. “Bad at music” does not necessarily translate to “bad at feminism.” I mean, Gloria Steinem can’t carry a tune to save her gosh darn life,* but nobody’s accusing her of being a bad feminist.

3.) Bad Euro disco is a staple of many gay clubs. Why are you trying to take that away from them, Kathleen Hanna?

4.) Katy Perry is the hardest person on this list to defend, because my gut reaction to “I Kissed A Girl” was somewhat similar to Kathleen’s. But you know what? “I Kissed A Girl” is a song about sexytimes, pure and simple. Some women gain genuine pleasure from making out with other women but are not that into the idea of having sex with them. Are we going to call the feminist police on them and tell them they can’t experiment the way they want to because it’s somehow Bad For Women? Are we going to deny them their own pop song?? The idea of judging another person’s sexual urges as being “feminist” or “un-feminist” strikes me as utterly ridiculous. If we want all women to be sexually liberated, we have to accept all different kinds of sexual expression, whether or not they subjectively creep us out. The loins want what they want. I’m not into being tied up and whipped, but I will forever defend other women’s right to consent to that if they wish to, because they are adults and can make their own decisions. What you like in bed has absolutely nothing to do with your politics or your worth as a person. Ugh!

I realize Kathleen Hanna comes from a slightly earlier generation, but the judgmental sentiments in her statement to CNN are striking. I’m never going to tell another woman I know what’s best for her or judge her based on her clothing, musical tastes, or sexual desires. (Well, not her character. I will probably judge her taste.) And that open-armed, touchy-feely inclusiveness is a huge part of what feminism means to me.

*I have never actually heard Gloria Steinem sing.

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  • Mel

    There is no defense of Katy Perry EVER. Sady Doyle wrote this brilliant thing about her and it’s gone from her tumblr but someone reblogged it: http://besidestheobvious.posterous.com/sady-doyle-i-am-uncomfortable-with-the-growin
    I love this line: She kissed a girl, and she liked it, but ultimately it’s very important that her boyfriend don’t mind it, because he has veto power on her sexuality.

    • Topf

      Hey, thanks for this! Amazing article!

  • Eileen

    I love Ke$ha.

    I mean, I generally agree with this article (so they don’t wear pants! so freakin’ what! fashion =/= brains) and all, but every time Ke$ha is mentioned I feel the need to declare my love for the girl who seems genuinely not to give a shit.

    • Jamie Peck

      She totally doesn’t. It’s kind of amazing.

  • Heidi

    In general I’m on board with not policing any woman’s sexual expression, and if that was really all “I Kissed A Girl” was, a harmless sexual expression, I wouldn’t mind it.

    But it’s not. I, and many other lesbians I know, no longer feel comfortable at our local gay bars because it’s near-impossible to avoid the straight girls and their boyfriends who are just there to turn the actual lesbians into a “naughty” sexy game. And no, sorry, the right of straight women to have naughty sexy fun doesn’t trum the right of lesbians to feel safe and welcome in our own spaces.

    The message in “I Kissed A Girl” is that kissing girls is wrong – she explicitly calls it wrong – unless the point is to turn boyfriends on. I don’t give a fuck how Katy Perry expresses her sexuality, but I’d like if she could do so without both exploiting and denigrating mine.

    • Eve

      I agree– Katy Perry can kiss girls all she likes, but she sings “It felt so wrong” and “It’s not what good girls do.” She straight-up says that a girl kissing a girl is not good. How can that possibly be spun as pro-gay?

    • Diana

      ‘I kissed a girl just to try it, I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it
      It felt so wrong, it felt so right [...]‘

      To being with, I’d like to point out is that, believe it or not, some guys think that kissing a girl behind their back is cheating. For example, my boyfriend would be just as upset if I kissed a girl or another guy.

      As for the ‘wrong’ feeling, it could have been caused by several things, such as:
      1. The fact that she was cheating on her boyfriend.
      2. The fact that the kiss in itself was different from what she had previously experienced, what she came expect, what up to that point she thought was right.
      3. Being nervous about the kiss, part of her thinking ‘OMG! What am I doing? I can’t believe I am doing this!’ It is not uncommon for people to feel this when doing something that to them is crossing a line. I believe the expression is ‘The first time is the hardest’

      Overall, I think that you may be over-reacting. In the end it is just a silly little song, which will soon be forgotten, or at least it would be if people would just stop talking about it.

      As for the straight girls who turn lesbians into a ‘naughty’ sexy game, blame it on porn and on most men enjoying seeing attractive women kiss. What exactly makes you uncomfortable? That they’re there, in your own space? I doubt anyone is forcing you to look at them. And how do you know that some of those girls are not bisexuals and simply prefer men a little bit more?

      Moreover, I’ll admit that there are stupid people out there and that they might make you feel uncomfortable, but don’t blame the whole concept just for a few screw ups. I see nothing wrong in experimenting, in women making out if they enjoy it, even if part of that enjoyment is that there’s a guy around who is turned on by that. Of course, if that’s the sole reason, then they have a problem, but the general idea still remains acceptable.

    • Heidi

      Jesus Christ. No, what bothers me is not that they’re in my space. What bothers me is that I go to gay clubs for two reasons – to be in an environment where my sexuality isn’t out of the norm, and to pick up girls.

