Talk of feminism is on the lips of this generation's female celebrities, particularly pop-music stars. Katy Perry, Lily Allen, Lorde and Lady Gaga, to name a few, have all publicly reflected on the word and its meaning over the past year. Soon newsstands will display two additions to that list. Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé -- arguably the moment's most-watched women in pop music -- grace the May covers of Elle and Out, respectively, and last week both publications released excerpts from their interviews. They read like they are from the same person.
Their battle cry? That women have the right to be sexy. Beyoncé declares that "women should own their sexuality" and notes a "double standard when it comes to sexuality.... Men are free and women are not. ... You can be ... whatever you want to be -- and still be a sexual being." Miley picks up: "I'm just about equality, period," she says. "I mean, guy rappers grab their crotch all fucking day and have hos around them.... But if I [do the same thing], I'm degrading women?" Each asserts herself as a unique contributor to the feminist discourse: Beyoncé would "like to believe that [her] music opened up that conversation" about sexual liberation, and Miley calls herself "part of the evolution of" gender equality.
If only their idea of female empowerment were indeed new. But the insistence within popular culture that women can be both sexy and smart is pervasive. Flip through women's fashion magazines and you'll encounter headlines like Cosmo's "The Perfect Hair and Makeup to Nail Your Dream Job Interview" or Glamour's "What to Wear to Work This Fall: 22 Office Outfit Must-Haves." The guiding rationale is that primping is a means to an end: A woman should dress attractively so that her professional competence may shine through without distraction.
As a soon-to-graduate college student whose adolescent heroine was the fictional Elle Woods of Legally Blonde -- a character who called Cosmo "the Bible" -- I have been increasingly drawn to such articles as I search for my first post-graduation job. Moreover, I've paid them heed. But as I've discovered from my (admittedly still limited) experience, being good at your job -- whatever it may be -- is much harder than securing the perfect pencil skirt. Far from empowering women's intelligence and character, such "advice" only further polices -- and impedes -- women's participation in the public sphere. The problem is not, as Miley and Beyoncé believe, that a woman cannot be sexy and successful. It is that she must be sexual in order to even be seen.
Of course, sexuality can be powerful. On the May cover of Out, Beyoncé channels Marilyn Monroe in a blond wig and diamonds and strikes the closed-eye, open-mouthed pose currently de rigueur in fashion editorials. "POWER" is printed across her naked shoulders. Should we deride women for leveraging sexuality to get ahead? No. As Gloria Steinem said when asked last October if Miley Cyrus is hurting the feminist cause with her exhibitionist antics, "we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists." But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that such an individualistic tactic is particularly progressive -- or brave.
After centuries of being objectified, our chief feminist demand, as reflected by the stars we've elevated to celebrity status, is the right to be sexy. This is, to put it bluntly, farcically sad. And that Miley and Beyoncé -- two pop stars with such distinct images that many of their fans would likely take offense at a comparison of the two -- articulate the same misguided understanding of the rights at stake for American women today underscores how perfectly that philosophy aligns with those beliefs in bed with corporate interests -- the same ones shilling "22 Office Outfit Must-Haves." If we're going to buy something, let it be these women's derivative music, not their straw-man feminism.