Just two minutes into Charli XCX’s documentary about feminism in pop, The F Word And Me, Charli is seen doing press before her set at the Glastonbury Festival
in London. After a female reporter asks her which essential item she’d bring to a festival (“Vodka,” says Charli), it cuts to an off-camera male interviewer asking the pop star whether she remembered to wear a bra this time. Charli offers a half-exasperated yet diplomatic response: “I’m currently not wearing one but will be wearing one later,” she says, only to be further belittled by the guy, who jokes, “I’m maintaining eye contact at this moment.”
This fairly unpolished documentary (as in, it looks kinda pieced together, but that’s not a knock), which aired Tuesday night on BBC, is Charli XCX’s attempt to break through some of the mucky dialogue around feminism in music and the intricacies of being a female pop star. Half of the 45-minute film is Charli dissecting her own personal views on feminism, which she admits are complicated and often frustrating to try to articulate to the masses. The other half is her speaking to other women in the music industry (i.e. Marina and the Diamonds on being labeled a sellout) about their experiences. It’s a conversation that’s been happening FORever—the scrutiny of female bodies in music, control of one’s image, sexism and the selling of sex. Still, it’s wild and disappointing to hear again and again about persisting sexist issues in a white male dominated pop industry, coming from younger artists like Charli, who’s 23, and newcomer Liz (who’s in her late 20s and who we interviewed here).
In her segment, Liz brings up the difficulty of explaining her style to clueless middle-aged men, who’ve traditionally regulated (and still do) much of the imagery and decisions behind female pop star machines. “It’s quite funny when you try to explain what you want to do in your style and a lot of men don’t get it but the girls love it,” says Liz. “They should just listen to us because we know.” Right, I am a woman and I probably know a few things about my audience. Besides breaking down how the music industry standards remain the same, Charli also acknowledges the change that’s happening through her generation’s interpretation of feminism and empowerment. The drummer in her all-female band, for example, speaks on about the extraordinary significance of seeing a woman pop star surrounded by female musicians on stage. Or when Charli references a meeting where she discovered through market research that people find her intimidating. “Honestly, it’s really soul destroying,” she says.
Charli’s astute, too, when explaining how the visibility of feminism (however rote it’s becoming) has changed the way young women today think about it. “Young kids now are being blasted with what feminism is because Beyoncé’s standing in front of a massive screen that says feminism on it and that’s great,” says Charli. “Because when I was younger, I wasn’t conscious of that at all. I was just like, Yeah, Britney!” Spears’ influence on Charli is especially striking if you know anything about Britney’s dual role as a blank puppet and a quintessential pop star. Charli also talks briefly about the power of the Spice Girls’ messaging, saying, “I think Girl Power was my generation’s introduction to feminism.” It would’ve been nice if segments like these were longer.
Another telling moment is Charli talking about the aftermath of her crotch shot at Glastonbury. “Every photograph they decide to use is of me with my vagina out. Crotch shot,” she says. “There are people who are really mad at that, like, How dare you do this, you’re talented and oh no surprise, another woman. That woman. It’s always like that: That woman doing that thing! But then it’s like, I’ll wear something totally different or I’m covered completely and they’ll be like, Oh what a hipster, covering up like a boring woman!”
It’s an age where pop stars are being bombarded with questions about feminism just as they’re figuring it out themselves. A particular disappointment, says Charli, are the questions that challenge her “feminist credentials.” “When people ask, like, the way Rihanna dresses or the way Miley Cyrus dresses, is that a bad example for girls and that makes her a bad feminist. That’s absolute bullshit, basically,” says Charli. “I think that both of those artists are really empowering and artistic and daring women. I think they’re projecting a different way to be sexy and a different way to be feminine, which I think is really important for young girls.”
Definitely the best moment in this documentary is Charli’s breakdown of the controversy over Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” video, which spurred all types of criticism about Rihanna’s violent imagery. Charli says, “I think this film speaks to a bigger story. Rihanna is dismantling the idea of what a pop star should be, i.e. perfect, polished and usually white. She plays a Tarantino-esque hit woman with her very own girl gang. It’s a revenge fantasy. It’s a beautiful piece of art, but it’s also a powerful statement of intent. You can’t push me around and you can’t make me be what I’m not.”
Charli adds, “I like pop stars who fuck up and make mistakes. It’s just cooler rather than robots.”
If you’re curious what men think of the traditional backseat female artists have taken, Jack Antonoff makes an appearance to discuss the greatness of Taylor Swift, as if she’s not praised enough. His point is salient, though Swift isn’t the greatest example of an under-appreciated female pop star. Antonoff says:
“Working with her and experiencing the way that people dissect her has given me a lot of insight to the differences to being a woman or a man in music men and women. No one wants to believe that she writes the songs. And that’s such crap. Kanye makes a record or something and it’s just like, you’re Kanye, you’re a genius. And then Taylor does it and I do so many interviews where people are like, Is she really a good writer as everyone says. And I’m like, yeah... I think that you can really see how the world sees women artists by the questions you get asked in the press, more than anything.”
Anyway, watch the video above for as long as it’s up. It’s also available on BBC’s website. The point is that Charli does a solid job acknowledging both the persisting shitty attitudes toward women in music and celebrate the breakthroughs.
“When you’re looking at the music industry in isolation, especially pop music, women being very vocal about being in control of what they do and that being the case is kind of a new thing,” she says. “Everybody is aware that this question of what is it like to be a woman in the industry is important. But everybody is also kind of sick of it. I think the better question is: What’s it like to be an artist.” I officially forgive her for aligning with Iggy Azalea.
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