Push(back) at the Intersections: Sluts, Bores, Attention Whores: How We Talk About Female Creators

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

There’s a fascinating double-edged sword that comes out of the sheath when it comes to talking about women creators.

On the one hand, there’s an attitude that we should unreservedly support female artists. That they deserve a pass on some things because they are trying to make it in a difficult industry, and that it’s antifeminist to criticize female creators at all. Consumers should look for the intent, they argue, should consider the context, shouldn’t have such unreasonably high standards.

Britney Spears Concert - You Want A Piece Of Me?: Britney Spears, a young female artist, on stage in black latex and fishnets.

On the other hand, we have people who take advantage of the veneer of ‘criticism’ to spew misogyny and hatred about women. This includes people in feminist spaces who judge creators for everything from showing too much skin to not being feminist enough. This often feeds people who are not feminist and decide that since feminists said it was OK, they have carte blanche to trash female creators and to use really hateful language when doing so.

The polarization that surrounds discussions about works of pop culture created by women can sometimes make it really hard to fairly and honestly critique female creators. We all internalize misogyny to some extent and I am never surprised, though I am disappointed, when it expresses in pop culture critiques.

We have to be able to strike a balance.

It is necessary to evaluate and critique all pop culture, no matter the gender of the creator. Being a woman does not make you immune from criticism when your work is problematic. At the same time, we need to recognize that there is a history when it comes to talking about art created by women. A history of bringing discussions about personal lives into discussions of art, of picking female creative professionals apart personally, not just professionally, of expressing some internalized tropes in the way we interact with art created by women.

(Britney Spears, popular target for slut shaming and accusations of being an ‘attention whore.’)

There’s a reason that female creators on mixed-gender creative teams get all the blame for the mistakes while the men get a free pass. I’ve seen female creators accused of tainting or ruining the creative teams they work with, and this carries a whiff of some very old ideas about women and their supposed ability to poison and corrupt everything they touch.

There’s a reason that when people talk about music and other work created by female artists, they don’t just talk about the art, but also about the way the artists dress. The way they live their lives. I don’t see the same scrutiny being applied to male creators. Not many people say, for example, that a performance of masculinity by a male rap artist is problematic or offensive, yet people freely shred female artists for the way they present themselves. A woman who likes to wear miniskirts on stage is setting a bad example for the children! Artists who wear outrageous heels are reinforcing a harmful beauty standard! How dare actresses get plastic surgery! Actresses in a bad woman-centered film are treated to misogynist bile in their reviews, while horrible films starring men get a pass.

Miley Cyrus on stage. She is a young female artist wearing a black jumper and gesturing with her hands.Should we talk about how things like, for example, the way gender performance in pop culture plays a role in how we perceive gender in real life? Absolutely we should, but the scrutiny applied to female creators of pop culture seems to run much deeper to me. It often seems, quite frankly, like an excuse to bring on the hate. As Snarky’s Machine pointed out in comments on Monday’s post, it’s very telling to see what kind of work and creators get passes from the feminist community, and what gets ignored or trashed.

We must be able to discuss art without attacking the creator or engaging in endless prurient speculation about the creator’s gender identity, sexual orientation, ability status, and other personal matters. I do think that there are some things in the personal lives of creators that are relevant to their work—take Roman Polanski, for example. There are some things that provide important context, or a reason to boycott a creator’s work. It’s sometimes hard to sift out when it’s appropriate to bring in the context of a creator’s personal life and history, and to consider matters that are on the public record, and when it’s not, and yet this is precisely what we need to do.

(There’s a great deal of speculation about Miley Cyrus’ mental health, something that should remain a personal matter unless she chooses to discuss it.)

It’s time to step off the seesaw of either blaming women artists for everything and using their personal lives as a vehicle for misogyny, or giving them a pass on everything.

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19 Comments Have Been Posted

This is an excellent

This is an excellent takedown of a TOTALLY ANNOYING dichotomy; one thing that particularly bugs me about the "but you HAVE to support ALL women artists and ALL of their music or else you're not properly feminist" thing is that, well, some women musicians, for example, make music that I personally do not like to listen to. Does my dislike of, say, Norah Jones's music mean that she doesn't contribute something to the music world? Absolutely not. No one says that I can't be a rock fan if I harbor distaste for Metallica; it confuses me when people do that exact same thing with women musicians.

