I wrote an essay for the current issue of Purple Magazine about Bimbo Feminism and femininity as parody. P.S. Bimbo Feminism is officially my favorite phrase. xo Karley
Starting in my early twenties, my personal style developed into what could rightly be called “slutty.” I favored a lot of vagina-length skirts, pink PVC microdresses, and basically anything that screamed “S&M Barbie.” I found it funny to parody the look of the stereotypical blonde tart, like as if Elle Woods was on her way to a sex party or something—and soon, the persona crept into my writing. On my blog Slutever, which deals primarily with sexuality and feminism, I began comically mocking the trope of the dumb blonde who’s naive about her sexuality, bouncing around town in a push-up bra, waiting for a man to come and teach her the ways of the world.
In my mid-twenties, Slutever started getting media attention, and my slut style became a recurring topic in interviews. I was repeatedly questioned about whether I ever felt insecure about my desire to adhere to “mainstream” beauty standards—dresses and heels, dyed hair, makeup, etc. The general question was: How do you reconcile being a feminist with looking like a stripper? Apparently, being feminist had a look, and I didn’t fit the bill. It made me kind of defensive; I thought, “Is there no room for irony in the world? I’m a smart entrepreneur, but I dress like a bimbo—get it?” It led me wonder: can parodying feminine stereotypes be empowering, and maybe even subversive?
In her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler discusses the subversive power of gender parody. As you probably know, Butler is the famous philosopher and gender theorist who proposed that gender isn’t something we’re born with; rather, it’s a socially-imposed construction that we are performing all the time. Basically, whether we’re conscious of it or not, everything we do—our mannerisms, our posture, whether we cross our legs or sit with them spread wide, whether we wear skirts or slacks, etcetera, are not inherently natural to our given sex at birth, but rather repeated performances based on societally constructed norms of what a “man” or a “woman” looks like and acts like. And when someone fails to perform their gender “appropriately”—i.e. a girl who wears frumpy clothes and no makeup, or a guy who’s “overly sensitive”—that person is generally considered a subpar version of a woman or a man, or worse, a freak who’s ostracized from society. It all makes sense when you think about it. Like, I’m pretty sure that if I was born in a cave, I wouldn’t just intuitively fashion myself some stilettos out of sticks and then catwalk around the forest for lolz. But who knows…
In Gender Trouble, Butler talks about parody, but only in terms of men performing drag. Butler points out that when men dress up as over-the-top versions of patriarchal femininity, they are literally embodying the idea that gender identity is a costume. Drag queens wear excessive makeup, over-style their hair, and become these extreme femme fatales. The result is that they subversively reveal the ridiculous nature and expectations of stereotypical femininity. And they’re hysterically funny and entertaining at the same time. (Who knew RuPaul’s Drag Race could be such an educational experience?) However, what Butler doesn’t discuss in Gender Trouble is what happens when women parody femininity. What, if anything, can we learn from that?
With Butler’s performance theory in mind, we can learn a lot. By parodying stereotypical aspects of femininity, women can mock the oppressive and restrictive role of “woman” in our society, we can defetishize the female body and reclaim the male gaze, and ultimately, we can redefine femininity as a symbol of power. Oh, and we can be funny, all at the same time. And I’m not alone in this thought. In recent years, I’ve noticed a number of powerful feminists—Nicki Minaj, Amy Schumer, and Petra Collins, to name a few—using parody to subvert a variety of feminine stereotypes, and in turn sparking important conversations about how women are expected to look and act in our society.
One of the most radical examples of this is Nicki Minaj, who, it’s frequently been argued, dons a public persona that’s basically female drag. Minaj adopts stereotypically feminine qualities, but to bizarre, often frightening extremes. For instance, when performing as her alter ego “Barbie,” Minaj transforms herself into a hyper-sexualized, hyper-commodified doll, with a pink wardrobe and a super coquettish attitude. On the cover of her debut album Pink Friday (2010), Minaj is shown as an exaggerated Barbie, wearing a pink wig and a tu-tu, with her breasts pushed up comically high under her chin, as she stares blankly into the distance. “She looks intentionally absurd, like the alien in women’s clothes in Mars Attacks!, thus highlighting the ridiculous Western iconography of what female beauty entails (which isn’t a whole lot). Minaj isn’t trying to conform to mainstream beauty standards—she’s mocking them. And her parody is really effective: Nikki-as-Barbie has sparked countless conversations and think-pieces about the astonishing pressure that women face in the pursuit of becoming a human Barbie doll.
Minaj also utilizes hyper-sexuality to fuck with the male gaze. In the video for her song “Lookin Ass,” Minaj wears a barely-there skin-tight dress, and spends most of the video arching her back, proudly presenting various parts of her body to the camera (which frames her body in fragmented sections, in typical “male gaze” fashion). Simultaneously, she’s rapping antagonistic lyrics about pathetic ““lookin’ ass niggas” who can’t take their eyes off her. Spin magazine credited the video as being “a furious and explicit attack on the male gaze that pervades so many rap videos. Here, the men are reduced to leering, creepy eyeballs (Nicki’s body reflected in their pupils), and in its final moments, Nicki pulls out two guns and shoots offscreen, killing these onlookers and, by implication, all the lecherous dudes on their laptops and smartphones, watching the video and objectifying her — she is murdering the male gaze.”
