From ‘WAP’ To Billie Eilish, What’s Going On With Women In Pop?

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When Megan Thee Stallion won a Grammy earlier this month, the artist clearly explained she sought to empower women with her brash sexuality. Her performance of “WAP” with Cardi B during the broadcast generated applause at the show and fanfare in the media. But with the song now more than six months old, it’s easier to step back and see how the track sunk into our pop cultural landscape, and even how it reflected political and social trends that predated the pandemic.

Are we totally numb to vulgarity to the point where sex appeal requires more and more extreme displays? What should we make of the contrast between the aesthetics of “WAP” and the aesthetics of Billie Eilish?

Independent Women’s Forum Senior Policy Analyst Inez Feltscher Stepman, also a senior contributor to The Federalist, discussed the performance and its broader implications with me in a recent conversation.

Emily Jashinsky: Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B performed “WAP” at the Grammys this month. Megan Thee Stallion very clearly framed the song as an anthem of women’s empowerment. She also thanked God in her acceptance speech. It was a stark reminder of how normalized sexual vulgarity has become, specifically and absurdly packaged as women’s advancement. What did you make of the performance?

Inez Feltscher Stepman: Well the first thing that struck me was the complete absurdity of censoring out the word “p-ssy” from a performance taken straight from the strip club. But besides that, what really came to mind is how what you called “sexual vulgarity” is barely sexual anymore. It’s so routine, so constant, that even women gyrating in metal bikinis barely raises a blip of genuine eroticism. Forget about female empowerment, this is about as sexy as sunbathing in a nudist colony.

Not to go full Paglia on this, but sensuality seems to me to require something violative or taboo, a loss of innocence in some way, a revealing of the normally hidden. No taboos, no sexiness. There’s no “tease” in this strip show.

EJ: My question, then, is why do they see it as both empowering and sexy? Have porn-addled male minds changed the standards to the point where women feel compelled to go full “WAP” to be arousing? Have women been wrongly convinced the vulgarity is empowering and therefore men must accept it as sexy?

IFS: I’m not sure it’s even managing the pornographic job it’s intended to do. Sexual dysfunction is a growing problem for men under 40, and there’s some evidence that there’s a link to pornography use there. Women are less likely to orgasm during casual sex. Where’s the ecstasy the sexual revolution promised us again?

As for female empowerment, I just don’t find the performance — speaking here more generally than about this specific performance — convincing. We’ve lost any language with which to talk about sex that isn’t wrapped up in consent, and not only are we seeing how useless this broad idea of “consent” is as a framework within the university Title IX context, we’re seeing how useless it is as a lens through which to view sexual “empowerment.” She consented, therefore it isn’t degrading.

But I think the left and the right both recognize the feebleness of this sexual revolution framework now. The left is responding by trying to cram all of these other concepts back into “consent” in a legally dubious way, and the right by pointing to all of the cultural and — dare I? — moral factors that go into whether even consensual sex is experienced positively or negatively, particularly by women. Isn’t it hilarious that in a culture absolutely dominated by feelings and “telling your story” that “catching feelings” is the worst thing you can do when you’re being, to use an intentionally anachronistic term, intimate?

EJ: There was a fleeting moment during Me Too that saw fourth-wave feminists flirt with the notion that the ethics of sexual liberation hurt women, encouraging promiscuity with the consequence of empowerment, despite what we know about biology. It was a really interesting reconsideration that I’m not sure ever germinated.

Now we have “WAP.” I can’t get the contrast between “WAP” and Billie Eilish out of my head. Eilish is obviously supportive of Megan Thee Stallion, so she’s not a rejection of the libertine model. But I think it was Abigail Shrier who floated the possibility on Federalist Radio Hour that Gen Z’s trending androgyny may be connected to the constant complaints about how miserable it is to be a woman. I have to think it’s also related to the pressures of influencer culture to be perfect. It’s easier to just bundle up and avoid the issue. But is “WAP,” perhaps counterintuitively, another form of androgyny? Equality is empowerment, therefore women must have and discuss sex like men?

IFS: I’m not so sure Billie Eilish is a reaction against what we might call sexual “overliberation” as she is against the social media displays of beauty that put so much pressure on girls in her age cohort. It’s one thing to be put in a competition with models and performance artists in glossy magazines, and another thing entirely to see ordinary girls your age impossibly perfected — and given that weird “Instagram face” — by filters and digital manipulation. It’s understandable, and maybe even healthy, that some Gen Z girls are pushing back against that by intentionally shrouding themselves. Who knows, maybe they’ll accidentally bring back a hint of feminine mystery that’s been blown to pieces by a series of displays culminating in the one we are discussing from Cardi B.

The notion of “WAP” as androgyny is an interesting one. It’s functionally androgynous in the sense that these women are performing a very male version of sexuality. It’s intensely female and gendered in its actual visual representation, however; it is, after all, a song about err… female anatomy. I’m just waiting to hear about how “WAP” is exclusionary because some women have penises. That will be a fun fight to view with some popcorn.

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