Is a fully clothed female popstar still subversive?
The newest cover of Rolling Stone is a photo of Billie Eilish, captured in grainy relief by photographer Petra Collins.
Image via ET Canada
The article that accompanied the piece was titled, "How Petra Collins and Billie Eilish Subverted Female Pop Star Expectations for Their First 'Rolling Stone' Cover." In it, Eilish discusses her vision for the cover: the "literal opposite of what a Britney Spears cover was."
Eilish was referring to the 1999 Rolling Stone cover shot that featured a lingerie-clad Spears, splayed out on pink silk sheets. Petra Collins was immediately all over the idea. "We're gonna try to take photos of you as a person," she said.
Image via Rolling Stone
Apparently, taking photos of Eilish as a person rather than a sex object (or something like it) "subverted female pop star expectations." That's a shame, but it also reveals a disturbing truth. In 2019, merely showing a pop star wearing clothes is still radical.
If we're still lodged in the era of feminism when a woman wearing a shirt is revolutionary, then we have not progressed since the 1950s. What happened to all the awareness about the problems with slut-shaming? What happened to intersectional feminism? The point is that if a girl wearing clothes on the cover of a magazine is still fundamentally radical, then Houston, we have a problem.
Petra Collins' name has long been synonymous with the "female gaze," a term that was originally coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema." Mulvey's essay was mostly about the "male gaze," the preeminent mode of cinematography that favors the desires and perspectives of men. She didn't actually define the female gaze; instead she merely called for a "counter cinema."
Artists leapt on the opportunity to create this "counter cinema," but few have been quite as successful in capitalizing on the "female gaze" as Petra Collins, whose dewy, neon-lit photos typically show girls wearing some variety of the same expression: a pensive, gloomy, blank stare. Her models are usually soft, vulnerable, pouting, drenched in colors and light, splayed out. Collins' work is about masturbation and period blood; her girls are tearstained, enmeshed in sweat or wedding veils, always illuminated. There's something sexual about Collins' work, something obsessed with the feminine and the female flesh.
Selena Gomez by Petra Collins, via High Snobiety
It's now 2019; Mulvey's essay was published in 1973. Is the female gaze—as seen by Petra Collins—still radical? Was it ever?
According to Emily Nussbaum, the female gaze as it is today is an "insight that has become blunt from overuse, particularly with its essentialist hint that women share one eye: a vision that is circular, mucky, menstrual, intimate, wise." In 2019, the problem with viewing this kind of female gaze as fundamentally radical is that at this point, this limited form of the (white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual) female gaze has been honored time and time again. A whole host of TV shows, from Sex and the City to Girls, has seen to this. White women have constantly been complicit in marginalization, and white, upper-middle-class women have reaped the majority of the benefits of traditional feminism, particularly during the first and second waves.
There's another problem with viewing Collins' work as radical and subversive. A great deal of Collins' work fixates on the archetypically "ideal" female form: the stick-thin, usually white frame. In 2017, Collins wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post complaining about how Instagram deleted a photo of her that showed a thin line of pubic hair. Still, the most striking and central thing in that photo is not the faint line of unobtrusive public hair: it's the mannequin-like thinness of Collins' thighs. Her models aren't only often thin and white—they're often dangerously, unrealistically skinny, and the way she takes her photographs often highlights and emphasizes the body's size and shape.
Petra Collins via Jezebel
While she has photographed many diverse frames, her work remains obsessed with her own story. "Because so much of Collins's work is occupied with telling her own white, blonde, middle class story, we have to question if self-fashioning people of color in her own image accomplishes anything positive for representation," writes Hannah Simpson in Public Seminar.
Criticizing thin frames is dangerous territory, and skinny-shaming is real and problematic. Still, the modeling industry remains dominated by unhealthy bodily norms, and as a feminist photographer, Collins could do better—or media outlets should stop viewing her portraits like triumphs for the entire female gender. If we manage that, photographs that display women as people instead of decorative pieces could at last become the norm on magazine covers.
Image via Rolling Stone
All that said, it's not like Billie Eilish and Petra Collins' photoshoot deserves ire or that it shouldn't have happened. They are both extremely talented women who are doing important work. It's simply disappointing that Collins' work is still called subversive and that Eilish has had to work so hard to avoid sexualization. It shows how much more work there is to be done.
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Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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New tracks from Valerie June, Kevin Abstract, Norah Jones, AURORA, and more.
Each one of this week's best new songs is a miniature revelation in itself, trippy enough to open your mind to new worlds.
For the record, the creator of this list has never taken acid; but these songs are what she imagines it would feel like, and truly, who needs drugs when you have songs like these? Transcendence, peace, revelations, a feeling of interconnectedness, swirly imagery—it's all here for your listening pleasure.
