#WomanCrushEveryday: Christina Aguilera - The Original Pop Feminist Hero
In a world where sexism and double standards for women are still widespread, media messages play a crucial part in tackling such societal ills. In particular, it is our female celebrities that embody the power to help change the narrative. One particular music icon has been paving the way for this change long before we realised…
Who? – The Unnoticed Hero
Throughout her quarter-century career, music sensation Christina Aguilera has had many phases, many looks and many styles. She’s adopted many nicknames, namely ‘‘X-tina’’, ‘‘Lady C’’ and ‘‘Baby Jane’’, and her countless songs and seven studio albums in particular have manifested in many different themes. From teen pop, Latin pop, R&B, rock, jazz, soul, blues, electro/futurepop, to straight-out regular pop, she has covered it all. Aguilera has also sparked controversy with her adventurous music videos, eye-catching MTV VMA performances, revealing and provocative outfits and so-called celebrity feuds. She has enjoyed five periods of Grammy success, including a Latin Grammy, unveiled a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, explored the acting world in 2010’s Burlesque, launched a perfume line and served as a judge on The Voice. Aguilera is also committed to philanthropic and humanitarian work, especially in her role as the United Nations ambassador for the World Food Programme - visiting countries such as Rwanda, Haiti and Guatemala in an effort to raise awareness of worldwide food security issues in the wake of natural disasters, malnutrition epidemics and political unrest. Since around the 2004 US presidential election, she has demonstrated her strong belief in democracy and has been strongly committed to encouraging fellow Americans, especially young people, to vote by featuring in a number of campaigns such as ‘‘Only You Can Silence Yourself’’ and ‘‘Rock the Vote’’. Among the many, many ventures she has conquered, what I notice has remained completely consistent for the jack of all trades, is her feminism and passion for empowering women, concepts people don’t often overtly associate with this particular pop diva.
Instead, fellow singers such as Beyoncé have predominantly been branded with the feminist popstar label. In fact, pop feminism has only become relatively normalised within the past few years. This burgeoning trend seemingly emerged around the time Beyoncé, arguably one of the most powerful music icons at the moment, emblazoned the word ‘‘FEMINIST’’ across her stage backdrop whilst sampling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous ‘‘We Should All Be Feminists’’ speech during her 2014 MTV VMA medley performance. Many additional female bands and solo artists - such as the Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Meghan Trainor, Lorde, Lily Allen, Zara Larsson and countless others - have either experimented with feminist themes in their music, discussed women’s empowerment in interviews, or outright declared themselves as feminists. However, I argue that it is in fact Aguilera who truly deserves to be considered our top and original pop feminist hero, which, of course, also makes her a worthy #WomanCrushEveryday
How? - The Making of an Empowerment Icon
Christina María Aguilera was born to father Fausto Aguilera of Ecuadorian ancestry and mother Shelly Loraine (neé Fidler) of European ancestry on December 18, 1980 in Staten Island, New York. Growing up in Wexford, Pennsylvania, the ‘‘the little girl with the big voice’’ turned to music to escape her violent household. After becoming influenced by classic soul and blues singer Etta James, she soon dreamt of becoming an internationally-known artist. In the early 1990s during her adolescence, she was one of Disney’s ‘‘mouseketeers’’ for the Mickey Mouse Club, which introduced the next generation of triple threats - singers, dancers and actors - to America’s TV audiences. After being signed to RCA Records in the late 1990s, she burst onto the music scene joining the likes of Britney Spears, Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson. At this time in music history, American record labels were ‘‘churning out’’ such manufactured, media-endorsed blonde bubblegum pop princesses with innocent, infantilized and ‘‘virginal’’, yet subtly sexual, images in a marketing strategy mission to sell records. Not only did this pit the four young women against one another, especially Aguilera and Spears, but it also provoked male chauvinist artists like Eminem to ridicule them. After her self-titled debut album and debut period, Aguilera was ready to shed what the media referred to as her ‘‘girl next door persona’’ or ‘‘Genie In A Bottle image’’ forced upon her by her record label. Instead, for her sophomore album, it was time for Aguilera to dramatically switch things up and embrace her true, authentic self. And so, the ‘‘Stripped era’’ began.
As she says in the album’s intro, it was time for ‘‘no hype, no gloss, no pretence, just [her]…stripped’’. Nicknaming herself ‘‘X-tina’’, she literally and metaphorically stripped away her fabricated, music label-engineered persona and image, pierced her nose and lip, put on those famous bottom-less leather chaps, changed her hair and wrote a raw, personal, empowering and pro-woman record, unleashing an unapologetically sexual, outspoken and audacious 21-year-old. Although considered highly risqué and controversial at the time of the early naughties, we are now able to look back at this transformation as positive, emancipating and refreshing. Britney Spears was simultaneously ‘‘coming out’’ of the bubblegum pop closet in her ‘‘I’m A Slave For You breakthrough’’, but what should have stopped the two from being pettily pitted and compared at this point was the deep, personalized and unique feminist readings of Aguilera’s Stripped album’s lyrics and music videos. Although spending a good period of their childhoods together, they were drifting into immensely different leagues...
