Traditional gender roles have long placed undesirable labels on women who choose to openly discuss sex. Nonetheless, many of today’s women in music have undeniably broken barriers, transformed ancient definitions and opened up taboo conversations about sexuality.

In her song, “The Weekend,” which peaked at number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, SZA sings about what can only be described as sharing one man with other women. She is unabashed about the notion of being involved in a relationship purely for sex, despite the societal norms that have long characterized that concept with shame. She is not objectified or secondary; rather, she is empowered and self-possessed. The relationship that SZA describes in “The Weekend” is not the kind of relationship desired by every woman. However, it is also not the kind of relationship that gender roles have traditionally assumed every woman desires. And, significantly, she is entirely aware and in control of her role in that relationship, regardless of what it is. She takes the same topic that has long had a place in men’s lyrics and videos — the sexualization of women — and flips it around so that it puts her in power.

Ariana Grande is shameless about sex in one of her many female empowerment tracks “God is a woman.” Dua Lipa is unapologetic about sex on “Hotter Than Hell.” Beyonce, Rihanna and Britney Spears have become some of the biggest artists in music over the last couple of decades. All of them famously asserted their sexuality through several lyrics, became female empowerment icons to many, and changed the overall landscape for women in the industry. Many of today’s popular female musical artists demonstrate that women are both dynamic and sexual— something that they historically were not supposed to be (or at least express).

It is not to say that all women are sexual; these artists simply illustrate that women can, in fact, be sexual. Yet, sex sells. And musicians need to make money.

When misogyny has proven time and time again to generate huge profits, it is important to recognize that not every female artist who sings about sex does it from a place of authenticity or advocacy. Women can indeed partake in the misogyny that permeates much of today’s music and entertainment. And, while women do seem to be disproportionately scrutinized for expressions of sexuality (though exploitations of female sexuality are overwhelmingly present in music from male artists and producers), perhaps there is still a thin line between owning one’s sexuality and exploiting it.

For women to have gained such an unprecedented place in music, sharing their own stories and perspectives through their own songs, is incredibly important. Yet, it can be easy to forget that when money is involved, it might simply be in an artist’s best interest to sell the same misogynistic techniques that are consistently profitable and frame them as empowerment.

Female artists from Britney Spears to Cardi B have all seen their share of controversy at times. Nonetheless, even when they become controversial for various reasons, female artists of all genres and styles do, importantly, add new, powerful female perspectives to the music industry. At the same time, though, some of these artists prompt questions about whether their lyrics and messages are really challenging the issues facing women in and beyond the entertainment industry or merely perpetuating those issues for a profit.

Especially in regard to intersectionality, certain attempts to appear empowered in music have been viewed as problematic. In Rita Ora’s “Girls,” featuring Cardi B, Bebe Rexha and Charli XCX — a track produced by three male producers — the artists seem to exploit the stereotypes that have often been associated with female same-sex relationships in male-controlled media. In response to the release of this song, the singers received backlash from other female LGBT artists, like Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani. (Of course, there was also reasonable counter-criticism pertaining to the fact that certain male artists frequently utilize dangerous stereotypes and offensive references and are usually not shamed to nearly the same extent because of the normalization of that content for men in the media.)

In another example, Katy Perry has received backlash for exploiting her sexuality and also for cultural appropriation in popular music, demonstrating how both empowerment and intersectional feminism are more complex than some artists acknowledge when they appear to “own their sexuality.” In 2011, Perry became the first female artist to have five number-one songs from an album on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making history as a woman in music. Yet, she has acknowledged that her success largely required her to objectify herself in various ways. From “I Kissed a Girl” to “California Gurls” to “Bon Appétit,” Perry’s lyrics and videos have walked a thin line, inspiring controversy not merely because the female expression of sexuality is often inherently controversial but because her particular expressions of sexuality have not always appeared to be authentic.

Perry’s 2008 track “I Kissed a Girl” — of which Rita Ora’s more recent “Girls” is reminiscent — and her 2010 track “California Gurls” were both hugely successful, reaching number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Yet the teams behind both songs were largely dominated by men, including Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald. Better known as Dr. Luke, the songwriter and producer has written many hit songs for female artists, yet he ultimately gained notoriety when singer-songwriter Kesha accused him of sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender violence. Her accusations and decision to open up about her experiences stirred many to reflect on the often questionable power dynamics between the influential men who control much of the music industry and the women who sometimes become the faces of it.