1. Drinker: Wave
Bicoastal NY/LA duo Aaron Mendelsohn and Ariel Loh (aka Drinker) have gifted the world with a gorgeous piece of pop psychedelia in the form of their new single, "Wave," released on Wednesday. The haunting track starts slow and ethereal, building up to a climactic tower of synths punctuated by bell-like guitar tones. A slow burn that's rewarding the whole way through, it's the kind of song meant for lying on a dock at sunset, sifting through memories and feeling the first hints of evening chill. Lyrically, it's a testament to the strangeness of time—the way it continues to move forward, but the past always seems to surge into the present. "Who is this? I'm stuck inside a wave," goes the refrain, a line that could be about dissociation, or fear of the future, or déja vu. "I feel like we've been here before," sings Mendelsohn, "but it wasn't you that I was here with." Hypnotic in its spaciousness, disconcerting in its dissociative leanings, this is an immersive sonic experience that bodes well for the duo's upcoming EP release on May 3.
2. Valerie June: Little Wing
Valerie June - Little Wing www.youtube.com
Valerie June has returned with a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," and it's absolutely breathtaking. Mystical and pure, raw and electric, it's a compilation of whirling guitars, whistling strings, distant organs, and eventually a horn section to drive it all home. June sounds a bit like Stevie Nicks, but perhaps even more weather-worn, her voice is ageless, meant for staticky radios. She proved her songwriting abilities on 2017's The Order of Time, but this cover is a testament to her aptitude as an arranger and a conveyer of raw emotion. In a way, it seems to come straight from a timeless dimension where there are only peace and starlight, and yet, at the same time, it cuts through to the core of something distinctly of this world, some pain known only to humankind. If you listen to one song this week, listen to this one.
3. Novo Amor: I Make Sparks
Novo Amor - I Make Sparks (official audio) www.youtube.com
Nobody is better at making soupy lullabies than Novo Amor, but he's made a particularly beautiful one with "I Make Sparks," a title that—despite its swaggering implications—moves beyond the realm of woodsy folk. Ideal for the ending frames of a film, the song is a miniature vacation in itself. Light strings cast flickering lights over Amor's frail, breathy vocals, and though his voice never grows to anything more than a whisper, the music swells and grows throughout, reaching a satisfyingly disorienting conclusion.
4. Aurora: The Seed
AURORA - The Seed www.youtube.com
For a slightly more energized but equally intense listening experience, AURORA's newest release, "The Seed," will do the trick. It sounds perfect for, say, the finale of a show like Game of Thrones—hopeful and dramatic, full of rhythmic humming and intense violins, designed for scenes of armies charging over snowy hills.
In essence, this is a song about environmental destruction—one of many, certainly, as we approach the end times. "When the last tree has fallen and the rivers are poisoned, you cannot eat money, oh no," she sings. Ominous, indeed; maybe avoid this if you're actually going to take acid because it could potentially send you on a bad trip.
5. Kevin Abstract: Georgia
Kevin Abstract - Georgia (ARIZONA baby) www.youtube.com
Kevin Abstract announced his newest project, ARIZONA baby, in a cryptic Instagram post a few days ago. But the first single, "Georgia," is transparent and honest, a welcome return to Abstract's distinct solo work. On this song, he draws lyrical inspiration from the old classic "Georgia On My Mind" and spins it into a web of bells, swirling electric guitar, and gritty basslines. At heart, it's a love song, a tribute to the free-fall of true emotion, communicated through rapidly panned vocals and electronic vocal effects layered over a slow beat. Abstract is a master of his craft, and with the release of ARIZONA baby, he's continued his tradition of making some of the best atmospheric rap out there. (For better or worse, it was produced by Jack Antonoff, which may explain its sonic similarities to Lana Del Rey's "Venice Bitch"—the high-pitched synth is definitely the same—but that's another story).
6. Norah Jones: A Song With No Name
A Song With No Name www.youtube.com
This song is the sonic embodiment of a tall glass of water, a breath of fresh air, a drive upstate in the midst of a New York City summer, a comedown after a wild night. In classic Norah tradition, it's easy on the ears and heart, just ambiguous enough to feel applicable to almost any kind of subdued situation, but has enough nuance to merit multiple listens. Striking lyrics cut harshly against soft acoustic guitar and not much else—"If I had a gun, if I had a knife, if I had your love if I was your wife," she sings, as gentle piano twinkles in the background.
Special Mention: LSD
LSD - It's Time (Official Audio) ft. Sia, Diplo, Labrinth www.youtube.com
This list wouldn't be complete without mentioning LSD, the project of Sia, Diplo, and Labrinth, whose debut LP dropped this Friday. But unless you have a taste for poorly crafted, shamelessly algorithmic, and lyrically embarrassing pop music, spare yourself the pain and skip this one.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Follow her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.
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