This blog post is due before I board my flight to Sydney, which will take me to San Francisco, and finally New York City, for the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The flight to Sydney leaves at
I can distinctly remember my mother driving me to a dance lesson, approximately age eight, listening to Shania Twain on the stereo, and feeling perplexed. The line “Man, I feel like a woman” was a section of lyrics I couldn’t get my head around. “Of course she feels like a woman, she is a woman!” I said, not understanding at the time that I was listening to one of the greatest feminist hits of the nineties. Despite not understanding the meaning of the song, I adored the music, and, dreaming of a career as a professional jazz dancer, I sought out a copy of the song on a 90’s mix CD, and danced to it in my bedroom almost every afternoon. I’d “da da da da da da da!” to the opening riff, dancing around my room in my aqua flared leggings, and cowgirl vest and hat, singing along despite never having been “out on the town” in my life, nor understanding the meaning of the word “prerogative”. I forgot about my confused literal interpretation of the iconic title line, and gradually began to realize what Shania was saying; I felt empowered.
The next time I came across feminism in music was at my best friend’s tenth birthday party. Video stores had just started hiring out PlayStations, so the
The year eight dance was an important night on the social calendar. I had carefully picked my outfit – black jeans, a purple velvet jacket, and calf-high black boots – determined not to let social pressures force me into a dress (I’ve since learnt that you can still be kick-ass in a dress). While the thought of the boys from our brother school joining us at the dance was exciting, I had very high standards for myself: only dance with the very best. This was thanks to Shania. That don’t impress me much had become my anthem. Know-it-alls? You drive me up the wall. Hair gel? Heaven forbid. You’ve got the looks but….that don’t impress me much.
The arrival of high school brought the stark realization that expectations and attitudes towards boys and girls are different, and they suck. Beyoncé taught me these complexities. With my recent discovery of YouTube came a fascination with music videos. If I Were a Boy was an absolute favorite for reasons that I couldn’t at the time describe. Somehow it’s frustrated without being angry, critical without being disparaging. Beyoncé helped me deal with conflicting feelings about being female, whether her music was serving as a stark reminder of society’s gender biases and stereotypes, or drumming into me that girls “run the world.”
Over my high school years I learnt that women could be angry. In 2012 a group of women entered Moscow’s most famous Russian Orthodox cathedral and sang 40 seconds of an anti-Putin punk-rock song they’d written, before being forcibly removed from the premises. The vivid picture on the news of women wearing an array of colorful balaclavas and outfits, stamping and shouting in the snow became etched in my mind, although at the time all I understood was that they were protesting against the Russian leader. It was not until I grew older and began reading and following Pussy Riot that I realized the role of feminism in the group’s inspiration, reception, and criminal convictions. As a result of Pussy Riot’s “hooliganism motivated religious hatred” they were sentenced to two years in prison. What is less well known, however, is that in her sentence Judge Marina Syroya claimed that Pussy Riot’s belief in feminism was at the heart of their anti-religious beliefs, and therefore was a key motivator for their crime. Pussy Riot went to prison for being feminists. But they kept going, most notably performing at the Sochi Olympics their song “Putin Will Teach You To Love the Motherland.”
It is clear that feminism in Russia differs to that greatly to that in the Western world. During Pussy Riot’s trial, while interviewing a witness for the prosecution who worked in the cathedral, the judge asked if “feminism” was considered a “dirty word” in the cathedral. The witness answered “yes”. Meanwhile, in the USA, while “feminism” itself isn’t generally seen as a punishable cause or shameful movement in itself, there are feminist causes which a large number of people unjustifiably see as “dirty” or immoral. M.I.A Drummer Kiran Gandhi (a.k.a. Madame Gandhi) highlighted this, featuring in world headlines as she made a bold statement about menstrual stigma when she chose to free-bleed while competing in the London Marathon in 2015. Beyond breaking down menstrual stigma and highlighting issues regarding accessibility to menstrual products, Gandhi sends a strong feminist message through her music. As a self described “electrofeminist”, blending not just electronic, but rap, trap, and pop influences, Gandhi aims to celebrate and elevate women’s voices through her music. “One of the most important things to me is creating a new brand of female empowerment and gender equality that is obviously intersectional. Intersectional not only according to race but to sexual orientation, to socioeconomic background, to age, and to whether you are a trans identifying or a cis identifying woman,” she says.
For today’s age of feminism, intersectionality is key. Perhaps Shania’s line “I feel like a woman” doesn’t sit so well anymore. We know there are many ways to feel like a woman, which are highly influenced by external factors. I cannot say that my experience as a woman is the same as a woman of a different race, culture, sexuality, or other background. Recognition of this in music shows the great strides that feminism is making in popular culture. Nevertheless, it’s important to embrace the music that has marked our feminist journey. Throughout my journey to New York I will be tapping my toes to Shania Twain, I’ll be tempted to sing along with Aretha, I’ll feel like a boss listening to Beyoncé, I’ll be inspired by Pussy Riot and Madame Gandhi and the rest of the kick-ass women who feature on my playlist. My taste of music may have changed, but I cannot deny the important role these artists have played in my life. In the words of Queen B, “Who run the world? Girls”. I look forward to learning about how to ensure girls and women receive the opportunities to, indeed, have more of an influence in running the world.
All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.