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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.

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22 comments
alwayswrong
alwayswrong

I think the real take-away here is that no one should ever criticize anything or anyone in this day and age because inevitably it will be deemed classist/racist/sexist/homophobic/or any number of things without ever stopping to attempt to give the original voice a second chance to elaborate on any misinterpreted meanings. From here on out, everything is awesome always. Especially if Beyonce is involved because she is the alpha and the omega and we are not worthy of her talents, much less worthy enough to offer any criticism valid or otherwise. Just apologize and shuffle away and hide in a corner and hope they stop looking at you soon. 

shimmerstwo
shimmerstwo

This may be one of the worst pieces of "journalism" I have read in a long long time.

Or maybe you are just trolling.

Warpaint are being racist for pointing out that being nearly naked and hypersexualized on stage demeans your art???

Hey what if your art SUCKS and they only way you can get anyone to pay attention is to do exactly what all these women do??

How are Beyonce, Rhianna, Miley,Katey,Gaga et a are blips on the musical landscape and are not behind any worthwhile cause except one

To make a lot of money.That is it, very simple.

And to imply Warpaint are exploiting bi or lesbian themes in the photos you posted is just plain stupid and inane.

Plus comparing anything about this to Donald Sterling is beyond asinine.

Your a idiot

liquidmuse3
liquidmuse3

And finally (ha!)---didn't Miley get excoriated just a year ago? Didn't Britney always get heat for dressing down whenever necessary, & didn't Aguilera especially get killed for her image the 2nd album? Meanwhile, Shakira's sexuality never seemed to be a problem, & neither was GaGa's (i.e., if it's suspected you have a heavy hand in your music, you didn't NEED the sexy image to get over, & it's just a natural expression, not a crutch? Though Gaga's costumes were borderline comical, imo, & Shakira's "Hi, I have blonde hair now, hello America!" always irked me a bit). I think Theresa was fighting the good fight & it wasn't to tear Beyonce down, it was ask her to get even higher. Either way, it's awesome and comical a dude wrote this column. Oh wait, we're supposed to leave gender & race out of intellectual discussions, & just examine the point. Or not?

liquidmuse3
liquidmuse3

This is gross. Not "ascribing" something to Theresa's comments, then spending an entire article doing just that is asinine. She didn't have one iota of race in her comments, IMO---she just picked the two biggest female performers (I hesitate to use "artist" in their context, no offense), & riffed on them, WONDERING if they went for the easy sexual vibe when something more subtle, & dare I say, deeper could've been tried. What Lindberg had to say was brilliant, & probably points out the fact that the girls in Warpaint actually play their instruments & write their songs, whereas Beyonce & Rihanna do not (the music, I mean). We can talk about control & sexuality all we want, but Warpaint are ACTUALLY in control of whatever vibe they put out, because everything you hear (or see) comes from them.


And to point out VIDEOS of Beyonce & Rihanna, & conflate them with off-the-cuff photos of two friends being friendly towards each other was just awful...ESPECIALLY calling what Emily & Jenny were doing as something sexual, essentially. So you've inserted both sex *&* race into things where they weren't even there. I'd call you race-ist & hyper-sexual, Tom, but I'm not irresponsible.

teacher3000
teacher3000

Get real. Rihanna twerking all over a pole and singing anout making dollars stripping is a huge disappointment and undermines any message of powerful female sexuality. Comparing that to images of Warpaint in intimate, caring poses with each other or in a bikini during a summer festival is absurd.

Try a longer bow you ridiculous internet archer author.

JustinRutzen
JustinRutzen

I was really hoping you'd comment on this when I saw the original news story about it. I have to reread this. Thank you.

Callie
Callie

You couldn't have put it better. I saw that article and the first thing that came to my mind was, what about Miley Cyrus, what abot Katy Perry? Kesha? Iggy Azalea? Why only the most visible black women in entertainment?

WarPony
WarPony

@liquidmuse3 Thank you for articulately telling this guy he sucks. And needs to pull his head out of his racist sexist ass.

