I’ve been reading some articles about vulgar feminism lately. It’s hard to find a definitive answer on what it is so feel free to correct if I’m misunderstanding here, but it seems to be associated to some degree with all of the following; a complete rejection of feminism, feminism which is seen as not being in ‘good taste’/ lacking in ‘class’ and feminism which encourages the idea that women can do whatever they want (which can include imitating the problematic behaviour of men to the point of endorsing misogyny). Celebrities who have been mentioned in connection with vulgar feminism include Courtney Love and Lana Del Ray. From my research (which I confess is limited), it seems to be mentioned more in connection with female rock stars and associated with women who come from working class backgrounds. Arguably many modern popstars and celebrities in general however could be seen as portraying elements of vulgar feminism. The articles I read both praised and disparaged the concept, and issues around class and privilege permeated the discourse.
When I was a teenager Courtney Love was very clearly the celebrity icon that had the most impact on me. She inspired me in ways that other female artists simply could not. For one thing she was a successful female rock star in a sea of male ones. This alone was enough to make her stand out. Listening to rock, and particularly grunge, became powerful outlets for my teenage frustrations; I wasn’t pretty, I felt marginalized as a mixed race person, I was from a working class background, I had a history of bullying and complex family problems behind me even at that point. Being able to see a woman doing well in the rock world was enormously empowering to me, but there was much more to it than that. Courtney just was not like anyone else. It was her individuality and determination to be herself in spite of so much resistance from others that was so compelling. She was shameless, inappropriate, and provocative – she was REAL.
I liked it that sometimes she looked great but then she sometimes she looked bloody awful, and she didn’t seem to give a shit about it either! In fact sometimes she appeared to revel in it. This helped me to attempt to accept my own appearance and the fact that women don’t always have to conform to conventional beauty standards to be validated. Hell, she made sometimes looking ugly actually cool. I can’t think of another women who has genuinely done this for her fans. And she didn’t just make the ‘ugly’ cool with her alternative appearance, she did this through her behaviour, the sound of her music and voice, as well as the content of her lyrics. She sang about her pain in almost grotesque detail; being unloved, being an abused woman, being a junky and struggling with experiences of mental illness.
‘Live Through This’ is definitely and unmistakeably a feminist album, (as is its predecessor, ‘Pretty on Inside’). You only have to listen to the lyrics to see this with songs like, ‘Plump’, ‘Asking for It’, ‘Jennifer’s Body’. The titles alone show this is a work with a focus on the exploitation and the abuse of the female. I loved Courtney because she expressed feminine rage (which included MY feminine rage) in her music without restraint. While Alanis Morrisette’s anger was the more palatable version for most in the 1990’s, Courtney went beyond the socially acceptable expression of female fury. She made being an angry woman not just ok for me, but completely arresting and captivating. Listening to Courtney helped me to express my own feelings and write copious amounts of school girl poetry (very bad poetry but who cares!). Her feminism was ultimately about embracing yourself as a marginalized, and even persecuted and hated member of society. That’s why I, as an unattractive mixed race kid, related to it.
Even though Courtney has been taken as something of a working class icon because of her attitudes and self-expression (which is frequently seen as in ‘poor taste’), she is not in fact from working class family. She hasn’t pretended to be either, she acknowledges her middle class background. She did however come from a complicated family background (she was moved around a lot and passed between caregivers), and dealt with childhood issues which are more commonly associated with a lack of privilege and the working classes. Courtney’s general demeanour and presentation in the 90’s marked her out as maladjusted, potentially even mentally ill and someone who was guided by feeling more than intellect, again traits more stereotypically ascribed to the working classes. I admired her presentation because in the context of what she was singing about, it made perfect sense to me. Her presentation was normal in terms of her back story and her level of awareness and experience regarding the oppression of women. We live in a sick society, so arguably it the most well-adjusted people that have the most serious problem, not the people who are acting out and expressing their real and valid feelings of rage and shame.
I also admired the way she stood up to the sexist and ableist slurs that came her way. She has been called all manner of vicious names over the years including ‘train-wreck’, ‘psycho’, ‘whore’ and ‘crazy’. Many have insisted she is/ was mentally ill. Would men get called the same names and labelled mentally ill for exhibiting similar behaviours to Courtney? Men are just seen as typical rockstars when they behave badly. Even if Courtney does have mental health issues, so what? That does not mean it is in any way ok to dehumanize and demonize her. The same thing happened to Nancy Spungeon in the 70’s. She was constantly demonized in the press and the fact that she was a 20 year old struggling with her mental health (she had a diagnosis of schizophrenia), was completely ignored. It could be argued that the abusive media treatment of some celebrity women (which is frequently much worse than what men receive) is responsible for precipitating their untimely deaths, as is quite possibly the case with Spungeon and more recently Amy Winehouse.
I think Courtney also deserves credit for her strength in the face of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. She had to not only deal with his loss and becoming a single parent, she also had to deal with the insinuations that she was in some way responsible for his death through negligence, driving him to it, or even having hired someone to kill him. Such rumours persist to this day. She lived through the grief and the hate after his death and continues to do so. In some ways the thing I saw most in Courtney and still do, is a survivor and to women who have been abused in some way the image of a survivor can be everything.
Was Courtney incredibly dodgy in some ways? Sure (and so are the majority of rock stars for the record, who are mainly male and not held to the same standards). Arguably she is guilty to some extent of the glorification of self-harm, drugs, self-destruction, suicide, domestic abuse, irresponsible parenting and the list goes on, and it’s all uncomfortable, but it’s hard to know with any artist where the line is between endorsing problematic behaviour/ ideas and legitimate self-expression. Bring capitalism into the picture and it all just gets murkier and more complicated. At least for me, Courtney was without a doubt a woman who did not conform to social convention and she trashed stereotypical female roles in a way which I have never seen done before or since, and which I will always respect her for (even if she does seem to conform to many of the things she stood against now).
The truth is that all celebrities are problematic and full of contradictions when it comes to feminism. Do I look back now and see all of the flaws in Courtney’s feminism? Yes of course, just like many people growing up now will do the same in the future when they look back at their favourite icons. That doesn’t change the fact that we needed them for a specific part of our lives or that we didn’t learn a great amount from watching their struggles with womanhood. These women are not perfect, they are messy, but so is life and celebrities are just people like any of us. Being a celebrity and being a good role model are not the good bed fellows we often want them to be.
In summary then I would have to say that vulgar feminism both does and doesn’t get my vote. It’s possible for it to be both harmful and positive at the same time, and not all forms of vulgar feminism are as stimulating or impressive to me as Courtney’s brand. Ultimately, for better or worse, it’s left to the individual to decide how they choose to process vulgar feminism and use it to inform their own lives. What are your thoughts?
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