[20 March 2006]
Corporate American culture isn’t exactly built on giving young girls positive role models. The institutional structure exists, after all, to maintain the institutional structure, and helping girls turn into successful women doesn’t maintain the status quo. What does maintain it is shopping (which we so want girls to excel at), and contemporary culture has taken to reporting on celebrity spending activities. We need to know what kind of shoes glamour girl number one bought, and what size breasts number two picked up. Pink knows this, and on her new single “Stupid Girls” (and in its video) she lays it out more memorably and with less intro-to-theory bluster, criticizing celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson, and Paris Hilton. She sees the dangers of the magazine-cover lifestyle:
“Disasters all around
Their only concern:
Will they **** up my hair?”
The attention to the surface distracts from the bigger concerns, allowing the powers-that-be to stay comfortable. After all, how can you have time to worry about a war when your purse is a week out of style? And why bother with domestic surveillance when it’s your own secret camera work propelling your career? Pink’s had enough, and this track skips parody and goes straight to bile.
People are receiving “Stupid Girls” as either a feminist anthem or a catfight slap. The argument that Pink is simply advancing her career by attacking other women rides on an unspoken claim: don’t attack a sister. That line of reasoning doesn’t work in this particular situation: Paris Hilton and her ilk are a blight, and firing up a flare to reveal the dangerous side of their cultural influence doesn’t teach anyone to become angry bile-spewers (though we could use a few more of those); it teaches them to think.
That’s why it’s so pleasing to see someone make a feminist statement with some humor in it. Partly, it’s nice to see the stereotype of the overly serious feminist undone. But mainly, because it’s getting people to watch. There will be time for Susan Faludi or Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon or Judith Butler or whoever, later. Right now, let the kids know you don’t have to be what you see on television. I’m with Pink: “Outcasts and girls with ambition / That’s what I want to see.”
My joy at seeing the statement made aside, I have to acknowledge that Pink never offers a positive model of womanhood. She gives, instead, a negative version that only exists in response to her foils and, in effect, reinforces their position as the standard. Cultural change comes about through either a shift in paradigm or the gradual absorption of the alternative values into the mainstream. Instead of moving toward either of these categories, Pink retreats from society (“I’m so glad I’ll never fit in”). The closest she comes to an endorsement of brains, and not just a rejection of stupidity, is in the implicit meaning of “What happened to the dreams of a girl president? / She’s dancing in the video next to 50 Cent”.
Sure, it’s only a baby-step in the march towards change (and more an alarum than a proclamation), but it’s also a risky halfway movement. Without presenting a positive model, Pink hands the economic functions of her music back to the industry regulars. The non-Pink women in her video, even though caricatures, are still MTV clones. Pink attacks the cosmetic surgery industry, but her video provides jobs for women with fake breasts. This paradox speaks less to Pink (or her video-writer’s) ineffectiveness and more to the extreme bind of the industry.
But and this won’t surprise anyone the fake breasts aren’t as bad as the vomit. Pink attempts to criticize a culture that has left us so obsessed with weight and appearance that women (and men) force themselves to throw up after eating (to take one cause of the illness, Bulemia Nervosa), but the problem comes by treating eating disorders with a several-second clip. In this section of the video, Pink utters one of the video’s best lines “Oh my god, you guys, I totally had more than 300 calories. That was so not sexy” and then borrows a toothbrush to gag on over a public restroom sink.
It’s a troubling moment, this making light of a lethal epidemic, but it functions in the same way as the rest of the video: attack cultural problems by criticizing the behavior of an individual. It’s a valid means of dissection, but the short scene (given emphasis by the song’s relegation to the background) leaves real-life sufferers with a personal commentary on a subject that deserves more treatment than “Wake up and stop acting like an idiot”. I won’t pretend to have the knowledge to deal effectively with eating disorders, but I do want to suggest that although bulimia and conspicuous consumption have connections to the same societal roots, they don’t affect people the same way, and that should influence how we discuss the topics.
But Pink isn’t here to discuss. She’s here to shock, aggravate, and shout until people listen, and that’s nothing but a good thing. Like Charles Barkley, however, she both is and isn’t a role model. Young girls are going to look up to her simply because, like Mary-Kate, she appears on their media. That means that “Stupid Girls” can (and hopefully will) have an impact, but once it’s out there, it’s uncontrolled. So let’s get more public discussion going about glam-influenced problems; like eating disorders and consumer fixations, and let’s have some celebrities start it.
Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/coberlake060321/