Minaj often gets flack from people—some feminists included—for being “too sexual.” This, of course, is a common criticism in a world where female sexuality is endlessly policed, even by other women. But can a woman’s expression of hyper-sexuality be a tool of power? Many have argued no. Like, remember back in the early 2000s when American pop culture started to get super racy? It was the era of Paris Hilton, Girls Gone Wild, striptease workouts at the gym, and “the landing strip.” In reaction to this, writer Ariel Levy wrote the book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005), which was intended to be a wake-up call to society that esentially said: this new hyper-sexual female culture that’s supposedly “empowering” is actually just women taking part in their own objectification. Basically, she was saying that the freedom to be a drunk ho at da club in Manolos with your vaj out wasn’t the freedom that Gloria Steinem had in mind. I don’t agree with everything in Levy’s book, but it was very popular and gained a lot of supporters who agreed that is was not “feminist” or constructive to be a raunchy club slut/Paris Hilton.
Fast forward to 2015, and I think Nicki Minaj has disproved that theory. She’s turned being raunchy into hilarious, subversive performance art. Being a sex object can be a passive role, but Minaj is anything but passive. She pairs her hyper-femininity with lyrics that profess aggressive sexual desire, and her display of her sexuality is totally under her control, proving that a woman can be hyper-sexual without submitting to male dominance. Not to mention that arguing that Minaj isn’t a feminist simply because she’s hyper-sexual is playing into the same oppressive ideas about women’s sexualities that perpetuate slut-shaming and victim-blaming.
On the other side of the feminine spectrum we have the artist Petra Collins, and her hyper-girly art entourage. Collins has become known for her images of young women that caricature girlishness and naiveté. In her photographs, girls lay around in their bedrooms applying makeup, drenched in pink light, wearing granny panties with “feminist” printed on the butt in girlish pink writing, selfieing on their iPhones that are usually covered in cutesy stickers. The aesthetic is hyper-girly, but the work isn’t innocent—it’s play innocent, at times sneakily aggressive, and maybe even a little obnoxious—and it’s all very intentional. On closer inspection, the girls in Collins’s photos often have unshaven armpits and bushy bikini lines. Some have period stained underwear. By presenting their natural bodies confidently, these girls are subverting expectations of female beauty and femininity. (As Petra once told me, “the best accessory for a slutty dress is armpit hair.”) Collins’s work is conveying that there’s nothing wrong with being feminine, sexy or girly. At the same time, it’s reappropriating the idea of being a girly-girl into something powerful, rather than helpless.
The thing about parody is that, in order for it to be effective, the audience needs to understand that the performance is in fact parodic, rather than an authentic expression. For this reason, subversive parody is often most effective in films and TV, artwork, onstage, and within the obvious performance of a persona of a famous person. However, outside of those contexts it can become a little less clear.
For example, I have a habit of parodying hyper-femininity during sex—but I’m not sure it always comes across. I just think it’s really fun and hilarious to pretend I’m in a porno, and be really theatrical like, “Oh, yeah, fuck my pussy,” while spanking myself, and all that dumb stuff—it’s like performance art, maybe? Lol. Of course, I don’t behave like that 100% of the time that I’m in bed, but I enjoy poking fun at how often most people default to mimicry when we’re trying to be “sexy.” Most of my partners have found my “parody sex” funny, and often play along, too. Although I did date one guy who was really confused by it. He once said to me: “I don’t get it—you’re constantly doing these over-the-top porn poses, and make these exaggerated sex sounds, but you do it in this tongue-in-cheek way, which makes me unsure how to react.” My efforts were lost in translation. Still, I kinda enjoyed the confusion :)
But effective parody is not impossible in the bedroom. Sasha Grey, for instance, has managed to use sex as a form of subversive parody in the most male-gazey arena of all: porn. The first time I saw one of Sasha’s porn films she was at the center of an anal gangbang with 16 guys. If we’re going along with the dominant whore/virgin dichotomy our society projects onto women, in these scene Grey plays the stereotypical whore to such an extreme degree that her “whorishness” just became a bizarre spectacle. While the female’s role in a gangbang is ostensibly submissive, Grey instead plays the role of the “power bottom” (or she’s “bottoming from the top,” as it’s sometimes referred to in BDSM). As the male porn actors take turns fucking her, she bosses them around and demands they fuck her harder, at times critiquing their performances, while being excessively verbally vulgar (“I like it when you fuck my dirty hole,” etc). Throughout the whole scene she appears to be the person that’s most hungry for sex, as well as the one who’s most enjoying the situation—it literally seems as if she hired the gang of dudes to bang her. As a result, she straight-up hijacks the male gaze, subverting the image of a whore into one of female pleasure and sexual power.
And lastly, there’s my personal hero, comedian Amy Schumer. If you watch her TV show, Inside Amy Schumer, you know that her narrative sketches are full of examples of parodic excellence. But the first that comes to my mind is a sketch titled “Sexting.” In it, Amy’s sitting at home in a kitten T-shirt and girly pink PJs, engrossed in some sappy romantic film from the 50s. Suddenly, she gets a dirty sext from a guy. The sketch then goes on to show the audience what she genuinely wants to reply to him—e.g. “I’m so lonely all time time” and “I want you to hold me”—and what she actually replies, based on pressure to please him, e.g. “I want to hug your penis.” When he asks what she’s wearing, not wanting to admit she’s in cat PJs, she gets flustered and just responds the non sequitur “my tit.” It’s the perfect double parody: it mocks the notion of the overly-sensitive, needy girly-girl, while demonstrating that “sexiness” is so often a mimicked performance, rather than a genuine expression of the self.