The ever-excellent cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg has written a great essay today titled “Want to understand what it means to be a woman? Look to robots.” The gist:
I haven’t seen anyone acknowledge the obvious point that so much of pop culture is making, and has been making for more than half a decade: Robots are an excellent metaphor for contemporary womanhood. Women are expected to declare ourselves flawless, but no matter how much we claim our perfection, we’re still forced to offer evidence for our own humanity.
She works through a couple examples, from music videos, to tv, and film about the kinds of strength that women (and robots) are allowed and when those strengths are treated as suspect, and I had two music videos to add as an addendum to that list.
First up, Christina Perri’s “Human”
It’s gorgeously shot (and the behind the scenes video, where Perri talks about covering her tattoos for taping, and seeing her body as it hasn’t been for years, is pretty interesting). And here’s how the lyrics go:
I can turn it on
Be a good machine
I can hold the weight of worlds
If that’s what you need
Be your everything
I can do it
I can do it
I’ll get through it
But I’m only human
And I bleed when I fall down
I’m only human
And I crash and I break down
Your words in my head, knives in my heart
You build me up and then I fall apart
‘Cause I’m only human
The singer is as strong as she needs to be to handle the demands and requirements of others, but the one bonus feature is that she’s not strong enough for herself. All the forms of vulnerability described in the last stanza quoted above build up to describing the power that someone else has over her. Her strength can’t really be threatening, since it’s ultimately under the thumb of the person who “build[s] me up and then I fall apart.”
And the weird thing about the song is that that particular form of weakness sounds like a selling point and a promise. Even though there’s a mutual dependency alluded to in her character’s ability to “hold the weight of worlds” what she describes for herself is breaking/bleeding/crashing and what she promises is convenience and companionship. Her strength is meant to be so naturally lent and accepted that it would never look like weakness to need it.
The video, however, is a lot more interesting since, with Beyoncé playing the role of “B.B. Homemaker,” it is openly mocking a lot of the ideals and tenets of womanhood.” I’d go much further than that. I’d say that the song and the video together form a radical critique of femininity, full stop. Because this is what femininity is about: making yourself appealing to men by adhering as closely possible to cultural ideals of perfect womanhood. Her lyric is not “when I am so damn easy to love,” but “when I make me so damn easy to love.” It’s effort, it’s a construct, it is something she does and not something that she is. It is performative.
Which is basically what it’s like to be a modern woman. We perform femininity, and not only does it not succeeding in bringing about the desired result, I think it’s actually counter-productive to our real goals. Particularly when we’re talking about relationships
Asking for the wrong kinds of strength, being reassured by strange sorts of weaknesses is, as Silvana points out, the kind of thing that damages a relationship as well as the person facing the odd or contradictory requests. It can be hard for guys to figure out what to desire, if they’re working from (pardon the computer metaphor) a training set of bad examples. It’s a good idea to highlight positive ones and the kinds of heightened bad ones that make the wrongness of our defaults more apparent.