Bluebear1312
Bluebear1312

@liquidmuse3  This comment reeks of having read the article (literally speaking) but having failed to actually process its intent and significance. You are playing into the exact type of gender, racial and musical hierarchies that the author is critiquing. As someone who enjoys both pop and indie music, I am appalled that you would advance the latter as superior because it has musicians who "play their instruments". Why does this make them superior, and why does it make their music more profound? There was a time when guitarists were denigrated for not playing "real music". In your world, are all rappers, electronic artists and experimental musicians without value? Beyonce's most recent album is seething with powerful reflections on modern femininity and sexuality, which go well beyond mere pleasure giving. However, it seems that you cannot look beyond myopic perspectives on the possibilities and agency of pop artists. Look at the writing and production history of the album (easily found on wikipedia or elsewhere). Beyonce's singular fingerprint is on every aspect of that album, including the decision to make it a visual album. She was not the first to do this but the audacity and vigor she brought to this concept are unprecedented. Moreover, look at the comments of the chief producer of the album, Boots, who frequently refers to Beyonce's ability to innovate and to find inspiration in seeming musical detritus. Getting to your binary of sexuality--yes, your vision does perpetuate race and gender hierarchies. Why is Beyonce's vision of a strong woman intoxicated by the power of married love a less valid vision of female sexuality than Warpaint's gal-pal rock dreamscape vibe? Why is it unsubtle or shallow? Moreover, why do you assert that these two visions can't be compared? The Warpaint photos were all staged for Vogue. They aren't off the cuff selfies, or some other personal artifact. They are as calculated as any of Beyonce's (or Rihanna's) videos. Moreover, those Warpaint photos are sexual (they are also lovely, but that seems besides the point). The implicit distinctions here are between a very traditional black depiction of female sexuality (strong, physical, tortured, individual) and a very traditional white depiction of female sexuality (innocent, effervescent, free, collective). To make zero sum value judgments about these two types of female sexuality is racist and gender regressive. 

Brian Kerk
Brian Kerk

@Callie Maybe you didn't read the whole article, because at one point he quotes a band member making the same judgements on three famous white singers - Madonna, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga.

liquidmuse3
liquidmuse3

@Callie  Because none of those girls are anywhere near Beyonce & Rihanna in importance or success. It's a tiny bit of a sad state of affairs that everyone's worked so hard to equalize the races---& anytime you offer constructive criticism to a black person, now you're racist. I mean, what? To me, constantly harping on race is the weird new form of racism.

Desie Rickman
Desie Rickman

@Bluebear1312 Agreed with everything you've said here. There is most certainly a double standard that most music lovers (including indie artists) fail or choose not to recognize. And if anyone actually did any research on Beyoncé outside of the 'pop' icon imagery, they would be surprised to see just how much control she has over her own sound and image. She even has her own entertainment company now, yet she has 'no control' over her image like Warpaint? She most definitely has more control than Warpaint has at this stage in their career. Such a foolishly ignorant statement. 

Foonie
Foonie

@Bluebear1312 @liquidmuse3  the difference btwn pop and alternative imagery is not reducible to black vs white and the band in question even referred to a number of white female artists in their statements about traditional overt pop iconography: gaga, madonna and spears. 


so why is that being ignored or overlooked here? 


the issue is not a racial one. it's about the two styles of art. 


and people are allowed to like one over the other without being racist or sexist. 

Chillster
Chillster

@Foonie @teacher3000 Seems to be that Warpaint's guitarist is trying to put themselves on a larger radar by sniping at people who are household names. Until this moment I certainly had never heard of them. 


Also what is this crap about "intimate, caring poses with each other" that is such blatant teasing for the Afterellen.com crowd it is laughable. But hey I'm a straight dude so what do I know right.

TheMoodierTwin
TheMoodierTwin

@liquidmuse3 So if I call someone a f**got to express my displeasure with something they've done, is that also constructive criticism? Would you defend that as well if an artist you like made that comment?

AleksandraTomaszewska
AleksandraTomaszewska

@Desie Rickman @Bluebear1312  Beyonce and Rihanna may very well be in complete control of her every move.. but why can't people criticize her choices and how they feel affected by the messages any stereotypes they reinforce? Rihanna could direct every one of her stripper pole videos and write every raunchy lyric but it doesn't mean another woman can't have an opinion on her public message. When successful talented women put so much emphasis on their bodies, appearance, and how sexual they come across to their consumers, maybe, just MAYBE it reinforces an established message that women=sexy playthings, always "game". 

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