“She got the power” : the intersection of gender, Feminism and pop music : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Sociology, Massey University, Albany, New Zealand

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Pop music has long contributed to feminist discourse and practice as performers use their global platforms to disseminate ideas that combat sexism, gender discrimination, gender-based violence, and promote gender equality. The music industry’s engagement with feminism occurs at the same time, however, as many young women distance themselves from feminism. With this apparent tension in mind, this research is concerned with new expressions of feminism in pop music and, specifically, how these expressions are perceived by an audience of young women. To explore this, a feminist research methodology was adopted that centred young women’s views, amplified their experiential knowledge and sense-making practices, and fostered a space of reflexivity. Multiple integrated qualitative research methods (the production of a music portfolio, followed by two focus groups) were used to explore how six young women made meaning from pop music they identified as concerned with feminism or gender-related issues. A feminist methodology and employing multiple methods that placed music and young women’s responses to music at the centre of inquiry was valuable for fostering a participant-centred, reflexive and generative research space. Iterative thematic analysis showed that young women have ambivalent subject positions regarding feminism, regardless of whether they personally identify as feminist. On the one hand, they valued principles of gender equality, but distanced themselves from feminist rhetoric they associated with a “radicalised” feminism. On the other hand, they valued performers they considered to be radical in their subversion of gender norms. Relatedly, participants felt empowered by performances they deemed overtly feminist in their contestation of gender norms. Somewhat paradoxically, analysis also revealed that participants returned to a gender binary as they sought to make sense of pop music performances. Participants constructed reductionist dichotomies of ‘sensual/sexual’ to describe embodied performances they deemed acceptable and unacceptable, respectively. Similarly, they constructed an affective dichotomy of ‘vulnerable/aggressive’ that was readily mapped onto categories of feminine and masculine, respectively. These dichotomies reflect heteronormative constructions of women and women’s bodies. An ambivalent subject position emerges for young women as they navigate progressive feminist discourses that advance women’s bodily autonomy, and a return to regressive heteronormative constructions of femininity and masculinity that rest on the gender binary. As such, the research raises questions about the future of contemporary feminism. While ambivalence might appear at first glance as uncertainty and therefore of little value or concern for a feminist agenda, I argue that such ambivalence can be read as productive and generative, and has the capacity to foster societal change.
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