Yesterday, Ariana Grande posted an essay across her social media accounts, about the double standards she’s facing now that her relationship with Big Sean has ended. Culminating with a Gloria Steinem quote, the piece finds the 21-year-old pop star big-upping her feminist lineage and railing against the way women are so often defined in relation to the men they’re involved with. At her most poignant (the historically modest) Grande declares, “If a woman TALKS about sex openly … she is shamed! But if a man talks or RAPS freely about all the women (or more commonly used ‘bitches’ / hoes’ … how lovely) he’s had … he is regaled.”
“What I meant when I said what I said about not being Sean’s ex is that I am tired of living in a world where women are mostly referred to as a man’s past, present, or future PROPERTY/POSSESSION,” Grande writes. Keep in mind, one of Big Sean’s most successful songs to date is “I Don’t Fuck With You,” a scathing takedown in which he refers to an ex as a “little stupid ass bitch”; it was released last year, just months after his engagement to Glee’s Naya Rivera was called off.
Echoing the frustration Taylor Swift expressed last year regarding her dating life, Grande surmises,
I can’t wait to live in a world where people are not valued by who they’re dating/married to/attached to, having sex with (or not)/seen with…. but by their value as an individual. […] I’m saying this after literally eight years of feeling like I constantly had to have a boy by my side. After being on my own now for a few months I am realizing that that’s just not the case… I have never felt more present, grounded, and satisfied. I’ve never laughed harder or had more fun or enjoyed my life more.
Praise of female autonomy is not exactly radical; it was initially formalized in American culture with the emergence of the “New Woman” beginning in the late 19th century and evolving through the 1920s. But Grande’s willingness to broadcast these ideas across her online presence could very well be the trickle-down effect of Beyoncé Feminism™. Even a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a star like Grande — widely popular but still relatively new — feeling safe enough to speak out against casually accepted sexism.
It used to be that, as far as hit singles were concerned, pop divas were either heartbroken or empowered: “What will I ever do without him?” or “What was I doing with him?” That dichotomy’s hold on the pop charts has weakened — at the moment, pop fans see their female stars having fun sans any explicit implication of washing that man right outta one’s hair (Nicki Minaj’s “The Night Is Still Young”), or while dancing on a competitor’s grave (Swift’s “Bad Blood”). These thematic shifts in the music may seem small, but the stars who offer up them up have grown bolder in their personal messages. Their strides have not been matched in the mainstream since Madonna debuted post-feminism in Top 40 pop with her radical sexuality. But to some feminist activists (including bell hooks), Beyoncé’s brand of watered-down feminism has damaging effects to the greater cause.
Whereas a female pop star’s affirmative response to that popular trick question — “Are you a feminist?” — used to raise an eyebrow, the opposite now seems to be true. Last year, when Lana Del Rey called feminism “not an interesting concept,” the Internet (and Kim Gordon) lost its collective mind. Though LDR’s statement suggested a post-feminist stance (not an anti-feminist one), the pop music landscape is built for big declarations, not nuanced political ideas. Grown-ups whose views on gender equality are informed solely by pop culture are Basic Feminists at best, but this shouldn’t discount the power that lies in the casual acceptance of these ideas.
Kids who grow up seeing Beyoncé performing in front of a giant projection of the word “feminist” at the VMAs or quoting feminist authors in song normalize these views in the same way that past generations of pop fans normalized female sexuality, for better and for worse. What may be a tame declaration of independence to progressive types who roll their eyes at the basic-ness of quoting Steinem, could shine a light on one form of engrained sexism for many others. So Bravo for speaking up, Ariana.