Warpaint’s Beyoncé and Rihanna Slut-Shaming Reveals a Racial Double Standard About Women’s Sexuality

In the annals of rock ‘n’ roll foot-in-mouth moments, it was a pretty good one. Yesterday Q magazine published an excerpt of its upcoming feature on LA lifestyle-section band Warpaint, wherein guitarist Theresa Wayman complained about the “hyper-sexualization of mainstream music,” singling out Rihanna and Beyoncé as examples of what she perceives as a problem: “[Rihanna] has an insane voice, she could’ve done something so much more stuble and artful… [and] every song on Beyoncé’s last album has her basically looking like a slut and she does not need to do that. She’s gorgeous and so fucking talented. And they all take it as women’s liberation!” To the surprise of precisely no one, these comments did not go down well. At all.

Warpaint themselves, perhaps realizing that this was not a good look, have backtracked pretty quickly — Wayman posted an apology last night, relying on the time-honored “taken out of context” defense:

There were many long conversations behind that statement and it’s heartbreaking and painful to see it presented in such a hyperbolic and crude manner. We LOVE and ADORE Beyonce and Rihanna, genuinely, and that’s what makes this all the more difficult.

A journalist came on our bus and casually asked us what we thought about women in music and we responded as fans and consumers and not as card carrying feminists… As we all know these days, sound bites and quotes are chosen not by their merit but by the level of sensationalism and that’s exactly what happened here.

Clearly, this whole area is a minefield, especially when it’s white people making comments about black sexuality, and it’s a minefield into which Warpaint clearly wandered blithely and are now trying desperately to find their way out of. The whole thing smacks of the weird strain of moral conservatism that sometimes works its way into the indie world — there’s something that is, at the very least, somewhat classist in the way indie snobs tend to look at pop music. Here’s a quote from Warpaint themselves (specifically, bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg) from a couple of years back that rather sums up this idea:

Pop music has always been [overtly sexual], with Madonna, then Britney Spears, Lady Gaga. There’s a similar thread there, and I feel pop music has always alluded to sex in some shape or form and I don’t think it’s necessary, but it plays such a part. I do think that it’s slightly ridiculous. I think that sex should be in the actual music of the song, more than the costume or the act. Sex should be in the instrument.

Indie musicians, both male and female, have tended to be more oblique and less overt than their mainstream counterparts in their depictions of sexuality. This is why artists like Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna and L7 (and, further back, Patti Smith) were so confronting: they eschewed any coyness or shame about women’s sexuality and, in the case of Courtney and Babes in Toyland frontwoman Kat Bjelland’s kindercore aesthetic, they took an axe to it. And, let’s not forget, Hanna got slut-shamed by many of her indie peers for having been a stripper. These artists are exceptions to a more general rule, though: for every PJ Harvey, there’s an awful lot of Zooey Deschanels.

Neither of these approaches is inherently good or bad, of course: it depends on the artist and what they’re trying to convey, and there are as many approaches to depicting human sexuality as there are shades of sexuality itself. But equally, the fact that you subscribe to one idea doesn’t give you the right to cast aspersions on artists who feel differently — especially if, in doing so, you’re perpetuating stereotypes and ideas that have bee used to oppress women for millennia.

And let’s be honest, this is straight-up slut shaming: indeed, Warpaint went as far as using the word itself. The whole idea of sluttiness is based on a whole lot of horrifying assumptions: that female sexuality is somehow dirty, that expressing it is undesirable, that girls who have lots of sex are somehow “impure,” that promiscuity demonstrates a lack of self-respect, and every other unpleasant cultural trope that has been used to oppress women over the years. (Indeed, it’s not exactly a huge leap from such ideas to shit like this.)

The strange thing about this, though, is that it’s not as if Beyoncé or Rihanna lack agency. Indeed, as far as female pop stars go, it’s hard to think of two who’d be less inclined to do anything they didn’t want to do (cf. the brief kerfuffle over Beyoncé wearing a bikini on the cover of Time magazine, as if it were somehow unimaginable that she might choose to do so herself). There’s a certain internalized sexism to the idea that women wearing not much clothing inevitably equates to exploitation — it can, of course, but if it’s a woman choosing to do that for reasons of her own, who is anyone to tell her not to?

And in any case, let’s not pretend that indie artists don’t do the same thing. Warpaint aren’t averse to playing with these ideas of sexuality when the mood takes them:

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That’s Lindberg and singer Emily Kokal cuddling up for the camera. And more recently, from a Vogue photo feature at Coachella:

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But, y’know, indie girls can wander Coachella in bikinis without getting called out in public for being slutty, hey? Or they can pose for photos like this, because they totally always just sit really close to one another and touch each other’s chests, because that’s what girls do, right?

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I’m not calling out Warpaint for these pictures: no one should be shamed for what they wear, or don’t wear, or how they pose, or whatever else. But why is there a difference between Beyoncé wearing a bikini and Jenny Lee Lindberg doing the same?

It’s important to realize that race is a factor here. The sort of winsome Instagram sexuality that bands like Warpaint embody is one that is largely denied to black men and women, whose bodies have been hyper-sexualized in American culture for centuries. (And still are: read this piece by Bill Simmons about the loathsome Donald Sterling, wherein, among other things, a former LA Clippers player relates an anecdote about how “Sterling routinely brought people into their locker room after games, then could be plainly overheard ogling their ‘beautiful bodies’… like he was admiring race horses or something.”)

I’m not arguing that Warpaint are being actively racist with these comments — I’m not about to ascribe motivation to someone I’ve never met — but it’s important to realize that a lot of what they term “hyper-sexualization” is something that’s imposed onto artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé, not something that they create for themselves. It’s a double standard. It’s why someone like, say, the Dandy Warhols’ Zia McCabe can indulge her penchant for playing topless or pose naked and pregnant for Suicide Girls without getting called a slut. And it’s why Warpaint can wander around in the exact thing Beyoncé is wearing without thinking twice.

If Beyoncé and Rihanna choose to take ownership of this fact, and turn it to their advantage, then good luck to them. There are plenty of reasons to question the pop industry and the philosophies that Beyoncé, in particular, embodies: the crushing materialism, the idea of pop stars as avatars of some sort of unattainable aspirational perfectionism, the curious insistence that Jay Z is still a relevant rapper. But slut-shaming is not one of those reasons. Warpaint should apologize for these comments, and to their credit, they have. But still, they’re indicative of an attitude that’s far too prevalent in the music industry, and society as a whole.