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July 24, 2009

She Misunderstood a Song: I Kissed a Girl

We came across a blog the other day bashing Katy Perry's song "I Kissed A Girl".

Now of course, we've all heard plenty of people criticize that song (you know, like a year ago when it came out) but what struck us about this criticism was that it was so totally missing the point. We originally thought about just leaving a comment, but we realized that we have too much to say about it!

An excerpt:
Is it enough that Perry created an entire song about the deplorable commonality of lesbian action for the sake of male enjoyment? This alone makes me sad for the women and girls who hear this song and who, like others, think that female sexuality is not something to be owned by the woman herself, but that is at the disposal and for the benefit of male viewers.

Kissing a girl - like kissing a boy - ought to be a shared experience amongst the individuals involved. Yet for many women of all sexual orientations, kissing a girl is done for the pleasure and excitement of the heterosexual gaze.
[...] a song in which a girl gushes over her illicit kiss with another girl is undoubtedly designed to alter some male blood flow. Perry sings "I hope my boyfriend don't mind it." The implication is that her boyfriend only minded if he wasn't there to witness it. [emphasis theirs]
Um... what? There's nothing about male enjoyment in that song. If anything, it's the opposite. This song is about female enjoyment. I don't know why a so-called-heterosexual woman garnering enjoyment from another woman must automatically be for the benefit of a man. In fact, the author's immediate assumption that that's what it is about (in the absence of any corroborating evidence) is all the more sexist and offensive than the song itself. For example, she says that the "implication" of the line "hope my boyfriend don't mind it" is that he would only mind if he wasn't there to watch the girl-on-girl action, but that's really just a big assumption. It would be just as (if not more) reasonable to say that the real implication is that he might mind it if his girlfriend is kissing someone else, male or female, behind his back and without his permission.

In an interview with The New Gay, Katy Perry explained the song: "I'm not a lesbian, but I can appreciate the beauty of women. That's what the song is about [...] it’s fantasy, it’s a song about curiosity":

TNG: Isn’t that kind of like those straight girls who make out at frat parties to get guys’ attention?
KP: It’s not about that. Everyone takes the song and relates it to their situation, they can see it however they want to see it. Love it, hate it, for me it was about us girls. When we’re young we’re very touchy-feely. We have slumber party sing-alongs, we make up dance routines in our pajamas. We’re a lot more intimate in a friendship than guys can be. It’s not perverse but just sweet, that's what the song is about.
But the author of the blog isn't done. She's incensed:

Not only am I incensed over the way in which this girl-on-girl kiss is promoted as an object of straight male lust, it also sends a powerful message about lesbian relationships in general. "It felt so wrong" Perry coos, "It's not what/Good girls do/Not how they should be behave." Good girls don't kiss other girls or when they do it's wrong? Yikes.

This song celebrates female sexuality only in so far as it is experienced by the male outsider. It is only okay that she kissed a girl because she expressly calls it experimentation. Perry describes it to avid male listeners and sends the message that it's "so wrong," which is meant to add to the excitement anyway.
Okay, now there are a lot of things "so wrong" about that (in addition to the already mentioned "straight male lust" bullshit). I think it shows a clear lack of understanding of irony to think that when Perry sings about how "good girls" should or should not behave that she's suggesting that lesbianism is wrong. Katy Perry was raised in a very strict Christian household (her parents are both pastors) so it's safe to assume that she did grow up thinking that girls kissing girls was wrong. It wasn't what good girls were supposed to do.

From The New Gay interview:

"My closest friends happen to be gay… I came from a very strict household, where any of that taboo stuff was wrong. I don’t say I hate where I came from, I love my parents and was happy to… have that opportunity to grow, but I came from a strict, suppressed household where that was wrong. Now I’ve been in LA for seven years and realizing there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing wrong with anybody. If you love someone and you’re a good person that's what counts."
If you actually listen to the lyrics - all of the lyrics and not just the lines the blog author has quoted out of context - it's clearer. When Perry sings "it felt so wrong", she follows it up with "it felt so right". It's not about denouncing lesbianism... it's about feeling conflicted, which is understandable given her background. It feels wrong, because she's been raised with the belief that it's wrong. But now that she's tried it... hey, it feels right.

As for the next line she quotes, I think it's obvious that she's not actually suggesting that good girls shouldn't kiss other girls.

Just human nature

It's not what good girls do
Not how they should behave
My head gets so confused
Hard to obey
Clearly she's talking about what she's been taught about how good girls should behave and realizing that she can't adhere to those rules anymore. It's not okay because she's experimenting. It's okay because it's okay. Lesbianism is okay... experimenting is okay... kissing girls is okay! The message isn't that it's exciting because it's wrong... the message is that it isn't actually wrong.

And finally... I really do have to ask this. Does Perry actually have many "avid male listeners"?

