Pink's VMAs Speech on Androgyny is a Good Start, But We Have More to Do
At the 2017 VMAs on Sunday, pop star Pink accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award for her 17-year career in music. Though many celebrities at the award ceremony used their time to pay homage to Heather Heyer, or decry the increase in white supremacy and neo-Nazi ideology in the United States, Pink chose a personal narrative that celebrated androgyny.
Recounting a conversation she had with her daughter, Willow Sage, Pink urged everyone in the audience to let creative people experiment with gender presentation, and to support “artists that live their truth.” In trying to comfort her daughter, who told her she felt like an ugly girl, or a “boy with long hair,” Pink referenced David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Prince, and Janis Joplin, who all incorporated varying levels of androgyny in their performances. Though it sounds like Pink succeeded in making a point about gender presentation to Willow Sage, she also revealed to the audience at the VMAs how stunted our society has remained.
Though all of the androgynous-presenting performers on Pink’s list are important to pop culture, and though they changed which gender performances we consider attractive or exciting or acceptable, they’re also all of a previous generation and, with the exception of Prince and Michael Jackson, are all white people. It’s easy to look back on someone’s career and thank them for having been revolutionary at the time, but there are countless artists working today whose gender performance extends beyond an aesthetic they can dream up with their publicists and shed once they outgrow it.
That’s not to say that Pink’s message of solidarity with other androgynous performers was necessarily damaging — though she easily could have thanked many more performers of color in the same category. The fact that her speech is being touted as revolutionary, despite its central thesis being, “Women who choose to look a little masculine deserve to feel good about themselves too” feels like the bare minimum.
Citing Pink’s speech, Billboard called the 2017 VMAs the “most woke to date.” Even if that’s true, it’s a reminder that we’re not progressing with much urgency.
Pink is not wrong; it’s just that we’re still talking about gender performance in a rudimentary way, and our trajectory toward actualization has slowed a lot since the ‘70s. Back then, men wearing make-up, as Bowie did on his Aladdin Sane album cover, and women wearing sexily tailored “menswear,” as Annie Lennox did in the Eurythmics video for “Sweet Dreams,” were considered to be progressive and radical. In 2017, congratulating celebrities for doing the same thing. It doesn’t feel like progress.
Consider MTV’s commentary on queerness this weekend as a whole. Fans vote for winners in many categories, but the network has never confirmed how winners in the “professional categories” are chosen. This year, butch-presenting lesbian rapper Young M.A. lost the only award she was nominated for to Khalid, a cis-man, and Migos, a homophobic group that refuses to perform with anyone in drag, was nominated for Best Hip-Hop single. None of the nominated songs for Best Fight Against the System had anything to do with gender or sexuality, and neither Frank Ocean’s incredible Blonde nor Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy were nominated for anything, despite being critically hailed as triumphant albums (and rumored to be in conversation with each other regarding homosexuality).
Even Selena Gomez, who experimented with a little bit of drag and a lesbian storyline in her music video for Bad Liar, was snubbed by MTV entirely.
MTV did invite six transgender, active duty troops to the VMAs ceremony as a “fuck you” to President Donald Trump, who is moving forward with legislation to ban trans soldiers from serving. While MTV was correct to make a statement on the validity of these soldiers’ sacrifices, it does feel a bit uneven that the company, owned by Viacom, didn’t celebrate any art made by genderqueer, transgender, androgynous, or otherwise gender-playful creators this year.
Is Pink really the closest we’ve got to a high-profile celebrity who breaks the mold with her gender performance?
The answer is no, of course not Pink’s not. Bandcamp honored trans musicians who host music on its site earlier this year, donating the proceeds of a weekend’s album sales to the Transgender Law Center. Much has been written about the newest wave of cis-male rappers playing with images of femininity in both their lyrics and public styling. Young Thug, whose partner alluded to him being asexual, and who wears dresses and skirts, won a single award at the VMAs on Sunday, though it was for Best Editing.
How, one might ask, in a year where cult favorite rapper Tyler the Creator sang, “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004”, are we still not recognizing contemporary art made by creators whose gender performance is fluid, or at least noticeably flexible?
Perhaps it all comes back to a misunderstanding of what gender performance can be. Pink, like Ke$ha and Ciara, has always played with light drag in order to enhance her image. That’s not to say her clothing preferences are disingenuous — in fact, her impassioned speech says otherwise — but she’s still operating with a very simple understanding of which images are feminine vs masculine.
In July, for example, Vogue published a feature] on Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid, the celebrity couple, which called them gender-fluid for swapping clothes. “This new blasé attitude toward gender codes marks a radical break,” the magazine declared, citing Hadid and Malik’s shared t-shirts as evidence that the two were enacting a paradigm shift.
In 2009, a study on gender roles in early ‘90s music videos on MTV concluded that women were overall framed as sexual objects, even in videos released by female recording artists. Men, even if they presented slightly more feminine than masculine, retained their roles onscreen as active agents in storylines. No matter what pop stars wear on camera, that set-up has survived into 2017: things happen to women in pop music, and men in pop music make things happen.
As for the likes of Bowie and Prince, the full extent of gender experimentation and open sexualities of the artists Pink mentioned are all contested to this day. Freddie Mercury’s biopic has been in development hell since his family refused to address either his sexuality, or the fact that he died from AIDS, in a film. Little Girl Blue completely erased any mention of Janis Joplin falling in love with or bedding women, and when they died in 2016, Prince, George Michael, and David Bowie were all eulogized as gender-fluid in their performances, though the breathless coverage of their lives and careers rarely delved into their romantic relationships with men. In short, even icons of casual drag and flexible gender performativity are allowed their space in the zeitgeist as long as they don’t make straight or cisgendered people too uncomfortable.
It’s all well and good to celebrate a woman like Pink, who wore matching suits with her husband and daughter to the VMAs, and has sported a mohawk since 2000, but if MTV intends to redefine itself yet again as the youngest generation’s source for pop culture content, it had better work to keep up.