Why Katy Perry won’t be the Super Bowl’s ‘girl power’ moment

The Super Bowl wants to have what the VMAs are having. After Beyoncé’s Internet-shaking performance at MTV‘s Video Music Awards last year, in which she spelled out “FEMINISM” in bright letters on stage, the NFL desperately needs its own “girl power moment,” as a recent Yahoo headline put it. 

The league hopes Perry will be an olive branch to female viewers after the Ray Rice fiasco showed the league’s utter disregard for violence against women; Rice was infamously suspended for all of two games after video of the Baltimore Ravens player beating his then-fiancée publicly leaked on the Web. Furthering the NFL’s Robin Thicke-esque mission to get women back, Perry’s invitation coincides with a planned 60-second PSA on domestic violence.

While “Roar” was likely created to be blasted over the speakers at football games, Katy Perry’s “girl power” message is no more honest than the NFL’s. While “Roar” pastes generic sports clichés over non-specific lyrics about overcoming obstacles and discovering one’s self-worth, Perry has made her career on homophobia and internalized sexism—what sounds empowering at first sounds very different when you just listen a little closer. Last October, the Daily Dot’s Zaron Burnett called into question the league’s breast cancer awareness campaign, which Burnett deemed a “naked PR grab,” and given the content of Perry’s music, it’s hard to believe that the league has changed its tune in the past three months.

Katy Perry’s “girl power” message is no more honest than the NFL’s. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the discography of Katy Perry, all of this might seem confusing to you. She’s that girl with the whipped-cream breasts who sings nice songs to keep gay kids from killing themselves, right? Well, that sounds pretty good for everyone. 

But Perry’s politics first came under fire after she released 2008’s inescapable summer chart-topper, “I Kissed a Girl,” and it wasn’t just from the Christian right. The Dr. Luke-produced track was widely criticized by the LGBT community and their allies for lyrics that not only tokenize lesbianism but also serve to reinforce negative stereotypes about “female experimentation,” while subtly throwing shade at actual queer women. Not so good for everyone.

In an essay for the Washington Paper, Slate columnist Amanda Hess breaks it down. “Perry’s song winkingly reinforces bisexual and lesbian women as objects of male fantasy (‘hope my boyfriend don’t mind it’),” Hess explains. “Then, it situates bisexual and lesbian women as nothing more than an ‘experimental game’ for heterosexual women to play with (‘It’s not what I’m used to/Just wanna try you on’). Finally, it turns girls kissing into some sort of crazy taboo ‘It felt so wrong/It felt so right/Don’t mean I’m in love tonight’; ‘It’s not what good girls do’).” 

Blogger Sady Doyle adds, “She kissed a girl, and she liked it, but ultimately it’s very important that her boyfriend don’t mind it, because he has veto power on her sexuality.”

If it wasn’t enough to anger lesbian and bisexual women by trivializing their sexuality, Perry had already doubled down on giving LGBT folks the middle finger. Perry’s first single (even before “I Kissed a Girl”) was “Ur So Gay,” which Zack Rosen, former editor of the New Gay, deemed “a paean to stereotypes and gay suicide.” Rosen writes, “The song is about a boy that Katy dated who dared be sensitive and well-groomed, and so she assumed he was a big fag. She asked that he ‘hang himself with his H&M scarf,’ for one, and generally acted as if ‘gay’ was the ultimate, be-all, end-all put down to someone that treated her wrong.”

Perry, a noted anti-bullying “activist” who has worked with the Trevor Project, actually sang this song at a high school, a space where Queerty’s Sarah Nigel reminded us that “LGBT kids leave and then kill themselves after such taunts.” 

What’s doubly problematic about the track isn’t just its message to gay males (namely, that they’re less than a man) but also its message to women. Katy Perry’s beau isn’t just acting gay; he’s also pretty effeminate, which Perry deems to be unattractive. Perry criticizes him for being into designer clothing, wearing makeup, and being thin, which sounds more like a complaint about “skinny bitches” than one’s male suitor. What’s the only thing worse than being gay in a Katy Perry song? Being female.

What’s the only thing worse than being gay in a Katy Perry song? Being female.

