Grimes, Feminism, and the Endless Burden of Being a Spokesperson


Now that feminism is trendy, public figures who espouse the ideology are under extra scrutiny, with their every statement providing fodder for the media’s gristmill of anti-sexist outrage. Thus, a long and nuanced profile about Grimes (the stage name of musician Claire Boucher) from The Fader’s Emilie Friedlander was hastily aggregated by another site with the headline, “Grimes’ next album is full of diss tracks aimed at music industry misogynists.”

As a result, the less-than-thrilled artist herself showed up on Twitter, where she wrote, “It’s a disservice to feminism to paint me as as so aggressively anti-male all the time.”

Read her tweets from the bottom up.

The aggregated news piece at VICE highlights the single quote in which Boucher uses the phrase “diss tracks,” while glossing over the full context of her words, which add complexity and focus more on her development as an artist: “I think all my other albums were, like, sad. And this time it’s more happy and angry. I live in my own house that I pay for. I bought all this equipment myself. I control my own life now. No one has any say over what I do or where I go or when I do it,” she said. Clearly, Boucher feels strongly that her work isn’t just about anger against misogyny, but about self-fulfillment and independence.

The irony is particularly great, given that one of the themes of the Fader profile is how easily Boucher’s thoughts get scooped up by the news machine, turning her into a spokeswoman and headline generator:

Whether she’s talking about the environmental perils of plastic bottles or explaining her reasons for declining the ALS ice bucket challenge (partly because she didn’t want to waste water in the midst of a California drought), even her non-music posts become fodder for music blogs. In February 2013, after Pitchfork recycled yet another of her Tumblr updates as a news story, she posted a follow-up to her original post: “my tumblr is not a news source […] i dont like it when what i say on here is taken out of context and posted elsewhere. its not a story and its not an official statement.” Then she deleted most of the posts on her Tumblr, and Pitchfork ran a news update about that.

To highlight the discrepancy between Boucher’s words and the way they’re taken out of context isn’t merely to pile on the originators of the particular VICE headline with the “misogynist diss tracts” thesis — because those kinds of headlines are the prevailing reality in today’s Internet climate. An artist’s statement about sexism is now as juicy as a feud might be, and a feud related to sexism hits many of the required beats.

To be fair, much media-highlighted outrage is justified rather than manufactured, while the newfound cultural capital of feminism is heartening, overall. But the toll that this “insta-feminist” culture takes on public figures is more complicated. Witness the way fans, social media, and online media swiftly turn figures like Amy Schumer, Patricia Arquette, and even Taylor Swift into goddess-heroine “movement spokeswoman” types before inevitably discovering their (often sizable) flaws and creating an epic backlash. And the problem is not just that celebrities aren’t fully fit to be spokespeople. Heck, if you look at social justice Twitter, you’ll see that real movement spokespeople and full-time activists get sucked into the veneration-fury cycle too.

Grimes may be more overtly political than other artists in some ways, but she’s an artist, not a symbol. Her tweet about being “reduced” to a different kind of “token” hit me particularly hard, since I’d like to think of feminism as an expansive, rather than a flattening, force for women in the public eye.

This is a daily reminder: being a feminist doesn’t mean that every single thing you do or think can be reduced to gender.

Reading Boucher’s tweets, I immediately found myself thinking about the way Bob Dylan disappointed his activist allies and fans by stepping away (often in an asinine manner) from his political role back in the 1960s. His is a decision that people still debate, sometimes furiously, but Grimes’ evident frustration calls back to that moment of when Dylan said, “I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know — be a spokesman… From now on, I want to write from inside me.” Forcing a spokesperson burden on artists is more likely to turn them away from activism than the other way around. We have to remember to evaluate feminist artists based on the full scope of their work and ideas, not all of which will or should fit into an easy, headline-worthy category.