      When my gay bars are overrun by straight people, the first doesn’t really apply anymore, especially since the sort of straight people who feel entitled to gay space aren’t likely to be all that respectful. And when the last handful of times I’ve picked up a girl it turned out – every single time – she was straight but wanted to be “naughty” for an evening, there goes reason number two.

      People can experiment with their sexuality all they damn well please, but when they do it with no respect for the people for whom it’s not an experiment or a naughty game or something we can put on and take off as it pleases us, when in doing so they take away spaces meant to be safe and comfortable for us, I have every right to be upset about it.

    • Chloe

      Spot on, Heidi.

      This just smacks of majority entitlement with no concern or regard for the lived experiences of other people. Basically saying “Nevermind what actual bisexual and lesbian people say, I as a straight woman/man have decided that Katy Perry’s fetishization of bi relationships does not harm you or the public perception of your sexual orientation, and you just need to stop being so uptight about it.”

      Whatever. Are we going to have a conversation about how racist Black History Month is next?

      I’m a straight woman, so I know it’s not always fun or easy to check your privilege, but srsly people.

    • Eileen

      I’m sure some of this is probably due to the popularity of songs like Katy Perry’s, but I wonder how much of it is due to:

      1) The long-standing belief that non-penetrative sex isn’t “real” sex and that lesbians are really just preparing themselves for men (and I’ve read this argument from Renaissance figures who took male homosexuality VERY seriously).

      and

      2) The fact that – and this is a good thing – homosexuality is becoming more and more “mainstream” (or maybe less taboo, depending on your point of view).

      I think the fact that lesbianism has never really been taken seriously and the fact that there’s less stigma attached to being a lesbian are probably at least partially behind more straight-identifying women being comfortable “trying” lesbianism. I don’t particularly like “I Kissed a Girl” (and I agree that it makes light of lesbianism), but I think it might be more of a product than a cause.

    • MM

      I think they should have “bicurious” clubs so all these straight women can ‘experiment’ with one another and leave the rest of us alone. I understand being uncertain about your sexuality and wanted to experiment, but women who are legitimately interested in other women sexually and romantically would rather not be hit on and/or lumped in with those who are doing it for a thrill to tell their boyfriends about at home.

      Whether Katy Perry is a symptom or a cause of the problem, she’s not helping women. Kathleen Hanna is right on for criticizing her.

  • MM

    This article is precisely why I have more sympathy for the older brand of feminism than the new one. Modern 3rd-wave feminism has been so ingrained with this “I choose my choices!!” stuff that it is impossible to criticize ANYTHING a woman does without getting torn apart for “shaming” or “policing”. Newsflash: just because a woman does it, doesn’t it mean it’s good for women on the whole…women can do things that hurt feminism. Katy Perry’s soft-lesbian themes don’t help women as a whole, and with her brilliant “UR So Gay” I don’t see how anyone thinks she’s positive for the gay community.

    • Jamie Peck

      “UR So Gay” sucks, but that’s not what she’s talking about here.
      You can criticize lots of things women do, I just don’t think it’s right to criticize someone’s sexuality, which is something people have little control over. I might think it’s lame to make out with chicks for kicks or to turn a guy on, but I’m not going to tell another girl she is HURTING WOMEN by doing it. It’s important not to let our visceral, subjective, knee-jerk reactions to things ruin our logical and rhetorical consistency.

    • MM

      “but I’m not going to tell another girl she is HURTING WOMEN by doing it.”

      Why not? It’s not good for women. As a bisexual woman, I find it pretty insulting that my sexuality has become a party trick or a popularity boost for celebrities. (Heaven forbid I criticize anyone’s sexuality, but I find it a little fishy that half of all female celebrities are ‘bisexual’ yet only date men.)

      Sex has become almost sacred in modern feminism – you’re not allowed to criticize anything to do with it. We end up saddled with outrageous social pressure to act like porno stars and don’t allow ourselves to criticize the culture that put that pressure there for fear of being prudish or oppressive.

    • Softer Forest

      Right on, MM. Your comment is perfection.

  • Gazzin

    Lumping Lady Gaga in with those no-talents isn’t fair. What she’s doing is much bigger and more impactful than anything any other starlet has done in a while. We haven’t seen a woman popstar get this famous while writing her own songs and being in control of her career to the extent that Lady Gaga is EVER I don’t think.

    Gaga is, for me, restating a lot of things Madonna did but she’s more talented, smarter and edgier. What she’s doing is some of the punkest shit out there. She is actively disgusting people, pissing people off and turning people on. She can show off her legs as much as she fucking wants. Why is a woman who sang about the right to dress how she wants without being criticized or harassed giving shit to a woman who wears bizarre and beautiful costumes? She’s not using her sexuality in a bad or mindless way.

    • Jamie Peck

      You’re totally right. I wish I’d drawn that distinction in my post.

  • Cash Carter

    Being gay or bi has become a ploy for commercial success, and it’s sickening. Do you really think GaGa gives a hoot about anyone else but herself, it’s all to boost album sales and for people to look past the fact that her music is mediocre and totally unoriginal.