Artists like Kesha and Jessie Reyez have reflected on their darker experiences as women in the music industry and given a sense of sincerity to their representations of empowerment. After opening up about the fact that she was essentially being controlled and exploited by her male producer (Dr. Luke), Kesha aimed to take some of her power and independence back through songs such as “Praying” and “Woman.”

Jessie Reyez, who destroys the stigma surrounding female sexuality on her song “Body Count,” also gets real about the threats that a powerful producer made toward her in disturbing attempts to pressure her to exchange sex for a career. In her song “Gatekeeper,” Reyez sings, “20 million dollars in a car / Girl, tie your hair up if you wanna be a star . . . 30 million people want a shot / How much would it take for you to spread those legs apart?”

In an open letter on Instagram to the producer she describes in “Gatekeeper,” Reyez writes that he told her, “If you’re not using your p***y — you’re not serious about your dreams,” clarifying her experience further as a woman trying to make it in the music industry. Her recollection of the struggle to stay true to herself and accomplish her goals as a musician suggests that many female artists may not be dealing with the choice of whether to express their sexuality as much as how to do so.

Whereas Reyez chooses to defy the stigmatization of female sexuality by powerfully owning her sexuality in “Body Count” and confronting the misogynistic expectations for women in the industry in “Gatekeeper,” some female artists have empowered themselves by adopting those expectations, taking them on in their seemingly most profitable forms. Cardi B, hailed by some as empowering and labeled by others as trashy, confronted criticism earlier this year in an Instagram video, explaining, “So, I have seen a lot of people write that nowadays female rappers only talk about their p***y and s**t,” and stating that one of the reasons she perpetuates the exploitation of her sexuality is “because it seems like that’s what people want to hear.”

Cardi B goes on to justify her strategy in the industry with the lack of support for other talented female rappers whose lyrics are not as vulgar as hers— and she brings up a valid point. Cardi B has achieved such huge success because she has been willing to sell her body and capitalize on her sexuality the same way men in hip hop have frequently capitalized on female sexuality. 

As consumers, perhaps we must ask whose message it really is behind today’s biggest hits, as empowerment continues to become an increasingly profitable trend. Art always receives criticism, and, unfortunately, women in entertainment often seem to be scrutinized more than men. This analysis of several expressions of female sexuality in today’s music is not intended to be a criticism of the women discussed; it is simply an inquiry into their different ways of confronting the pressures that surround them in the industry and the stereotypes, misogyny, gender roles and expectations that have long been presented to young female audiences by the media.

It is not that men in music are inherently misogynistic or intrinsically problematic. Rather, it is critical to recognize who is profiting from the sexualization of women in music. While musicians do need to make money (and it is difficult and likely unreasonable to expect audiences to avoid catchy, likable songs even if their lyrics may perpetuate stereotypes or their videos may contain degrading or demeaning content), it may be useful to consider an artist’s priorities when determining who is setting the stage for these women in music and what their goals really are, on and off the charts.

It is crucial that women have the space in the media — which, historically controlled predominantly by men, has deprived them of their own unique, independent voices at many times in the past — to speak their own diverse truths. Moreover, freedom of speech in the context of art is and should be protected. The women who own their sexuality and their experiences in today’s music, regardless of what they say and do, play an essential role in the de-stigmatization of female sexuality by avoiding doing something: censoring themselves.

The vast majority of fans and listeners do not personally know the artists and teams behind their favorite songs. It is easy to look to the entertainment industry for role models, and doing so can absolutely be empowering, inspiring and assuring. Women who own their sexuality in music are redefining boundaries and labels, and they are illustrating a new reality for women— one that is characterized by power, which women have often lacked in the entertainment industry and in the process of creating and selling female narratives within it.

It is clear that many of today’s female artists are, indeed, empowered. Nevertheless, as these women continue to transform the industry, it is crucial to recognize where misogyny still attempts to hold them back and define their roles. Ultimately, there remain times when we ought to question whether women are truly able to use the industry to “own their sexuality” or whether the industry itself, still largely controlled by men, persists in using women to exploit sexuality for a profit. 

Author: Brynna Mitchner Photo by Caitlyn Wilson on Unsplash