Yes! Something I didn't even

Yes! Something I didn't even get to delve into here is that people who say 'this is not to my taste' can do so without maligning the creator, and also aren't betraying the feminist cause by doing so. Furthermore, you can even say 'this is not to my taste because...' and everyone can have a great conversation about it, without once discussing whether or not Norah Jones is [some personal slur] or not.

Flip Side

While I agree, women, especially in pop music, are sold as a full package product. Do I agree with this? Not at all. But when Britney Spears was at the height of her popularity, she was packaged into all kinds of venues: clothing, dolls, lunch pails, posters, underwear even. This is now going on with Miley Cyrus. We don't see this as much with males - (though I feel like it's catching on with the younger boy pop stars- we shall see), so for me, it is much more difficul tto separate the folks from thier work, as it got more and more difficult to figure out who they were and what their work was. Music artist or trademark? I actually feel like the two artists chosen for this article are perfect in that really, can you choose? Trademark, product, push them onto as many products as possible. I cannot be fooled into thinking it is their music America was buying....


Emily, I agree.... sometimes, with folks like Britney and Miley, we tend not to think of them as creators, but as having been "created." Like you said, there are teams of people behind them working around the clock on marketing a certain image, and sometimes, the integrity of the actual artistic output becomes damaged as a result.

Still, I totally understand that having a problem with a particular artist simply for being too naked or not feminist enough or whatever is not cool. For example, can we please talk about Leann Rimes's appearance on last night's episode of "America's Got Talent"?!?! While I'm not a fan of country music, I'm the first to admit that Leann is an incredibly talented singer.... so I was SHOCKED to see her last night dancing around in a retro-style bathing suit while singing her new single. It just felt so wrong. My thought was WHY would someone as talented as Leann need to be half naked while singing on stage.... especially given the fact that it's so out of character for her (or at least how I remember her). Is this the type of reaction being articulated in this post? Am I guilty? To be clear, I don't really feel disappointed in the artist herself, or any resentment toward her, obviously, because, well... I don't know her (and of course, she's still a great talent, you can't take it away from her). I do, however, tend to question the situation she's been put in. When things like this happen, while it may be convenient for some to label her an "attention-whore," or whatever else people say, I tend to think more of those behind the scenes, pulling the strings. My reaction is not "OMG, Leann Rimes is a ho!"... It's more like "I wonder who's terrible idea it was to diminish Leann Rimes in such a way?" When female artists are portrayed in a certain way, I just remember that there's a team of A&R guys and marketing gurus calling the shots and telling these girls that looking/dressing/dancing a certain way is simply part of the job description. Not that I'm cool with the notion that it's expected of her (that's a whole 'nother discussion).... but I don't hold it personally against Leann Rimes, either. If I don't buy Leann's CD, it's because I don't like the song, not because of that particular performance.

What's diminishing about

What's diminishing about wearing a cute retro bathing suit. If anything, I've found throughout Leann's career (hi, I'm a HUGE fan of her voice) that she seems <em>less</em> packaged now than previously. In fact, her previous image was in some ways as much artifice as Brit's "tarty teen" image. It's <em>all</em> packaging, only the "tarty" ones bear the burden of the criticism and scorn.

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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Vonnegut.

I have to admit that I

I have to admit that I haven't really been exposed to much imagery of Leann in the past few years, so I guess that's why I was taken aback by her appearance on this performance. I really haven't seen much of her since her "How Do I Live Without You" days. There's nothing wrong with wearing a cute bathing suit in and of itself (honestly, I think it was freaking adorable and I kinda want it!), but I think what shocked me was the fact that I had always thought of her as a vocalist, standing at the front of the stage, mic in hand, and being fully clothed while singing, and yet there she was, a grown-ass woman doing cartwheels in a bikini. I guess I wasn't expecting it, and I felt like she's talented enough that she doesn't *need* to do stuff like that... that she's somehow "above" it and that she was coerced/forced into it by the patriarchal machine that is her management team/the entertainment industry. I guess that may be sort of problematic logic on my part, because does it therefore imply that people who are less talented vocally (like, maybe, Britney or Miley for example) *need* to be scantily clad and do cartwheels on stage to be commercially successful?... As my grandfather from Italy says, "that'sa no good."

