Monday, February 23, 2009

"Queersploitation" Part 1

The following is an article that was recently published in The Matrix, Pacific Lutheran University's underground social justice magazine. It is the first of three parts, the latter two of which I hope to have up sometime next week. Until then, here is the introduction.

It just feels so wrong

Outing Katy Perry’s Homophobia and Misogyny in “I Kissed a Girl” and UR so gay”

Part one of Queersploitation: Appropriation and Appreciation of Queer Culture in Popular Music

It all starts with drums. Heavy, back and forth. Add some fuzzy guitar, a little electronic distortion, and I’m into it, my head bobbing between my shoulders. Then the lyrics start and although at first I’m tempted, by the time the first chorus rolls around, I realize something shady is going on.

While many gay rights groups have decried her lyrics as homophobic fluff, Perry’s songs continue to be successful. After all, many say, it’s just catchy music. Her beats are indeed infectious and there’s something to be said about the fact that I’m reluctantly singing “I Kissed a Girl” to myself as I write this. I wish that I were able to like this song, that I could somehow get past the social implications of Katy Perry’s lyrics. But the truth is that something much more insidious than effective hooks and tight backbeats is going on in her music. Perry’s two hit singles, “I Kissed a Girl” and “UR So Gay,” are not only blatantly homophobic, but a means of appropriating queer culture, of cashing in on queerness without ever playing the part— an act which serves no purpose aside from garnering male attention and ultimately degrading women and gay men alike.

Katy Perry began raiding the queer cache in spring of 2008 with “I Kissed a Girl,” a ditty supposedly about a girl questioning her sexuality. The act of kissing another girl means nothing to Perry, aside perhaps from her non-committal enjoyment. She states repeatedly that “it felt so wrong / it felt so right,” but to clear up any possible homosexual entanglement with the object of her drunken desire, Perry informs us that despite her kiss it “don’t mean [she’s] in love tonight.”

The encounter described in the song is anything but romantic. Perry has no intention of truly exploring her sexuality and sees the girl she kisses as nothing more than an “experimental game.” Not only is this cruel, but it devalues the coming-out process. For some, jumping out on a limb and kissing someone of the same sex for the first time means finally acknowledging deeply hidden yearnings and emotions. Katy makes these issues frivolously entertaining, rather than honoring the trying, heart-wrenching process of coming out and its often serious consequences. Not that Perry would know. She’s never come out.

Perry isn’t just heterosexist, but also adds a bit of good ol’ misogyny for kicks. Perry isn’t so much exploring lesbian sex as she is objectifying her sexual partner, and the music video for “I Kissed a Girl” builds on the sexist groundwork of the lyrics, showing one of the most clich├ęd male fantasies out there—a pink and lacy, girl-on-girl, underwear pillow fight. At the end, we see Perry wake up in bed, next to her boyfriend, looking up at him doe-eyed and devoted. Her “fantasy” (which might as well have been her boyfriend’s dream anyway) exists for the sole purpose of pleasing her man. Perry isn’t breaking any rules here—she’s enforcing them.

While the homophobia of “I Kissed a Girl” is obscured by thumping backbeats, “UR So Gay,” is completely undiluted. As indicated in the title, the song is a rant against straight men who act “too gay.” She delicately opens with the line “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf” before railing on men who are skinny, wear make-up, don’t eat meat, and read Hemingway, telling them that they are all just “so gay” and they don’t even know it. All of this leads up to her seemingly tender finish of “UR so gay, and you don’t even like and you don’t even like and you don’t even like . . .” when she chokes out an ugly, exasperated “. . .penis.”

While Perry alleges that this song is about an ex-boyfriend, the idea is clear: gay men and those who behave like them are not real men. The hatred here is not subtle—not only is Katy Perry shouting from the mountain tops that queer men are an aberration, but her affirmation of patriarchal concepts of masculinity only serves to enforce anti-feminist ideologies.

The problem with these “gay” men is that they too closely resemble women, and her violent response toward them is classic misogyny. Perry berates these men for engaging in typically feminine activities, showing that choosing to be feminine over being masculine is base and undesirable. Considering her album’s title, “One of the Boys,” it comes as no surprise that Perry, through her music, situates herself in opposition to not only gay men and women, but straight women as well.

Considering its discriminatory lyrics, how is “I Kissed a Girl” still on the Billboard charts? While the traditionalist resurgence of the last few decades has no doubt created a climate in which Perry’s lyrics are able to thrive, the question of how she has skirted any serious reprimand remains.

In the end, it comes down to one word: catchy. The majority of criticism lobbed in her direction is deflected by pointing out the entertainment value of Perry’s songs. In a recent blog entry for Entertainment Weekly’s website, columnist Michael Slezak professed his love for “UR so Gay” despite the fact that its lyrics were “eighteen different kinds of wrong.” Nevermind that she reinforces age-old stereotypes of gays and lesbians and pronounces Mozart as “Moe’s-art”—Katy Perry’s cool. She’s just poking fun.

When you ignore the social implications of Perry’s crooning, you exhibit the same carelessness with which she writes her lyrics. Try changing “I Kissed a Girl” to “I Kissed a Blacky and I liked it” and see if those lyrics retain their harmlessness. Instead of singing “UR so Gay,” let’s sing “UR so black and you don’t even like fried chicken with watermelon, collard greens, and Zatarain’s.” While we’re at it, why not “I kissed a Jew and I liked it” or “UR so Jew and you don’t even like money.” Swap out gay for any other minority and Perry’s lyrics are just as offensive.

Perry’s singles are nothing more than gimmicky attempts at cashing in on queer culture. Despite the fact that she spends over three minutes bleating that she enjoyed kissing another woman, Perry makes it abundantly clear that she’s not gay and that it is not acceptable for you to be either. In fact, Katy Perry has never even kissed a girl and has said in interviews that the premise of the song is nothing more than a fantasy.

The queer community is made up of people whose sex and intimacy is just as valid as guy-on-girl action. We continue to fight tooth and nail for every scrap of acceptance and legitimacy we can. Being gay is more than just making out with people at parties. It’s more than boys wearing make-up and skinny jeans. Being gay is real, it’s passionate, and while it is sometimes painful, being gay, above all, is beautiful. For someone who has never even walked a block, let alone a mile, in our shoes, where does Perry get off traipsing into our neck-of-the-woods, uninvited?

For your carelessness, your insensitivity, and your superficial theft of queer culture— Katy Perry, I call your bluff.


1 comment:

kittyallinwhite said...

I originally read part one of this article in "The Matrix Gender and Sexuality" and I don't believe you could have made any more eloquent of an argument regarding Katy Perry's morally abhorrent excuse of an existence (the overpowering homophobia and misogyny that she exudes, notwithstanding.)

I look forward to reading the next two parts of Queersploitation when you post them.