The video takes this message even further. Just a few seconds of the three-minute video makes it clear that Perry is selling sex to a male audience. It's hard to think how much more you can objectify women than by making them faceless lingerie-clad bodies moving mindlessly in the background.
Perry does not acknowledge her fellow females nor interact with them in any way. Meanwhile, her lyrics describe her female sexual interaction; an interesting contrast, the meaning of which is far from transparent. Is Perry provocative enough to lip sync about kissing a girl but not quite bold enough to take that on screen? Or does this just add to the tease to hear her describe a girl's "soft lips" while touching her own body and not another's?
I think it's time to actually watch the video in order to dispute the rest of this silliness:

Okay, so I'm not going to claim that Katy Perry isn't objectifying women at all... but I think her video is pretty tame compared to... about a million other music videos out there. Not so incensed about male music artists who objectify women every single day, but when a woman does it, oh no!

And why exactly is this selling sex to a male audience? Is the author making the sexist and heteronormative assumption that only men like to look at beautiful women? So Katy Perry can't possibly have any lesbian or bisexual fans... and heterosexual women can't like to look at beautiful women either. Perry has said that the song is about appreciating women and I think the video perfectly portrays that. Call it objectification... fine. But don't pretend that it's somehow worse or different than the objectification done by men on a daily basis.

However, I don't know why she felt the need to refer to the lingerie-clad women as "faceless". I don't know... I saw their faces. Maybe when a woman is wearing lingerie it's hard to focus on their faces instead of their bodies... but that's her issue, not Perry's. And I don't know why the author thinks that Perry doesn't acknowledge or interact with the women in the video. I guess dancing and laughing and pillow fights aren't forms of interaction.

The reason Perry doesn't "take that [kiss] on screen" is two-fold though: One, it's not porn. For someone so concerned with objectification, it's a little odd to suggest that there's not enough girl-on-girl kissing in the video. Two, Perry had revealed in interviews that she has never actually kissed a girl... the song is about fantasy. You'll notice at the end, she wakes up with her boyfriend... the all girl slumber party wasn't real.

Now we've heard a lot of criticism about this song, but most of it was about how it's going to make our daughters turn into lesbians. Being with another woman is a common fantasy for a lot of women... it doesn't meant that they're automatically lesbian or bisexual. There's nothing wrong with appreciating the beauty and sexiness of someone else, it doesn't have to hold some deeper meaning ("don't mean I'm in love tonight" "ain't no big deal/it's innocent") but at the same time, it's not necessarily degrading to the gay community. It's not that our sexuality is malleable, but maybe it is fluid. I think that's where Perry is coming from. That women are beautiful and sexy and touchable and kissable and you don't have to be a lesbian to recognize that.

Us girls we are so magical
Soft skin, red lips, so kissable

Hard to resist so touchable
Too good to deny it

From The New Gay interview: "That’s what the song is about: me opening up a magazine and seeing Scarlet Johansen and saying 'if she wanted to to kiss me I wouldn’t say no.'"

We can't say that we love the song 100% because there are issues with it. For one, the implication of dishonesty and infidelity. We're all about freedom and kissing and female sexuality in any form, but the "hope my boyfriend don't mind it" line implies that she's kissing girls behind his back. And that isn't something the ESC agrees with. Not that she should necessarily be kissing girls for his "heterosexual male gaze" as the blog author has suggested, but honesty is important in any relationship. (Of course, we realize that the song is just a fantasy, so that sort of eliminates that particular issue. You don't have to reveal all of your fantasies to your significant other... but we do hope that if Perry really was kissing girls, it would be because she and her boyfriend had discussed it first and agreed that it was okay).

Now, not everyone is going to take the time to read a bunch of Katy Perry interviews to get a better understanding of what she intended the song to be about, so we'd get it a little more if this blogger was talking about being concerned that people might hear the song or watch the video and jump to stereotypical conclusions or make assumptions about what it means. It is a song that it would be easy to take on a surface level and misinterpret, and like we said, we're not arguing that the song is above criticism. But wouldn't it be a good idea to dig a little deeper before writing such a long angry rant?
In conclusion:

[...] "I Kissed a Girl" is an over-the-top insult to and infantilization of the gay community as well as a despicably direct message to men and women alike that female sexuality is a plaything of men.
When are women finally going to be told, "Your sexuality and your body belong to you and you alone and nothing about that is wrong?"
I think that is the message of Katy Perry's song and video. If only some women could actually get that instead of automatically jumping to heteronormative, sexist conclusions based on their preconceived notions.


Nell Gwynne said...

I was never much of a Katy Perry fan, but thanks for this post. You articulated what I could only respond with "GRRRRRADAARRRRRGHGHGHGHGHGHGGGGGGHHHHH"

Briana said...