I see Leann is merely

I see Leann is merely wanting to try out other things. It's fine with me. It hasn't affected her killer pipes.

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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Vonnegut.

Really? I mean, I'm out of

Really? I mean, I'm out of touch now with the younger set, but when I was a teen, I had the New Kids On The Block dolls, lunch box, sheet set, book series (a new one every month!), curtains, and got up every Saturday morning to watch their cartoon. Had there been underwear, I totally would have bought it - as it was, I had many t-shirts. Is this not still happening? Strikes me as odd being how packaged the Boy Bands tend to be.

Two words: Jonas

Two words: Jonas Brothers!

PS - NKOTB 4 evah!! I heart Jordan! ;)

and to go back even further...

...the Beatles? The Monkees? The Jackson 5? KISS? Anyone, or am I the only old fart here? Packaging male groups and boy bands is a timeless industry shill. (The movie That Thing You Do offers a pretty scathing take on the practice.) I'm not going to say that sexism toward female artists, and different expectations for them, don't exist because obviously they do, but the selling of teen idols is equal-opportunity.

Yes, all those bands were

Yes, all those bands were manufactured on some level, but the lack of crap they take from the general public seems to reinforce the point here. And, I'm not sure that packaging and selling teen idols is equal opportunity. Single female (as in solo acts, not free agents on the dating market) seem to be way more popular than single male acts. We've got this weird love-hate relationship with female vocalists, though. We prefer them, but also love to point out how they don't write their own music and have contrived images.

And, bands really are a different story all together. All male bands, whether contrived or not, take much less crap than all female bands. I refer you to the Vixen or Go-Go's "Behind the Music" for a thorough explanation of this phenomenon. Being in a band is sorta like a free pass to legitimacy if you're a dude, but a sure-fire way to have your talent called into question if you're a lady.

I get a little giddy every

I get a little giddy every time someone mentions how gritty and "macho" Scorsese films are, particularly when his editor - Ms. Thelma Schoonmaker - is largely responsible for the films' aesthetic.
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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Vonnegut

also, the myth of the Perfect Feminist

Thank you for this post -- this sort of thing drives me insane! But IMO internalized misogyny isn't the only culprit in feminist communities, esp. online. I think it's often the ideal of the Perfect Feminist that causes the downward spiral from "critique" to "trash talk". A female artist, or the stuff she creates, can be problematic. They come out of a messed-up patriarchal culture, so that's no big surprise. But "problematic" often gets conflated with "bad", and that gives us all a license to hate that's hard to resist.

Ex: the Tina Fey kerfuffle after her last SNL appearance. In a matter of hours, the ladyblogosphere went from problematizing ("does TF actually perpetuate stereotypes in her attempt to satirize them?") to full-on attack mode ("Bad Feminist TF thinks all women really want are brownie husbands!"), plus some nasty speculation about her marriage and her husband's fidelity. Yikes!

Whether it's a pop culture product (see just about every ladyblog on "Twilight", or Bitch # 42 on superhero comics) or a person (Fey, Gaga, even Palin), I think we all need to resist the knee-jerk urge to OMG HATE YOU! and remember that a righteous good-vs-evil attitude does not a serious critique make, and feminism isn't a competition to see who can "do it best".


Except these females aren't particularly creative, being the product of and packaged by an intensely misogynistic system designed to cater to the lowest masculine expectations of us. They actually embody the restrictions placed on feminine creativity by the popular, mainstream media. So erm, bad example? *Actual* vocalists wouldn't cross the road to piss on them, dedicated dancers must fall about laughing at their lumpen ineptitude and composers or lyricists?? Let's leave that one where it lies. I don't think BS or MC are particularly artistic or creative. In fact there are strong arguments that their activities are the antithesis of these things.

