Shortly before last week I was watching this video like my figure in the mirror, trying to form an opinion on how I felt about it as compared to how it looked to the public. Soon after, one of my friends posted it to Facebook as “War Propaganda.” While I originally argued against this point to draw out the anti-feminist message of the song, I would like to elucidate how the song is romanticizing both belligerence and traditional gender roles:
In the beginning, Katy is angry and listening to the radio. She hears a woman describe the American Girl’s Dream, “He says that one day he wants to have kids with me and he hates traveling and being away from me.”
Still, she breaks up with her boyfriend at his work, giving him back his misogynistic locket, and leaves without allowing him to explain [whatever situation is being hinted at]. This seems empowering: her standing up for herself, leaving damaging relationship, and becoming an independent woman. However, it becomes more clear that she’s running away when she stops at a gas station soon after. Along with her drink, she buys into the message that says “All women are created equal, then some become Marines.” Replace “Marines” with man in the traditional view of a war hero, and it becomes apparent that she’s just abandoning herself. So she cuts her hair and becomes a man (because only and all men have short hair), and begins training.
Through training, she still wears make-up. Unrealistic? Maybe. But not if it’s just her imagining her made-up face as her true identity. Even through the masculization of basic training, she still retains her feminine identity. The lyrics then become addressed, not to her man, but to one man: Uncle Sam. We begin to see flashbacks of her relationship, when she receives a letter from her boyfriend. Paraphrased, the letter says, “It was nothing… I’m still the guy you fell in love with… look deep inside and try to remember what we are.” And then the misogynist “miss your face” that focuses on imagery. But don’t write him off.
If holding a gun reminds her of him, then when she’s baptized in the water and remembers bathing with her savior (the hypermasculine patriarch that saves her inferior soul), she certainly isn’t forgetting who she was: a traditional dependent. Though linear storylines would have us believe that she’s moving forward, the final image is once again her made-up face–not in eyeliner, now, but in camouflage. The meaning of these lines are crucial:
Throw your sticks and your stones, / throw your bombs and your blows / But you’re not gonna break my soul.
This is not about her man, but about military training. What happens, in effect, is she trains to become a man: to “man-up” and realize that he is what she really is: “This… (being him) …is a part of me.” Behind the camouflage facade, her face is not determined, but broken. All her training reminds her of is her femininity and her relationship; nothing is “never gonna ever” take that away.
Rewind back to the beginning, the radio Man leaves the unanswered question, “So what’s the problem?”
It could be read as pro-feminist, but why? Her greatest feat is dancing under the American flag parachute like kids do in elementary school. This is opposite of women’s empowerment. Katy Perry retains a traditional gender role by hanging onto her heterosexual identity of needing a man and make-up to complete her. She evidences that even the Marines can’t save her, they just suggest a different color of make-up. Underneath it all, she’s still an anti-feminist, “sparkling” girly girl, always faithful to her man.
There’s nothing wrong with being feminine: sparkling, emotional, and intimate. However, what she fails to address is anything directly. If our messages of empowerment mean running away from ourselves and submitting to the very monolithic institutions that crush us, then we were better off with our meager dreams of equality. But if we want to ameliorate, we must change our media to seek the end we desire. Running is what we should be doing to our lives, not from them.