I think that this is giving Katy Perry too much credit. I believe she wasn't attempting to offend anyone and I believe she wasn't attemping to exploit the LGBT community or anyone else, but she did. It isn't so much about the deliberate nature of her lyrics so much as it is that she's an entertainer, and sex sells. She wasn't thinking about respecting anyone or anyone's rights, she was thinking about making a quick buck and a name for herself (you even said yourself that Katy says she's never even kissed a girl. Why then, write, or more likely, have someone write a song for you about it?). On top of that, right now the gays are in. Us with more than an ounce of sense know how ridiculous this is, and how turning the LGBT community into guys we like to go shopping with and lipstick lesbians us straight girls can experiment with is completely atrocious and belittling of a people with rich and extensive and varying lives ands styles outside of stupid stereotypes, but Katy Perry isn't here to think about it much. She's here to party, she's here to entertain. This wasn't a tasteful song about love and experimentation. This was an all out-and-out selling technique. We're just consumers. And BOY, did we consume (straight, gay, male and female-it doesn't matter who you are and it doesn't mean it's right either). That's how it is with mainstream music, so whatever-why act like she's any different? Kudos for her support of the LGBT community, though.But honestly, It's the LEAST she can do.

As for what it is that men and other entertainers do that is sexist/wrong/etc...we're not talking about them. Let's not play the whole "WELL, GUYS DO THINGS THAT ARE WORSE SO WHY ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION TO KATY" game, because that's just an excuse, nothing more. What other male entertainers do that is wrong doesn't justify females. In fact, I think it's worse when they do it though lots of times people try to espouse it as empowerment.

Female Chauvinist Pig much.

Comrade Kevin said...

As a man, I applaud the main idea of your post. I think often times jumping to conclusions and assuming an affront when none is implied is something that we all do from time to time. I have a very close female friend who is apt to misunderstand such things and it stems from her own childhood abuse at male hands. But even if something that tragic isn't even a part of our own past, we still frequently end up projecting our individual life experiences onto the matter when we make these hasty generalizations without first thinking through the facts.

For contentious topics like race, gender, class, political ideology, and religious expression we all can seem equally foolish when we don't stop and really take into account all sides of the matter before lashing out like good Puritans. My personal response to all of this is not to make a similarly snap, harsh judgment but truly to have sympathy for those who would react this way, while not condoning their misguided words, either.


Like we said... the song is not without its problems. However, the point of this blog entry was about the misguided complaints we quoted and we stand by what we said in that respect.

"lipstick lesbians us straight girls can experiment with"

Nowhere in the song does it mention "lipstick lesbians". Straight girls can experiment with other straight girls you know... the song is about appreciating the beauty and sexiness of women, regardless of your gender or orientation. Human beings do not all need to be organized into neat little boxes of "Gay" or "Straight".

We don't believe that we need to be defined by who we are attracted to and feel that sexuality can be more fluid. It doesn't necessarily have to be about exploitation of one group by another.

Tengrain said...

I have been re-reading this post for two days now, and it still fascinates me.

I don't think I'm qualified to weigh in (which has never stopped me before), but I think it needs to be stressed:

1. It is just a pop song.
2. It is just a pop song.
3. It is just a pop song.

OK, now with that out of the way, I want to compliment the ESC on this post; it's brilliant on so many levels: it's thoughtful, it's analytical, it's political. I wish I could write posts like this.



Anna said...

You know, until I was reading other reactions to the song, I never saw it as a problem...I mean, I saw it all as a fantasy that I've entertained myself (then again, I'm a bi girl, so yeah, I happen to be attracted to women). Women are sexy. Curves are hot. When you're young and just thinking about 'breaking the rules' and kissing a girl (and yes, it was taboo where I grew up), you do think about what it must be like and how, if it felt right, how could it not be?

I guess I just always read it in the way that the ESC described it and when I started seeing the reactions when it came out, I was actually rather baffled!

Anonymous said...

I do not disagree with everything that you said. I do think that the author of that blog post/article/etc. is jumping to conclusions. Anyways, the above link is to another blog post about this "musician", Katy Perry, and her ,"music", -not just one of her songs but a good overall look at her career.

Anonymous said...

The song itself is, well, a crappy pop song. No surprises there. I really hated it because it sounded just so annoying. But have actually watched the video, I was pretty impressed with how inoffensive it was. Almost to the point that I wanted it to be a little more risque, something to make conservative folks a bit more uncomfortable. But then it really would be exploiting fake lesbianism to get attention, so it's better the way it is. The song it definitely taking advantage of the popularity of girls kissing girls on TV and in movies right now, but I agree with everything said in the post, it's not actually exploiting it simply to entertain a male audience, and it is about experimentation and fantasy.

Natalie Zack said...

Thank you for articulating what I've been thinking since the first round of Katy Perry criticism.

I always felt the criticism of the song was a little offensive towards women who occasionally experiment with or fantasize about other women, but don't identify as lesbian or bi.

There are women who fantasize about lesbian sex, but never actually want to try it. There are women who like kissing girls, but never want to go farther. There are women who like sleeping with women, but only occasionally and aren't interested in dating them. It's a lot more complicated than straight, gay, and bi.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Briana, Katy Perry is just out to make a buck, end of story. And why follow it up with "Ur So Gay", intentional or unintentional thats at best a really insensitive song, homophobic at worst.