Six years ago, a famous popstar compared herself to a paper bag at the mercy of the wind, with a desire to start anew. Today, another popstar finds herself at the mercy of a different set of forces, which for the past two years continues to obstruct her freedom.
Kesha Rose Sebert recently hit a roadblock in her lawsuit against Lukasz Gottwald, aka hit-maker Dr. Luke, for charges of sexual assault. A Manhattan Supreme Court justice refused to temporarily nullify the terms of her contract with Sony Music & Gottwald; such terms require her to record a total of six albums with Gottwald, her alleged abuser.
Even with multiple platinum albums, a catalog of Top Ten hits and numerous humanitarian accolades, Sebert remains at the mercy of the force of nature that is pop culture, a climate that unfortunately bears down harshly upon women and their self-expression.
Her case demonstrates another example of the unrealistic expectations and responsibilities placed upon female entertainers, especially those with opinions to say or sexuality to share. In her situation, Sebert is not only expected to provide proof of her claim, she must also stall her career while simultaneously maintaining relevancy. A tall task indeed, because in pop, when you disappear it’s hard to come back.
Just ask Janet Jackson. For nine-sixteenths of a second, her breast appeared on over 100 million TV screens across the US at Super Bowl XXXVIII. The sheer magnitude of this event rocked everything in our lives for years to come, from presidential elections to the advent of viral videos.
For Jackson, the event devastated her. Following the Bowl, Viacom, distributors of the game that year, announced a blacklist on her, effectively cutting her out of radio and MTV, a medium she pioneered. A week after the event, the Grammys rescinded Jackson’s invitation to perform; at the same time, Justin Timberlake, the one responsible for the mishap, received an award that evening.
To put this out there, Janet Jackson remains to this day blacklisted from the Super Bowl after 10 years, but the Grammy’s allowed Chris Brown back onto their stage three years after he pummeled Rihanna before the ceremony.
To put this out there, Sinead O’Connor single-handedly destroyed her career by making a statement on Saturday Night Live about the Catholic Church’s sex abuse cover ups, but R Kelly remains a man of respect despite numerous allegations of sexually abusing minors.
To put this out there, the Dixie Chicks made one comment about a less-than-stellar president and get blacklisted, but Elvis Costello called both Ray Charles and James Brown the n-word and still holds a legendary status.
The rules stacked against women aren’t just unfair, they make little sense. Jackson’s perceived lack of sexual control took her from icon to infidel in less than a second, stalling her career for a decade; conversely, Sebert’s attempt to take back control of her sexuality places her own career in a similar limbo. What does this say to young women that a woman’s bodily autonomy, and her success, depends on how she is perceived? What can she do/ or say to stay relevant (or sane) without being ostracized? I’m sure it weighed on Amy and Whitney, as I’m sure it still probably does on Britney too.
As Lily Allen so bluntly put it, it’s hard out here for a bitch.
(Especially when other “bitches” are sending you a variety pack of signals)
Allen’s ill-conceived costume and subsequent Tweet highlights that each of us, regardless of our gender, falls guilty of imposing horrifying double standards upon women in entertainment, especially when those women assert themselves. Girls, just as much as boys, can resort to sexist presumptions of a person’s character without realizing it.
The firestorm generated by this case ignited another separate popstar feud, with starlets dishing out responsibilities to each other rather than at the actual guilty parties. This back-and-forth blame-game reeks of the statements made by Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem about female Bernie Sanders supporters; even more so than such sentiments speak to society’s sexism, they highlight the divergence we experience in trying to solve it.
Like arguing that a female supporting Sanders over Hillary Clinton is anti-feminist, it’s equally wrong and irresponsible to argue over one pop star’s feminist integrity while another one is deprived of hers by her own record label. Even should she escape her contract now, it’s because of our subsequent outrage instead of her original testimony: Sebert’s case moves at the whim of pop culture rather than her own integrity.
For that matter, what does it say to young men that we allow career’s like Sebert’s to stall while those of R Kelly and Chris Brown run smoothly? A friend once remarked how “Boys are taught to care about how they look, while girls are taught to care about how they’re perceived.” Girls like Sebert, not wanting to stir the pot, hold their tongues on injustice for years, while boys like Breezy learn that violent behavior is both natural and celebrated.
Do we want to apply these same hurdles to a woman who is simply attempting to right an injustice caused against her? As we’ve seen with Jackson and O’Connor, returning to success takes monumental effort and much time; Jackson’s comeback took a decade, while O’Connor never reclaimed the renown of her pre-SNL days. Sebert’s lawyer made abundantly clear the repercussions her client would face from an inability to record or release new material. But as we’ve seen, for women, such disadvantages are par for the course.
We seem to prefer to have our popstars be seen and not heard, or at least, not heard saying anything too deviant. But that same popstar who compared herself to an empty plastic vessel was Forbes’ third highest earning entertainer of 2014, and took to the cover of the magazine to proudly claim her title. Popstars like her, ones unafraid of asserting their bodies, their opinions, their paper, showed me what it means to truly express yourself. And I’ll be damned if I stand by and let the women who taught me to use my voice be prevented from doing the same for themselves.
Stop. Comparing. Female. Artists. And. Doubting. Their. Credibility. Before. We. All. Hunt. You. pic.twitter.com/5WLKFsYtUY
— ✦ Ryn Weaver ✦ (@RynWeaver) February 12, 2015