Sometimes it seems the sexist/ageist/sizeist female Venn diagram of popular music will always be with us. The reformed Pussycat Dolls have been criticised for their “raunchy” dance routines (“little better than a strip act”). Elsewhere, rapper Lizzo complained about the social media platform TikTok censoring images of her in a bathing suit. TikTok says it objected to images of “sexual gratification” (Lizzo in her underwear), while she insists it was sizeism.
Recently, Jennifer Lopez was triple-slammed for a Super Bowl pole-dancing performance – obviously relating to her role in the film Hustlers – first, for being overtly sexual; second, for being overtly sexual as a 50-year-old (no, Jenny, no!); third, for making similarly aged women feel bad about their bodies. Not to forget Madonna – who always attracts turbo-strength ageism-cum-misogyny for her “over-sexy/too young” stage costumes, as though she should consider performing in hair rollers and a housecoat.
What is it about successful female artists doing their thing, on stage or on social media, that drives certain sectors of society crazy? And why is the sexism so often merged with ageism or sizeism, as if that makes the abuse they’re meting out extra special and justified?
Admittedly, one of the Pussycat Dolls’ performances was on breakfast television – but can’t people switch off, or over, without first activating the righteous-offence alarm? “Officer, women are wriggling suggestively on my TV screen, and the remote control is at least 3ft away on the kitchen table. Send help!” There’s always a choice. People are invited to enjoy what musicians are doing, listen to the songs, buy tickets, watch videos, but they’re also entitled to look away and say: “No thanks.”
Of course there are many more examples (and levels) of sexism in the music industry, and all the artists I’ve mentioned bring much more than visuals. However, it’s interesting how berating women for being eye-catching and entertaining has almost become part of the pop-cultural consumer experience. It’s noteworthy how frequently we hear a variation of “Put it away, love!” aimed at accomplished female stars. When, by definition, they should not be putting anything away, because, if they’re not expressing themselves fully, what exactly is the point?
Ultimately, objecting to an artist “bringing the visuals” is as nonsensical as objecting to other artists not bringing them enough – as in, how come Neil Young still gets to shamble on stage in jeans that look as though he’s been wearing them since 1979?
I’m being facetious now, but the core point remains. The UK rights organisation PRS for Music has just announced that, while there are still three times as many male songwriters, and it’s still tougher for women to make a living, numbers of female songwriters are up by 60%. A cause for celebration? Sure, but not if sexism (age-related/size-related/anything-related) continues to lurk in the wings, even for huge stars.
Do some men still think of women as little more than sexual spittoons?
The former US president Bill Clinton states in Hillary (a new Hulu documentary series about his wife and former presidential candidate) that his affair with Monica Lewinsky (which led to his impeachment) was something he did to relieve his stress and anxiety. Oh charming, Bill, thanks for letting Monica know.
In fairness, Clinton also says he feels regret and guilt about how it defined Lewinsky’s life. Nevertheless, his comments are grotesque and bizarre, as is the fact he’s happy to make them.
The cliche is that men exchange love in return for sex, while women exchange sex for love, but, in reality, women are just as capable of adopting a more casual attitude to sex, of viewing it as recreational or a sport.
None of this offends or terrifies women (sorry to disappoint some men). What angers women (well, anyone) is lack of honesty, respect and information – someone not being entirely straight with them about the kind of sex they’re having. This is what makes women feel like a masturbation aid, rather than an actual human being. This is how people end up feeling used and duped – not just exploited and humiliated sexually, but also emotionally.
It amounts to sexual fraud. Lewinsky, a young intern at the time, had sex with Clinton because she was in love with him – if he had made it clear that she was mere stress relief, would she have bothered? The answer to that question is irrelevant. It only matters that Clinton didn’t give Lewinsky the chance to make an informed decision.
Lewinsky was and is a human being, not the carnal equivalent of a round of golf for a high-status alpha. Clinton is right about one thing – she did deserve better.
According to new research from Mintel, Britons will be spending more than £4bn on grabbing a coffee this year. Sales are up £1bn since 2015, and people are now getting their caffeine fix not just from coffee shops, but also in McDonald’s, or cafes in supermarkets or stores.
Tea, while lagging behind coffee, is also enjoying a resurgence, with, tellingly, the most popular choice being builder’s tea – which, of course, is very strong English breakfast tea, no other definitions accepted, or even considered.
I say “tellingly”, because you have to smile at how such developments are presented as fluctuations and surges in lifestyle choices. As if British people still harbour wistful delusions about emulating the cast of Friends, hanging out in groovy friendship groups, yakking about their lives, in ersatz versions of Central Perk; incidentally, the most unrealistic coffee shop of all time because that big squishy seating area was always mysteriously free.
Does this convivial, enriching coffee shop reverie hold any truth for the UK, or is it just a fantasy of coffee and tea purveyors? To my mind, the high levels of coffee consumption, as well as the popularity of builder’s tea, point to one thing and one thing only – British people are absolutely exhausted.
• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist