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Lana Del Rey and the reconfiguration of strength

A controversy that shows the need for intersectional feminism, solidarity and a renegotiation of society's understanding of vulnerability.

A couple of weeks ago, American singer Lana Del Rey took a stand in response to the perennial accusations of embodying a regressive image of women*, being nothing but a product of industry and glorifying abuse. She demanded room in feminism for women* like her who present a certain kind of femininity. Del Rey defines these female* positions as "weaker", although she states very aptly on her album Ultraviolence (2014) that she is indeed "stronger than all [her] men":

Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani and Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé have had number one songs with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc – can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money – or whatever I want – without being crucified or saying that I’m glamorizing abuse? […] With all of the topics women are finally allowed to explore I just want to say over the last ten years I think it’s pathetic that my minor lyrical exploration detailing my sometimes submissive or passive roles in my relationships has often made people say I’ve set women back hundreds of years.

The problem: In the course of her argumentation, the white singer awkwardly compares herself mainly to women* of color. She seems to be trying to acknowledge their liberated appearance, but in doing so she disregards the forces shaping her own reality as a white woman*. Only a few days after the white singer’s clumsy call for female* liberation, the murder of George Floyd and the widespread Black Lives Matter uprisings should have made one thing clear: Lana Del Rey’s reserved feminist protest expresses solely her own experiences as a white woman and keeps silent about those of people of color. Rage would be justified. And silence is violence.

The good news: the place demanded by Lana Del Rey already exists. Ideally, feminism should represent the plurality of the category of woman*, while also reflecting on gender norms and their coercive elements. It should ultimately deconstruct the falsely assumed binary of gender in order to make visible non-hegemonic differences and give voice to the invisible. Because liberation, just as freedom, cannot be thought of partially.

In this respect, Del Rey's appeal could be understood as a call for a feminism that includes even those who do not meet the common expectations of female* emancipation. This would include, for example, sex workers, trans women* or devout Muslim women*, who are far too often denied the right to self-realization. Or women* like Lana, “the kind of women who are slated mercilessly for being their authentic, delicate selves, the kind of women who get their own stories and voices taken away from them by stronger women or by men who hate women.” She outlines a problem that she seemingly cannot grasp in all its breadth but that has manifested itself in the reactions to her persona (across all genders) since the beginning of her career: The deep-rooted hatred for women* in our society and the resulting devaluation of all characteristics conventionally connoted as feminine. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir: one is not born a woman* but rather becomes one. Only to be despised for being a woman*.

In her work, Del Rey draws a picture of America that is dripping with dark romanticism. A depiction that seems to be drenched in nostalgia, but actually creates an imaginary frame of opportunity for all that America could have been, only to relentlessly reveal its dark side right in the next moment. Attentive observers might speculate that her sadness and longing for an omnipresent male* may not always have a referent: instead of just reproducing existing gender hierarchies, Del Rey may in fact be subversively infiltrating them. Unfortunately, the fact that a woman* embodying Western beauty standards who underwent cosmetic procedures can also be a keen observer of societal currents, is obviously beyond the imagination of many of our contemporaries.

The title track of the album Ultraviolence was a source of hostility for all those who cherish that ominous apathy against Lana Del Rey, which upon closer inspection turns out to be (often unconscious) misogyny. The line "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" is truly powerful. The accusation that it glorifies violence, however, is based on the actual exercise of power. Such reality, shared with many other women*, doesn't make her responsible for the existence of male violence. What if all those who accuse her do not show enough empathy and solidarity for women* and instead pay homage to the neo-liberal, patriarchal law of the strongest, equating vulnerability with weakness? The phantasm of the meritocracy sets the course for the misguided assumption that one could free oneself from structural oppression through individual actions, leading to the suffocation of the justified complaints of marginalized groups.

In her music, Lana Del Rey autobiographically describes the masochistic behavior of a woman* who has been experiencing constant hatred for years. It is Lana Del Rey’s right to claim the same artistic freedom as her male* colleagues. Eminem, for example, fantasizes in his songs about punching her in the face. Deep down the countless people hating Del Rey “for her attitude” probably also consider it her own fault if she gets punched in the face.

Since Del Rey's breakthrough in 2011, I have had such discussions countless times, only to be told that she can be denied any authenticity and agency. The defense of her work is at the same time also a defense of my own way of being. A non-binary person identifies with Lana Del Rey, who reproduces intelligible norms and wallows in aching instead of "accepting her emancipation." What Del Rey and I have in common is that we both exist in a society that wants to push us into fixed roles while at the same time condemning us, regardless of whether the performativity of our gender corresponds to conventional patterns. Our oppression is different, but it is embedded in the same power disposition. 

"A bitter-sweet, hopeful smile will  appear on our lips at dawn as the patriarchal institutions collapse on the horizon and we remember how we, in our quest for liberation, discovered collective strength in the radical articulation of vulnerability and the power of words that helped us shape a new world, in solidarity."

In a feminist context, it is just as important to cherish differences as it is to recognize historical continuities. For example, if the lesbian Black poet Audre Lorde was granted the same current visibility as Lana Del Rey, we might be having a different discussion. Lorde has written from the specific perspective as a Black woman*. Yet she made it clear that white women* can find meaning in her words, too. If Lana Del Rey didn't make the negligent mistake of ignoring other women’s race (and therefore universalising her own experience as a white woman*), one might think she had read Audre Lorde: 

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. […] And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. […] In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgement, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of us, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalisation of racism. (1)

By trying to naively separate feminist and race issues, Del Rey reduces Black women’s struggle for visibility. Lorde is unmistakable: “Ignoring the differences of race between women and the implications of those differences presents the most serious threat to the mobilization of women’s joint power.” (2) I suggest Lana Del Rey might start reflecting on herself, reading Lorde’s words (no doubt she should have done this before sharing thoughts on feminism with her 16,5 million Instagram followers) and find her own struggles in some of them.

I cannot prevent my whiteness from affecting my gaze. But it is also that of a queer person looking on a woman* who for the past ten years has been either showered with hatred or declared incapable of the performativity of her gender. Again, Audre Lorde writes about the very specific experiences of a Black woman*, but she also writes: "The women who sustained me […] were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence.” (3)

Everyone existing outside the hegemonic may know this tyranny. The feminism Lana Del Rey evokes embraces all those whose existence poses a threat to the status quo, who are deprived of the right to self-determination, because they present an anomaly in the eyes of the white man. They will be impossible to forget in the future because they are joining forces and refuse to get tired of pointing out injustice. These voices form the canon of the future and it will not be silent until they are heard. A bitter-sweet, hopeful smile will  appear on our lips at dawn as the patriarchal institutions collapse on the horizon and we remember how we, in our quest for liberation, discovered collective strength in the radical articulation of vulnerability and the power of words that helped us shape a new world, in solidarity.

We have chosen each other

and the edge of each other’s battles

the war is the same 

if we lose

someday women’s blood will congeal

upon a dead planet 

if we win

there is no telling

we seek beyond history

for a new and more possible meeting 

          from ‚Outlines‘ by Audre Lorde



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