If you haven’t checked out The Coven yet you need to get on it. So many excellent essays by ladies who have something worth saying in one handy website. I’ve a piece up there this month on disparaging attitudes to female fandom and popular culture, which are a) a classic example of sexist double-standards and b) total nonsense. Check it out here.
Recently on RTÉ 2FM, I chatted to Ryan Tubridy about about the resurgence of the It Girl, a term and phenomenon that first emerged in the 1920s. The original It Girl, Clara Bow, became a global superstar, embodying a free-spirited, seemingly authentic, sexy-but-not-scarily-so charm which tallied perfectly with the hedonism of the era. The demise of the Roaring Twenties and the arrival of Great Depression led to the implosion of her brief but spectacularly bright career. Clara battled mental health demons for the rest of her days, stemming from horrific childhood abuse at the hands of an unstable mother who tried to murder her in her sleep and an alcoholic father who raped her. She remarked, somewhat prophetically when one considers the It Girls who followed later like Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, ‘a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.’
In the decades that followed the term was used intermittently, resurfacing with a vengeance in the late 1990s after a seven-page New Yorker profile anointed the then little-known-outside-of-NYC-fashion-circles Chloe Sevigny the It Girl du jour. At present, the It Girl mantle is slapped on notable females from widely varying fields, many of whom are grown women rather than girls, with well-established, hard won careers which are at odds with the kind of transitory allure implied by the label. For every Paris Hilton there are It Girls winning Oscars, heading up NGOs and reporting from war zones, rather than quaffing champers with Daddy’s credit card and a teacup-sized dog stashed in their oversized, over-priced handbag.
The It Girl persists in a modern context for a number of reasons, key among these I would argue is the simple fact that she sells. In an age of dropping advertising revenue and a 24 hour news media increasingly taking its cues from online, the need for cheap, readily available content is unending. Slapping the It Girl label on a youthful, successful and attractive girl/woman is handy way of generating buzz, ensuring links gets clicked or a glossy mag gets purchased. It Girls work fantastically well on social media, particularly the likes of Instagram and Tumblr, which capture the kind of lifestyle envy these girls/women inspire in ordinary folk. It Girl social media accounts are also easy to plunder for the aforementioned cheap, shiny content. Just like in the 1920s, everyone wants It, even if they’re not entirely sure what It is.
It Girl, as you may have gleaned, is far from a straightforwardly positive label. As Helen Anne Peterson notes in an excellent Buzzfeed article on the term’s re-emergence, christening someone an It Girl is perhaps ‘the ultimate backhanded compliment’. In doing so, editors and journalists acknowledge the subject’s accomplishments but package them in a palatable, cosy way for consumption, keeping things quirky, flirty and fun, while neutering anything truly transgressive or – God forbid – political. In christening a girl/woman It, editors and journalists trap high profile girls/women within the term’s limitations. No one by reason of their humanity can remain an It Girl forever and ‘girl’ is still, to our shame, used pejoratively, as something weak-limbed, passive and non-threatening. It is interesting too to note the proliferation of the term at a time when women are asserting themselves through feminism once again, demanding to be heard and seen, making their presence felt in male-dominated realms as never before. In this context, the It Girl label is a handy, inoffensive little box to usher uppity women into, so their aspirations and rights-demands don’t overwhelm their ability to look sweet in a pretty dress, which is of course paramount at all times.
As an aside, it’s been interesting to research the It Girl phenomenon during the week unphotoshopped images of Beyoncé and Cindy Crawford were leaked, when Kate Middleton’s grey hair became a talking point and actresses took to the red carpet during awards season, pleading to be asked about something other than what dress they were wearing. Almost a century after Clara Bow turned the world on in the film It, we are no closer to simply letting women be. Western culture and media is still preoccupied with finding ways to put women in their place, to diminish their power, to punish them when they overstep boundaries that are written in shifting sands. The treatment of high profile women is a warning shot to all women. To dismiss such events as media storms is to underestimate the power culture and the institutions which create it exercise over our lives and sense of self. Culture is the soup we swim in and its toxic elements demand our critical engagement. It is only by challenging and interrogating what we are exposed to that we can begin to change it. And change it we must.
Photo: Marilyn Monroe as Clara Bow, Life Magazine, 1957, Richard Avedon
In the recently leaked remix of Rihanna’s Birthday Cake – a song lurid enough to make Prince blush – Chris Brown, her former boyfriend, the man who turned her face into a bloodied mess while threatening to kill her, sings lyrics so explicit they make for deeply uncomfortable listening. The song is a provocative ode to a delicate part of the female anatomy and yet another in Rihanna’s canon that purports to fly the flag of female emancipation in the bedroom but scratch the highly sexualised surface and something far more sinister begins to emerge.
If Rihanna is serious about having a lover respect her body and pleasure it accordingly as Birthday Cake’s lyrics suggest, then why is the man who bit and beat her sharing vocal duties? For all the controversy, Birthday Cake sounds just like any other pop song dipped in pornography: built for shock value rather than listening pleasure. How better to get it to stand out from the din then by roping in the one male singer on the planet no right thinking individual would consider appropriate in a million years.
Rihanna has excelled as an agent provocateur and her material has grown ever more hedonistic and hyper-sexualised. She has released a staggering six albums in six years and in the rush to sell, sell, sell, she has thrown taboos about like confetti but recording two tracks with her abuser is beyond anything that has come before.
Despite his crime, Brown has a large, devoted female fan base; he still sells records by the bucket load and was awarded a Grammy last week. Clearly, the music industry is a very forgiving place, providing you keep the cash rolling in as Brown has done. Unfortunately, no award or amount of adulation can erase the horror of his actions, actions he still doesn’t seem to grasp as completely abhorrent as his now infamous post Grammy tweet illustrates:
“HATE ALL YOU WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate FUCK OFF!”
Humble and chastened, young Mr Brown is most certainly not.
If the public take issue with Brown’s continued success, what exactly is Rihanna – one of the biggest pop stars on the planet in her own right – hoping to achieve by making music with him? ‘Hey folks, I’m over it. Can we all move on please?’ or ‘…with yet another new album on the market in the middle of a recession, I’m going to need to crank up the publicity machine tenfold – now, how can I do that in a jiffy? Sing an inappropriate song with the man who bashed me about? Bingo!’
Since the demise of her relationship with Brown, many of Rihanna’s songs and videos have been thinly veiled homages to their time together. What her feelings are toward Brown and whether they will reunite romantically remains to be seen. What is clear is that neither they nor their management are particularly troubled by their turbulent history, in fact, they see fit to exploit it.
For two people who are clearly bad for each other not to have the common sense to leave well enough alone is tragic; using their doomed, abusive relationship as a marketing gimmick is a whole other level of wrong. No project featuring Rihanna and Brown can ever escape the lasting horror of her face in that photograph, battered and broken almost beyond recognition. In choosing to work together, they choose to remind us of it.
Rihanna once said she didn’t want to be remembered solely for her disastrous relationship with Brown, which makes their duet all the more sickening and bizarrely misguided. Expecting pop stars to be moral guardians is often wishful thinking but in taking Brown to court and rebuilding her life, Rihanna became a hero to many young women, a fact she seemed to embrace. What would she say to them now? And for her fans that gained strength and took heart from her triumph, what explanation could ever be good enough?
This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.