Katy Perry and Feminism

In which: Katy Perry tells a roomful of the top female (and plenty of male) music industry executives that she is not a feminist.

On Friday November 30, Billboard hosted its eighth annual Women in Music event. The luncheon was held in lower Manhattan, and honored the top 40 women executives in the music business, along with two top artists -- Rising Star Carly Rae Jepsen and Woman of the Year Katy Perry.

The event is absolutely my favorite that we do each year, for a few reasons. One is that the music business, like so many businesses, is rampantly male-dominated in the C-suites. As my boss, Prometheus Global Media CEO Dottie Mattison told the room in her opening remarks:

... over half of the college graduates are female but less than one-fifth of the executives in businesses of the Fortune 500 and above are female... We are losing the potential and promise of young women's careers, who are leaving for a variety of reasons. Many of us in this room are old enough to remember a time when it was much worse for young women but are young enough to know that we can... create something better than what we found.

So it feels good to take a day, have everyone in the music biz set aside competitive differences, and celebrate the accomplishments of the top female executive talent. WIM is also my favorite because every year we get amazing artists to come and accept their awards, and grace the stage for a dialogue that tends to be more intimate and honest than their typical public discourse. This year Jon Stewart led a short conversation with Katy Perry and NBC's Natalie Morales chatted with Carly Rae Jepsen. In the last three or four years we've shared these moments with Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Blondie, Fergie... I could go on.

So it raised an eyebrow or two in the room when Katy came to the stage to accept her Woman of the Year award, and "I am not a feminist" were among the first words from her mouth.

To be clear, the very next words were "but I do believe in the strength of women." You can see the full, unedited acceptance speech here.

A few women I respect a lot took exception to her separation from the term. Ann Powers from NPR tweeted the comment with the refrain "AARGH" and when I asked her about it, said that in fairness, she needed to hear the whole speech, but that "Divorcing 'feminist' from 'strength of women' is sadly a reflex for many female pop stars." Emily White of Whitesmith Entertainment -- a very sharp comer in the business -- tweeted "it's ironic a woman would say she's not a feminist. Does @katieperry not want equal rights for herself?" More than 200 blogs and sites picked up on the comment in one way or another. In private, several people I spoke with felt the choice of words showed a lack of respect for history: "Without Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinam, there is no Katy Perry." (My wife observed wryly that it was more accurate to say that without Madonna, there is no Katy Perry.)

Now I didn't get the chance to speak with Katy after she made these remarks, so I am not speaking for her, now. (I will ask her management if she'd like to engage in this discourse with me or perhaps one of the women I've already mentioned in this post.) But it's clear that feminism in the context of pop culture -- and, specifically, pop music -- is complicated and subjective. I'm on a learning mission here, so please, share your thoughts in response to mine. But if you find yourself wanting to yell that I'm wrong, know that I'm starting from a place where I am not sure what is right.

My gut interpretation was that Katy was divorcing herself from the baggage that the word "feminist," rightfully or wrongfully, conjures for some people. Katy has also run afoul of some self-proclaimed feminists in the past -- a particularly ridiculous episode, in my view, came when Naomi Wolf asked people to boycott Katy Perry because of her use of Marines imagery in the "Part of Me" video. So possibly, Katy prefers not to enter a big tent that has been hostile to her in the past.

I also think that there are plenty in Gen Y who prefer to keep their politics to themselves; I was reminded of an October Taylor Swift interview on Letterman where the host and audience applaud her for saying (at about the 1:00 mark) that, at age 22, it's not her place to tell anyone how to vote.

Katy is a strong, smart woman. Personally, having watched her at work at both the Billboard Music Awards earlier this year and at this Women in Music event, she's very much in control of her career, very assertive, wickedly funny when she wants to be, and smart as a whip. Most in the room at Women in Music will tell you that some of her quips were too quick for Jon Stewart, who interviewed her on stage. And that's saying something.

At least some of her songs, such as "Part of Me" or "Firework" contain "thou shall overcome" messaging that, if not feminist, offer some DNA of feminism. Similarly, her movie, Part of Me, is built around the notion that if you believe in yourself, anything is possible. In the film, Katy's (male-run) record label Columbia didn't believe in her and she had to persevere to wind up on a different (male-run) record label that did. She also showed incredible strength in maintaining her grueling tour, even as she was losing her marriage. Is that inherently feminist? No, I'd think not. But is she a strong role model for young women? That gets more complicated. And if you feel she is, does that make her a feminist?

Is Madonna a feminist? Is Lady Gaga? What about -- dare I ask -- Rihanna? If feminism is simply defined (as Webster's would have it) as an interest in equality between the sexes, does anyone who lives their life consistent with that belief become a feminist? Or does one have to embrace the term? And while we're at it, where do you draw the line between the power of owning your own sexual identity, and exploiting your sexuality and/or objectifying yourself?

Finally, let's not forget the issue that Katy raises: why would a strong, confident, talented, accomplished women go out of her way to tell a roomful of successful women that she isn't a feminist? She could have just as easily begun her acceptance by saying, "I believe in the strength of women" and omitting the line about feminism. Katy had her speech written by hand, so I don't think her choice of words was anything other than considered.

More questions than answers in this post, I'm afraid. I hope to hear from folks who are willing to take the time to enlighten me -- and perhaps others -- on this issue. Sometimes I write because I have something to say. And sometimes I write to try to find my own clarity. This effort is squarely in the latter camp.

One P.S.: I'm genuinely really interested to see where Katy goes with her third album in this context. In the package we put together on her for the issue of the weekly mag that goes to the Women in Music event, she talked about her musical inspirations and they were Fiona Apple, Bonnie Raitt and Alanis Morissette. Onstage at WIM she spoke about being early in the process of thinking about her next recording and wanting to head in new directions. She's still so young. Whatever you think of her music today, she has the talent and intelligence to be a very important artist for a long time to come.