Why? – Driving Pop Feminism Before It Was Super Trendy
Many critics now say Aguilera’s Stripped, released in 2002, was ahead of its time and is now considered her magnum opus. No other artist, in my opinion, has produced such a pioneering piece of art like it. Taking control of the album’s content by co-writing most songs and embracing her Latina roots with elements of Spanish music and language, it addresses numerous themes related to issues faced predominantly by women and minorities; from celebrity gossip and rumours, body image issues, repressed sexuality, women’s sexual pleasure, sexist double standards, abusive relationships, and of course, her experience with domestic violence as a child. And the five music videos of the official singles released from the record along with it are equally as reflective of these themes as the song lyrics.
Following her ‘‘Lady Marmalade phase’’ – materializing in between her debut and sophomore albums as a possible sneak peak of what was to come - the first single Aguilera released from Stripped was the hugely controversial Dirrty, miles apart from anything glossy or squeaky clean in the music industry at the time. The lyrics alone were enough to rile up the press. But it was the music video – with references to masturbation, sexual fetishes, mud wrestling, foxy boxing and much more - which really stirred things up. In an abandoned and derelict newspaper print warehouse, Aguilera box fights and dances in her signature chaps, invents the ‘‘slutdrop’’ in a bikini top and ‘‘nasty’’ mini skirt, then proceeds to frolicking in a shower full of urinals surrounded by other scantily-clad dancers. But was this really such a bad thing?
Amid Dirrty rushing to the No.1 spot in many national and international charts and the video simultaneously leaping into several music video halls of fame, the media was meanwhile struggling to come to terms with her bold transformation. Instead of praising her for her octave-smashing vocals and audaciousness, journalists harshly criticised the then 21-year-old for eliminating her butter-wouldn’t-melt image and accused her of ‘‘going too far’’. Mainstream media outlets spoke of her in such derogatory and dehumanising terms, it in return starkly unveiled society’s ever-lingering problematic attitude towards a woman who had the audacity to be sexual and push boundaries, thus missing the entire point of the album. Entertainment Weekly branded the new Aguilera in a sub-human manner as ‘‘the world’s skeeziest reptile woman [sic]’’, whilst Time magazine stooped to the same level by describing her as resembling someone from an ‘‘intergalactic hooker convention [sic]’’. The answer to my aforementioned question lies in Aguilera’s subsequent brazen response to the backlash in Blender magazine in which she offered an alternative, feminist reading of Dirrty and other female artists who dare break the mould:
‘‘When [a woman] is bold and open, artistically speaking, in music and in video…people feel automatically threatened by [her]…Ok, I may have been the naked-ass girl in the video, but if you look carefully, I’m also at the forefront. I’m not just some lame chick in a rap video [in the side-lines]; I’m in the power position, in complete command of everything and everybody around me. To be totally balls-out like that is, for me, the measure of a true artist.’’
Here, she intelligently challenges gender norms by questioning why it’s acceptable for women to be passive sexual decoration in the surroundings of a dominant male figure, but when they move into the limelight as the actively sexual protagonist, they are chastised for it. Of course, the whole Dirrty saga was not flawlessly feminist - can anything be in a patriarchal world? - but I think the above defence of openly sexual women, as well as herself, was a hell of a lot more forward-thinking, credible, conducive and productive than those jumping on the misogynistic criticism bandwagon.