Never one to resist beating us over the head with bad politics, Perry further underscored the point in “Hot n Cold,” her second Top 10 hit stateside. In the track, the always-unlucky-in-love singer again bemoans her boy problems, this time stuck with a guy she deems a “love bipolar.” “You change your mind like a girl changes clothes,” she sings. “You PMS like a bitch I would know.” 

Perry further chides him for being always overthinking things and never saying what’s really on his mind, common stereotypes about female behavior. Females be crazy, y’know? The entire song seems to be designed to keep women away from the missiles, except that it’s a catchy put-down track that sounds a whole lot more powerful when you’re belting it with the top down.

Katy Perry’s second album, the Grammy-nominated Teenage Dream, was saddled with the same issues of lady hate, except that they now came with the added baggage of mixed sexual assault messages. A saxophone-laden ’80s throwback, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is a celebration of drunken abandon, bad decisions, and arguably date rape. 

In an article for Vice, comedian Rob Delaney argued that lyrics like “There’s a stranger in my bed/There’s a pounding in my head” and “Is that a hickey or a bruise?” are confusingly vague when it comes to the obvious consent issues at play. Delaney wrote: “You should know everyone in your bed with you. Rape is already a possibility, unprotected sex has almost definitely occurred.” Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies agreed with his assessment, claiming that the song had the “some of the most questionable lyrics of any pop song to come out in the past 10 years.”

Delaney and Davies’ close reading of Perry’s lyrical content might seem a stretch if it didn’t seem to match nearly every song she’s ever recorded. In “E.T.,” Kanye West collected a paycheck on a guest verse about alien sex that appears to blur the lines between sexy roleplay and outright rape. “Imma disrobe you/Then Imma probe you/See I’ve abducted you/So I’ll tell you what to do,” West raps. 

According to blogger Michelle Parrinello-Cason, its sexual assault message carries an added racial component. “The song compares black men to the most exotic other of all: aliens.” Parrinello-Cason writes, “It reminded me a little too much of the scene in Ellison’s Invisible Man where a white woman, Sybil, begs the black protagonist to rape her: ‘You can do it, it’ll be easy for you, beautiful. Threaten to kill me if I don’t give in. You know, talk rough to me, beautiful.’”

While there’s nothing wrong with a little consensual rape play, this would hardly be the first time that critics have accused Perry of playing it fast and loose when it comes to race. Mic’s Derrick Clifton (also a contributor at the Daily Dot) called Katy Perry “pop culture’s most prominent purveyor of racist cultural appropriation.” Clifton pointed out how the singer’s tendencies to steal from other cultures has a bad habit of singling out women of color. In Perry’s video for “This Is How We Do,” the pop diva “dons cornrows with gelled down baby hair and painted fingernails.” Just as Katy Perry makes herself into an exaggerated version of femininity with cupcakes and candy canes, she also makes black women into cartoons.

Katy Perry might not like women very much, but she’s got nothing on the NFL. 

Perry has gotten particular flak for her decision not to label as a “feminist” (which she may or may not have flip-flopped on), but feminists shouldn’t be the only ones angry with her. Whether you’re a feminist, non-feminist, woman of color, rape survivor, or just someone who likes missiles (hey, who doesn’t?), Katy Perry isn’t America’s pro-woman rallying cry; just because you are a lady doesn’t mean you’re working in their best interests.

At best, Katy Perry is shallow pop faux-minism. Although she wasn’t talking about Perry, Pandragon’s Amanda Marcotte hit the nail on the head: “I feel like the music industry is cleverly positioning songs that kind of sort of sound powerful but reinscribe traditional female passivity as a substitute for songs that might actually give women ideas.” 

Katy Perry might not like women very much, but she’s got nothing on the NFL. To win back the women who might have felt alienated by the league’s most violent year, it’ll take more than entertainment that masks the very problems the NFL is attempting to run away from. As Marcotte suggests, even if the NFL had hired Cyndi Lauper or Susan Faludi herself to sing at their halftime show, there’s no substitute for actual ideas. 

To have their feminist moment, singing just simply isn’t enough. The real work will come when the NFL actively works with its female fans to change the culture of the league from the inside out, putting the safety of women before the bottom line. That might not be the spectacle everyone is expecting, but it’s the show we really need.

Photo via machechyp/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.