Pop Culture's Obsession with "Hermaphrodites"

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ciarawendypost.jpgCiara recently released her new music video for "Ride" (ft. Ludacris) in which she busts out some fantastic dance moves, my favorite of which seems to be an above-ground version of Michael Phelps' Olympic breaststroke (0:34). Tracy Clark-Flory has praised the agency of Ciara's sexuality in this video and how she has appropriated the sexual aggressiveness of male rappers without necessarily making herself a trophy object to be attained or exchanged. This song illustrates her female sexual power; Ludacris plays a fairly small role in the video, he spends much of his time squatting on the ground under her stiletto and hanging out in the corner of the frame. He's more of a sideshow than a sexual agent. Ciara is large and in charge, which is confusing to those who envision a monolithic female sexuality that is characterized by passivity.

Which reminds me of the 2005 pop news obsession with her alleged "hermaphroditism". Sound like something we heard in 2009 about another female artist, the one-and-only, the ever-so-queerpopular Lady Gaga?
Type in either of their names, and the first word that Google will suggest based on previous searches is "hermaphrodite." This isn't a reflection of society's obsession with intersex individuals, although it certainly may reflect a desire to better understand the human biologies that get ignored in textbooks and public sex education. But it's not about whether they were born with characteristics that are common to both "males" and "females." Instead, we can't escape phallocentrism, because when Google says "hermaphrodite," what people actually want to know is not whether their chromosomes are not XX; instead, we actually just want to know whether they have penises. Google "Does Ciara" or "Does Lady Gaga" and fill in the blank. Publicity or stunt or not, the public fascination with the possibility that either of them might have been born with a penis reflects an anxiety about masculinity.

These women can already be read as possessing some of the markers of masculinity by virtue of their professions as powerful and influential artists. And while some women use hyperfemininity in response to possible readings of their personae as masculine, Ciara and Gaga push the envelope by employing lyrics and dance moves that are gender-ambiguous (perhaps a little less hip-swinging and gyrating than we might expect for a dancing woman) or traditionally the terrain of their male counterparts. And both artists repeatedly and explicitly resist and criticize the trafficking of female bodies as objects of exchange between men through themes and narratives in their videos.

If they had penises, it would be easier for us to understand why they won't simply conform to passive standards of femininity. But lo! both of these stars were born female-bodied (note the explicit reference to Lady Gaga's non-penis in the beginning of her "Telephone" music video at 1:05. Guard 1: "I told you she didn't have a penis." Guard 2: "Too bad."). Combine this with their outward feminine presentations, and pop culture gets a little antsy about the meaning of masculinity and the fact that masculinity can be divorced from the male body.

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This video immediately screamed Janet Jackson to me. Ciara does her the hair and takes moves right from Jackson. Also it lines right up with Jackson's politic as an female-bodied artist will not be nailed down as just an object for objectification. Both toy with the idea during certain songs, but always complicate things. Jackson's dance moves are done by men and women to display skill, and gender becomes an active performance.

The section of "Ride" that feature Ludacris brought me to the self-proclaimed Diva, Beyonce. That red lipstick, black body suit, and straightened hair (and skin-lightening makeup) are straight up Beyonce. When she is rides the bull, the t-shirt and shorts could have been lived from "Crazy in Love".

It makes me wonder if she's making a larger comment on these women artists. Props to Janet and a sad head-shake towards Beyonce. Jackson and Ciara have fun while playing with gender, while Beyonce is just a runner up. Especially after Beyonce copied Ciara's "Like a Boy" with the underwhelming "If I Were A Boy." The Beyonce video copies Ciara down to the black and white film.

Drop tracks from any of them and I will be glad to take a dance break. However, when looking at them as artists in this larger world I too am disappointed with Beyonce.

Nice post. Love your blog

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