Following this whirlwind, Aguilera calmed the storm with the critically-acclaimed Linda Perry-penned ballad Beautiful, which later earned her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Of course the lyrics are empowering, uplifting and self-reassuring, but, again, it is the music video that really highlights Aguilera’s passion for diversity and feminism. Although this video also attracted some controversy due to the sensitive themes addressed throughout, looking back, it can be regarded as another piece of art Aguilera produced that was pioneering and completely ahead of its time. The video portrays a group of identities still ostracised and outcast by modern society. As each character’s story unfolds, they soon begin to realise their inner beauty and worth, a message she wanted to send to her millions of fans. The scenarios include a woman suffering from an eating disorder, a thin teenage boy lifting weights surrounded by walls plastered in bodybuilder posters, an African-American woman tired of tedious white beauty standards in fashion magazines, a Goth feeling disenfranchised on public transport, a schoolgirl being bullied and, most memorably, a gay couple kissing and a transgender person getting into drag character. Particularly, the song and its video was, and still is, embraced by the LGBTQI+ community as an ‘‘LGBTQI+ anthem’’ for being the first music video to show a gay couple kissing so explicitly and so publically. It ultimately challenged discrimination and normalised such sexually and gender diverse identities. In fact, the video was and is so significant in this regard, it won Aguilera a Special Recognition Award at the 14th annual GLAAD Media Awards hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
Afterward, Aguilera released three other noteworthy singles from the album: Fighter, another self-empowering, self-motivating anthem, which really shows off her distinctive voice and addresses the restrictions set by her record label during her early career, as touched upon prior; The Voice Within, yet another empowering anthem, but this time, particularly for young girls struggling with their identities; and of course, the ferociously feminist and double standards-smashing Can’t Hold Us Down. Referring back to the misogyny and slut-shaming she was targeted with during the beginning of the Dirrty saga, the fourth single off the album, Can’t Hold Us Down, later conveniently spoke of the sexist double standards between men and women in Western society when it comes to sex, sexual expression and promiscuity. Lyrically, the song fights for women’s voices and opinions and questions why men are free to sleep with as many women as they please and are praised for it, yet women can sleep with just as many men, but are labelled ‘‘whores’’ – something we are still questioning today. Visually, the song’s video, with Aguilera once again casting diverse characters and embracing her Latina roots, sees the popstar being sexually harassed in the street and standing up to her aggressor. Women in the community notice the altercation and join Aguilera in solidarity, which soon escalates into a female vs. male dance-off, a reflection of the gendered tensions still evident in society at the time and even today. Aguilera then walks away proudly as if she has just sparked the next wave of feminism.
Besides the five official singles from the video, there are some non-single songs that also explore feminist and empowerment themes that cannot go unmentioned. Aguilera often includes intros on her albums, and for the Part 2 version of Intro on Stripped, she ironically apologises to her doubters by singing, with a you-can-never-win attitude, ‘‘sorry I’m not a virgin, sorry I’m not a slut’’, a possible refusal of both slut-shaming and prude-shaming commentary commonly shunted on her and other women. There is also the lesser-known Get Mine, Get Yours which tells the story, with the aid of sexual details, of how women in no-strings-attached relationships deserve pleasure too. Here, we listen to the rare occasion of a woman being unapologetic and confident about her sexual needs, something women are consistently made to feel shy and ashamed about in modern society. If we were reading the lyrics before we knew it was attributed to Aguilera, we would have thought a male R&B and hip-hop artist was in ownership of the song, a demographic usually free to speak in such terms. Aguilera challenged the norm with this song once again. Then there is the other lesser-known Underappreciated, where Aguilera prompts her girlfriends to back her up on the arduousness of one-way heterosexual relationships and feeling used because of them.
Lastly, and most importantly, there is the captivating Walk Away that addresses emotionally abusive relationships as well as the deeply, deeply personal, and somewhat disturbing and haunting, I’m OK, which actually hears her crying amid singing about her violent childhood, a time when her father would physically domestically abuse her mother and once or twice turned his fist onto a very young Aguilera and possibly her sister. Normalising the conversation about children’s experiences of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse should never go unpraised. Not to mention Aguilera also continued this theme into her third studio album through her ‘‘Baby Jane’’ persona in Back to Basics (2006) with the song Oh Mother. Here, she praises her mother’s strength and subliminally highlights the courage of all single mothers. In fact, in 2003, she donated to the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and has supported the Lifetime Television’s ‘‘End Violence against Women Campaign’’. Unsurprisingly, her sixth studio album Bionic (2010) and seventh Lotus (2012) also encompass the abovementioned feminist and empowerment themes.
So when it comes to this underrated icon, it goes without saying: give credit where credit is due. It is crystal clear that she was most certainly setting the stage for women’s empowerment themes in popular music way before the likes of today’s young artists, such as Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor. Although I do recognise that ‘‘Girl Power’’ ideologies were around before the late 1990s, namely championed by the likes of the Spice Girls, Madonna, and TLC, I feel that Aguilera’s efforts were more radical and vehement. Unconsciously absorbing these feminist messages when I was a child, there is no wonder I’m so passionate about tackling the issues raised in Aguilera’s earlier music now as an adult.
For this trailblazing, charitable, innovating, child-star-turned-superwoman - who has no doubt been on the receiving end of a fair share of unwarranted, harsh media scrutiny and sexism, including ample body shaming – it is obvious that no amount of negativity can get in the way of her bold and brave career risks, *shouting louder* about sexist double standards and totally and utterly revolutionising herself whenever she pleases. And that is why Christina Aguilera, the ultimate feminist popstar, should be our woman crush today, tomorrow, and every day after that!