“You cannot come in with that ugly cow standing over there”.
Said by the bouncer at a posh disco, to my brother, when I was sixteen? maybe seventeen? and trying to enter said disco with a group of friends. I was the “ugly cow” the bouncer referred to.
Summer dresses and lipgloss, and a place to belong. That’s all I wanted. And to be pretty, to be “male gaze approved” pretty. To be seen as pretty. I remember feeling that way since I was fourteen and I was put on my first enforced diet. I didn’t fit any notions of Eurocentric femininity. My hair too unruly, too curly, too dark, too unmanageable. It remained a constant through my entire life. This hair, the tangled curls, the darkness that, more often than not, through its unmanageability so well illustrates the content of my head. The enforced diet was not optional, not a choice. It was a condition to have my Quinceañera celebration. Either I lost the weight, straighten my hair, get the blond highlights or I wouldn’t have my Quinceañera party. And so I complied. I tried to make myself smaller, less noticeable. But I was cursed with loudness, with a big mouth, with opinions. I was a teenage embarrassment. I look back, how could I be considered fat? I wasn’t. I was just taking a space that was not supposed to be for good girls. It wasn’t about losing weight, it was about never reaching adulthood. About not becoming a woman.
And I dreamed. Oh how I dreamed. I would wake up and be beautiful. I would have long flowy hair, naturally blond, and I would wear the summer dresses with grace, and the boy I liked would like me back. He would kiss me, and he would see me, new, without loudness, without the hips I couldn’t help growing, without my dark facial hair that earned me the monicker of “Lobizon” by age twelve. One day, I would wake up and be Lana del Rey. Or you know, someone like her, had she been famous when I was fourteen, more than twenty years ago.
I was also fourteen the very first time I hurt myself. I remember wanting to escape. Run away from it all but mostly from my own body. A body I was repeatedly told was “wrong”. I was tragic in the awkward way that young girls can be tragic. The details of that day are hazy, but the pain remains with me, no matter how long ago it happened. Had “Born to Die” existed, I would have probably turned it into a personal anthem. Like many girls that age, I was in pain, and music was a respite. I would have also sung “Swinging in the backyard/ pull up in your fast car/ whistling my name” if such song had existed. Because I liked boys. Boys who hardly ever even noticed me, more preoccupied with other girls, you know, the cute ones. I wasn’t unpopular, oh no. I wasn’t hated either. I was just an unnoticed loser. The girl who makes an arse of herself in public because she cannot dance, because she is not naturally graceful, not attractive in the right ways. So now, I listen to Lana del Rey, not because I still want to be her, but because I have not yet learned to love the fourteen year old I once was. And Del Rey sings for that girl, for her desires, for her longing. She sings for some of us who could not fit in the right ways no matter how we tried, those who grew up wishing to be noticed, to be saved, to be taken away. I know I did. It was a lonely world and I did not have words for those feelings. I just knew I didn’t fit.
Dudes are angry with Lana del Rey. They claim she “performs” a regressive version of femininity. Amusing that cis dudes would be experts in both femininity and its performance. I suppose these are the same guys who claim to only be attracted to women who do not wear make up. Because they like their women to be “natural beauties”. Ah how I amuse myself with cis dudes’ opinions about the intricacies of being a cis woman. Because they surely must know. Because surely they got laughed at for period leaks and budding breasts and their uneasiness over sexual advances. Most of all, I amuse myself with the realization that dudes are angry because they have been exposed to the artifice; because seeing Lana del Rey perform, they cannot claim that there is such a thing as a “unique natural femininity”. They hate her, of course, because to acknowledge the artifice would, inevitably, lead to questioning the artifice behind their own notions of femininity and, again, inevitably, their own stereotypes of masculinity. Oh, but she is overdoing it! and she bought her way through fame and celebrity! She is terrible! she is not authentic!
Another dude says she kind of wants to sound like the music Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch wrote for Twin Peaks. While I amuse myself with dudes who disapprove, I am alarmed by this one comparison. Because our culture is already rife with instances of young girls abused, raped and murdered, like Laura Palmer was in Lynch’s series. Is that the kind of fantasy Lana Del Rey evokes in these dudes? Is this the scenery she inspires? Moreover, this dude goes as far as claiming that Lana Del Rey is a “porn name”, a name that is picked for performance of pop sexuality. It is interesting that Prince is not accused of having a “porn name”, this dude reserves such analysis exclusively for female pop stars. In a few short paragraphs, he brings up both a raped and murdered girl, and the porn industry, while writing about a female pop singer. The overwhelming stench of rape culture would not have been noticed by fourteen year old me. After all, I just wanted to look like Lana Del Rey. I would have never imagined the consequences that such look would carry. The kind of fantasies such women inspired.
“I would love you more/ than those bitches before”. Some of us grew up with these ideas. If we acknowledge this over the top performance of a certain kind of patriarchy approved version of femininity, the internalized misogyny has to be central as well. How many times did I hear my female relatives, my own mother even, say “You will be better than those bitches”. Oh no, I wasn’t. I actually wanted to be those bitches. Or at least be their friends. This misogyny of “them bitches” runs deep in our culture. Liz Phair wrote a nuanced feminist defense of Lana Del Rey at The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy. Now more dudes are puzzled because Phair did not display this patriarchy approved internalized misogyny. And, needless to say, since dudes get a lot more print space for their opinions about music, they do not suffer any cognitive dissonance writing about feminism, a topic they have less than passing knowledge about. And this one at Spin, regales us with “feminist theory” such as this:
Second, as far as we understand the harshest criticism of Del Rey, it’s not that she’s “wanting and taking like a man,” it’s that she’s “wanting and taking” just like a stereotypical, anti-feminist conception of a woman: That is, she isn’t wanting at all; she’s existing only as an object of desire, completely in thrall to the male gaze.
How is Del Rey an anti feminist conception of a woman? She is accused of having bought her way to fame (an act of personal agency if I ever saw one), while at the same time, accused of only existing as an object of desire. Yes and? Some women spend a life time wishing to be desired. Hoping to be noticed, wishing the male gaze, a male gaze would find them attractive. Some women, like I did, will never conform to these Eurocentric notions of beauty and desirability. I still, to this day, struggle with it, even though I am in a long term relationship. Wanting to be seen as an object of affection, hell, turning a dude you like on, wishing he would see you as inherently sexy, hot, and yes, perhaps as a sexy “play thing” is not anti feminist. Just like theater and film require the suspension of disbelief, sometimes, feminists can also suspend the theory of objectification for sexual purposes. Is someone who objectifies herself willingly a victim, in any case? Cis men talking about Lana Del Rey as “anti feminist” make me laugh.
I had a long summer dress. It was pastel blue and had tiny rhinestones in the front. It was made of a thin fabric and covered my legs all the way down to my ankles. I, too, wanted to look carefree. I remember the only time I wore it. It was a hot summer day, I could feel the sweat running through my inner thighs. I had sandals and a long necklace. I left the house to visit friends. Took the bus and spent the whole afternoon downtown. Then, on the way back, I noticed people looking at me horrified. A guy laughed in my face. I had no idea what was happening. Once I got home I got to see the carnage: my entire back side was covered in blood. Blood pouring through my summer dress from my ass cheeks, all the way down to my knees. I cried. And if I had had Blue Jeans, I would have played it at full volume. Because I, too, hoped my very own James Dean would rescue me from such unforgettable shame. The shame of growing up, of having a body that didn’t fit, of being a lonely and sad teenage girl. The kind of girl who grew up to be a staunch feminist but who would have also loved Lana Del Rey.