Count Lana Del Rey as the latest celebrity claiming to not be a feminist. She joins the ranks of Shailene Woodley, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, all who have recently rejected the feminist label because they “love men,” or “don’t think of things as guys versus girls.”
What such celebrities are lacking is an accurate definition of the word feminism. Whatever they choose to call themselves, many of these young women are highly visible models of modern feminism in action. Unfortunately, as evidenced by her latest album, Del Rey is not one of them.
Whether or not Del Rey actually knew the definition of feminism before she rejected it in a recent interview, her statements, lyrics and music videos prove that she wants nothing to do with the movement. In her most recent album, set for release early next week, Del Rey not only perpetuates her helpless, damsel-in-distress image, but verbally promotes violence against women. If we as a society accept the disempowered form of femininity that Del Rey embodies, young women are truly in trouble.
Since her first commercial hit, “Video Games,” in which she attempts to lure a neglectful romantic partner by wearing his “favorite sundress,” Del Rey has taken on the persona of powerless victim who depends on men for validation and support. The vast majority of the music videos on her official YouTube channel feature her wrapped around the arm of a man, crooning lyrics such as “You went out every night, and baby that’s all right / I told you that no matter what you did, I’d be by your side.” Compare this to lyrics by artists such as Beyoncé, who spices up her more contentious lyrics with woman-power lines such as, “I’m reppin’ for the girls who taking over the world / Help me raise a glass for the college grads.”
Whether or not Del Rey actually believes the helpless, desperate-for-attention words in her songs is irrelevant—her lyrics position her as the powerless victim of evil men, and her music videos cast her as little more than arm candy. As singer Lorde said when asked her opinion on Del Rey’s music, “This sort of shirt-tugging, desperate, ‘don’t leave me’ stuff, that’s not a good thing for young girls, even young people, to hear.” Hearing celebrities define themselves as feminists is undoubtedly beneficial for young women, but it’s perhaps more important for those young women to witness a feminist example played out in popular culture.
If Del Rey makes any claims to personal agency at all, it is through her sexuality (see the track “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” off of her latest album.) While feminists can debate whether blatant sexuality is beneficial or detrimental to women, Del Rey’s version is not only disempowering, it can be dangerous. Her new album’s title track, “Ultraviolence,” is an ode to domestic abuse, with lyrics such as, “He hit me and it felt like true love” (an uncredited homage to the 1960s song by the Crystals, “He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss”). There is a line between espousing different sexual preferences (think Rihanna’s “S&M”) and glamorizing violence against women, and Del Rey crosses it with this track.
Del Rey is also known for modeling herself after the character Lolita from Vladimir Nabokov’s book of the same name—a guise she uses to explain her preference for older men and her penchant for baby talk in her songs. Anyone who has read Lolita, however, knows that the book is not about a grown woman choosing to be involved with older men, but about a man sexually abusing a child. Again, Del Rey crosses a line.
In the same interview in which she rejects feminism, Del Rey offers her own definition of a “true feminist”: “a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants.” By claiming that a true feminist would simply do whatever she chooses, Del Rey is denying the lived reality of her women fans: Misogyny continues to restrain women from doing “whatever they want” by way of the wage gap, discrimination in hiring, sexual harassment and sexual assault, to name a few roadblocks. If celebrities dropped the damsel-in-distress act and stood up for women’s rights, we might find ourselves closer to what Lana Del Rey described as “true feminism.”
Photo of Lana Del Rey courtesy of Flickr user Jaguar MENA
Emily Shugerman is a politics major at Occidental College and an intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.