"Beyonce is a woman who is not surrounded by 100 different people telling her what to do."
The discussion surrounding the hyper-sexualization of the music industry is much more complex than pointing out that everyone is wearing thongs now. Things have certainly gotten sexier. But there's a fine line between defending the artists and slut-shaming them. The precarious divide between sex-positivity and pandering to the male gaze is a challenge all female performers face. With her upcoming film, "Beyond The Lights," Gina Prince-Bythewood has found possibly the closest thing they have to a solution: authenticity.
"I have two kids, so the normalization of the hyper-sexualization is troubling to me," she told HuffPost Entertainment. "I thought that it was important to talk about that, the underbelly of the industry. All we see are the fun parts of job and all of the great shots on Instagram. There is another world that we’re not tweeting about. It's tough for female artists, there's a blueprint they are forced to follow."
In writing "Beyond The Lights," Prince-Bythewood was very interested in the way personas are formed, especially for young female artists. That "blueprint" refers to the way they are turned into brands, forced to throw away any sense of self in pursuit of an image.
"If you are not fully formed yet and you come out with a specific persona, you lose your sense of self," she said. "You don’t feel that who you are is good and enough and worthy of love. You’re fearful that if you ever drop the persona all that love is going to go. I mean, it is like a drug."
Prince-Bythewood did a lot of research before setting out to create "Beyond The Lights." She spoke to a set of female performers in hopes of honing in on the intense pressures at play. (It's worth nothing that "Beyond The Lights" feels a lot like "The Rihanna Story," though Prince-Bythewood said she was most directly inspired by Alicia Keys and, counterintuitively, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland.)
"I was very fortunate to be able to speak with a number of singers who were very honest with me. Some fought against the push of the hyper-sexuality and others succumbed to it," she said, not naming specific artists, but noting that she was struck by Mary J. Blige's public struggles. "It was invaluable to hear about these things and the way that some of them fought. It’s out there, it’s happening over and over, so really the question is why and what can we do to change things."
As Prince-Bythewood sees it, there are some highly sexualized performers who aren't succumbing to anything at all. When asked if she thinks there are women in the industry who make those sex positive calls themselves, she answered simply: "Beyonce."
"I actually think it's authentic to Beyonce," she said. "I think you can tell when hyper-sexuality is authentic and when it’s honed. Beyonce is a woman who is not surrounded by 100 different people telling her what to do. Maybe early on in her career she had her father and her mother, but you don’t get a sense that she is being handled or pushed to be anything other than who she wants to be. I think that’s the key. Whereas you see some of the younger artists and you know that there is a team of people beyond them."
Such is the case with the main character of "Beyond The Lights," Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a star on the path to mega fame, who struggles to figure out who she is amid the fantasy the studio-created fantasy.
Noni's story is especially interesting because of its implications about the way we perform gender and race. Her hyper-sexualization is starkly contrasted with the hyper-masculinity of the rapper she is arranged to date. And she is never truly liberated from her persona until she removes her straight purple extensions to reveal her natural hair -- a compelling symbol of freedom in light of the rise of cultural appropriation (and another standout parallel to Rihanna).
"What prevents the artist from being able to embrace who they really are?"
"It’s interesting that R&B and hip-hop have become pop music," she said. "That only happened within the last couple of years. I mean look and see what’s charting. It really is R&B, and it’s interesting to see it being co-opted by all artists." Prince-Bythewood went on to explain that Noni's struggle represents the picking and choosing of elements of black culture. "It’s interesting her having a white mother [played by Minnie Driver] who is also her manager, recognizing that as well. [To push for] the long weave and the type of music she’s going to sing and the way that she’s going to dance, and just really pushing that sexuality."
Prince-Bythewood attributes the rise of this kind of mold to the reality that "success begets success," but knows change comes from telling these stories, and revealing the truth of what goes in to making the biggest stars. In Noni's narrative, there is a strong tie to the way she saw success as a little girl. That, Prince-Bythewood thinks, is the key to remembering there is a real person inside these pop confections.
"I don’t think anyone envisioned themselves becoming famous and singing about, you know, getting high and drunk and sleeping with everybody. That’s not what you envision as a little girl," she said. "So, what happens? What prevents the artist from being able to embrace who they really are? The creation of the persona is the problem. It’s about being authentic. Finding your authentic self, finding your voice. "
"Beyond The Lights" is out in theaters this Friday.