Are we not missing the giant sized elephant in the room about the ethical implications of said attentionwhores? Does their 'artform' (namely, the selling of underaged sexuality to the underaged girls that demand it as a result of being sold underaged sexuality etc) deserve any handwringing? Should it be sheltered from critique because they happen to have uteruses (shamefully, I am only guessing the plural :-)

Happy to have this conversation about women with appreciable, individual talent. Because these tricks ARE attentionwhores. If you sat MC or BS down with a pen and made them fill a whole page with words they would burst into tears, dammit, and I think most of us know that. Attentionwhoring is gender neutral, and broadly applied to both chicks and dicks, even in the popular media.


KellyJelly, if Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus are just a "product of and packaged by an intensely misogynistic system designed to cater to the lowest masculine expectations of us," how are we to know they're not smart or possessing of "appreciable, individual talent" in any area?

<i>If you sat MC or BS down with a pen and made them fill a whole page with words they would burst into tears, dammit, and I think most of us know that.</i>

I don't know that, and neither do you. I'm pretty sure one of the reasons s.e. used them as examples is that they are <i>assumed</i> to be stupid as a result of their very mainstream PR.

<i>Attentionwhoring is gender neutral, and [is] broadly applied to both chicks and dicks, even in the popular media.</i>

Is it? I certainly don't see many male celebrities being called attention whores in the popular media. Even publicity on the most outlandish behavior, eg. Tom Cruise circa 2005, seems to stick to terms like "bizarre" and "annoying" rather than name-calling.

But they're not attentionwhoring in a vaccum...

I can see where you're coming from re: what we're being sold is a packaged product, and not the "real" BS or MC. But they're not attentionwhoring in a vaccum. I remember it being hard to handle regular old peer pressure when I was 17. Imagine the pressure these "pop tarts" are under to conform to those masculine expectations. Agents, producers, record labels, an international media just waiting for the right upskirt-shot moment... BS and MC didn't create this misogynistic system. If you wanted to be charitable, you could even look at them as victims of it, no?

Easy on the sexism there,

Easy on the sexism there, Kellyjelly. There is certainly a great discussion to have regarding the sexualization of young women in order to sell - well - just about anything, but I believe the line needs to be drawn at assuming that MC or BS are devoid of agency, talentless or lack intelligence. Perhaps you're conflating your dislike of their artistic contributions with notions of their talent. Neither is without talent - both are pretty talented entertainers - (note: I didn't say vocalists) and well, they have a fanbase who enjoy their work. The comment you've made seems to suggest their accomplishments should be diminished simply because you don't find them talented, which is perfectly your right, but you need to give that sexism a REST.

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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations wors

I see a point to what

I see a point to what KellyJelly is saying (though not the point she's trying to make); as a music student who knows how hard is to even get to play live withouth paying (that's how it goes in my country), who spends time and money in music lessons and hours practising at home, it is sort of frustrating to watch girls that have no voice, no pitch and no skills making millions and getting the priceless chance to be heard. However: it is not their fault that the industrie values more some tits'n'ass combo than a skilled and educated musician (specially if a woman's case: many guys are praised for their guitar skills in the media). So I don't think they should be blamed or trashed for not being talented or skilled enough: they are "performers", "products", not actually musicians. If they get to play more than musicians do, it's the system fault.


Thank you for this article. As a visual artist (I'm a painter), I can definitely relate to a lot of this. While I'm not in any kind of media spotlight, I can say that the average college painting class critique is, in a way, a micro version of what is being discussed here. There is an assumption, mainly by the male population, that when it comes to female artists of any kind (visual, performance, etc.), the artist's first and foremost reason for creating the art is to make some kind of statement about being a woman. While there is nothing wrong with making a statement about being a woman, an assumption like this, I think, is ultimately detrimental to the artist. It continues the division of artists into "artists" (who, it goes without saying, are the males) and "woman artists." (There are also cases of "artists" and "[insert ethnicity or sexual orientation here] artists.") Instead of allowing her to make a personal statement with her work, the consensus becomes, "Well, you're just making that statement because you're a girl," which is a short distance from, "I don't have to take this seriously because it's just the work of an angry feminist/a ditzy woman-child/some chick." It's very frustrating to have your physicality and assumptions about it block actual critique of your actual work.

I've had a telling experience being an artist while also being female: I told a woman that I was an artist. When she later saw my work, her comment was, "I'm surprised. When you first told me you were an artist, I thought you were too pretty to be any good."

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