Sky Ferreira–is she more than a racy photo?

Ladies, what the fuck. We are (Lord willing) mere months away from finally having the first woman president. National female voices like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren and Ruth Bader Ginsburg appear stronger than ever. At the same time, personality journalism appears to be gazing longingly backwards toward an era full of Playboy bunnies and Stepford wives.

from AV Club’s July 8th article “Stop jizzing all over journalism”

I’m often made fun of for my loyalty to early 90s musicians, but I feel grateful for being a teenager during an era of rebellious empowerment. The female musicians of that era taught me more than how to write a song–they introduced the struggles and triumphs women face in society. Through their coarse and direct lyrics, musicians such as Polly Jean Harvey, Kim Gordon, and the women of L7 allowed my malleable teenage brain to resist the “jocko-homo” persuasions of my peers and instead understand and empathize.

Though female musicians’ sexuality was often discussed, journalists resisted placing at the forefront of their reporting. The stories in Spin and Rolling Stone generally focused on the quality of work, not simply female’s lust-factor.

Polly Jean Harvey on the cover of SPIN Magazine in the 90s
Polly Jean Harvey on the cover of SPIN Magazine (from May 1995)

Upon rereading a profile on Polly Harvey (“The Ballad of Polly Jean Harvey” written by Robert Christgau from Spin Magazine‘s May 1995 issue), I was amazed at (despite the cover image or her in a bra) the focus on her body of work and not her body. Her lyrical imagery was discussed frankly and openly because those sexual elements are crucial in analyzing Harvey, not in order to roil the hormones of male fans. Christgau (obviously a fan) celebrates Harvey for the powerhouse she was and still is. “Rather than imposing a deathly decorum,” he wrote, “more opera lessons have put more muscle on the strapping, skillfully controlled instrument that dominates her fourth album.” Sure, he took one sentence to explain that she wore a throwback 1940s red ballgown, and sure, he eventually analyzes the sexuality of her lyrics, but the content of the article is never creepy or off-putting. It’s honest, necessary, and respectful reporting–music journalism done right.

The inevitable occurred, I grew old and found the appeal of modern music incomprehensible. Grandpa Simpson’s foreboding warning came true.

The AV Club‘s recent piece “Stop jizzing all over journalism” proved an eye-opener for me on many levels. (The piece is a must-read for budding journalists, male and female alike.) Sure, I recognized the pendulum swing from respect of powerful women in rock to journalistic goo-goo-eyes towards the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in the late 90s and early 2000s. But I had faith that with women seemingly more powerful than ever before in the United States that journalism would look ahead, not leer ahead.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The article focuses on recent pieces on Renée Zellweger, Margot Robbie, and Sky Ferreira. All were disturbing, but the LA Times piece “Sky Ferreira’s Sex Appeal Is What Pop Music Needs Right Now” (cover image NSFW) read like a parody article in The Onion. I couldn’t imagine a fan getting through the first paragraph:

Sky Tonia Ferreira, 23, has a name that reads like a turbo-charged Italian sports car, or the kindred spirit to second-generation Italian-American pop star Madonna, the most ambitious woman to ever wear a pink cone bra. Both Sky and Madonna have similar breasts in both cup size and ability to cause a shitstorm.

I’d kill for music critic Art Tavana’s job, and the fact that this is what passes for journalism is an abomination. His lack of professionalism makes me angry, but I can only imagine how women feel, how fans of Ferreira’s feel, how Ferreira feels. It’s also important to note that Tavana’s piece was not just on some anonymous blog that gets 20 hits a day–he was published in the LA Times, a well-respected news outlet.

He continues:

In the now-infamous photo, taken by Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé, Ferreira looks like a dirtier Madonna: square jaw, strong eyebrows, lulled green eyes, crucifix, bleached blond hair, translucently pale skin and killer tits.

With Tavana’s constant referencing to Ferreira’s appearance (especially her breasts), he’s doing what the AV Club calls “jizzing on journalism” or “writing with his boner.” Laura Adamczyk (AV Club staffer) explained why this is wrong:

So perhaps when writing about a woman, writers should ask themselves a few questions: Am I paying more attention to her eyes, lips, tits, legs, etc. than her work? Why am I mentioning her eyes, lips, tits, legs, etc. to begin with? Would I write about a man this way? Did I just jizz on my story? If so, shouldn’t I, before submitting this story to my editor, wipe that jizz off the page?

Tavana (who proudly calls himself a music critic and inflammatory Facebooker–I suppose we could have seen this coming) caused such an uproar on social media that the LA Times issued a mea culpa to the public. Though AV Club found the apology “fairly half-assed,” I felt as though the LA Times hit the mark in some ways. Editor Andy Hermann proclaimed full culpability in publishing the piece and didn’t blame the outrage on an overly PC public. But his apology is certainly not enough to right the obvious wrongs from this type of reporting.

What needs to change? 

At a recent Cullinane 4th of July BBQ, Beyonce found her way in our conversation. As we all explained our various levels of fandom, my mother said, “Doesn’t she ever wear pants?” We all laughed–a classic mom-moment. I know my mother does not have antiquated ideals, and I know she’d say the same about a man that rarely wore clothing that covered his upper thighs, but… still. Don’t we judge female musicians more on what they wear and what they look like rather than their talent? Shouldn’t the groundbreaking musicianship define their legacy?

Three components need to change in the journalistic landscape in order to avoid pieces such as Tavana’s from being published (online or in print).

  1. The public needs to call out the publications and threaten to stop reading them. Websites, newspapers, magazines, they all make their money off advertising, and advertisers pay money to be seen. These sorts of “sexy” stories get lots of clicks, so until the public can find it in themselves to resist the urge to read demeaning garbage, dollars will perpetuate this cycle.
  2. Journalists/musicians need to speak out on social media about the problem. My eyes opened in August 2015 when rock journalist Jessica Hopper tweeted a simple question: “Gals/other marginalized folks: what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn’t “count”?” What follows is astonishing. Hopper tapped into hundreds of stories of marginalized women and gathered them together to show the public just how serious this issue is.
Portion of Jessica Hopper's Twitter Q&A.
Portion of Jessica Hopper’s Twitter Q&A.

3. Media sources need to hire more women and respect their voices in deciding what/how to publish. Once again, I defer to the AV Club article for insight. Caitlin PenzeyMoog wrote:

The A.V. Club doesn’t run garbage sexist content because we have lots of women working here, an entirely female copy desk, and feminist men who listen to us when we provide a perspective on why something that might seem innocuous at first glance isn’t appropriate… Anyone can write about anything, but men masturbating to photos of Sky Ferreira is best left to the bowels of Reddit, where it belongs. Publications, storied and not, pay people for their content, so there’s really no excuse for allowing the kind of filth showcased here.

The most significant misstep here is not that Tavana wrote a misogynistic piece (happens all the time and will continue to), but that an established and esteemed publication allowed it to reach the public with their name on it. In order to be a respected news source in 2016, outlets must hire more women and men that have the courage to stand against demeaning portrayals of women.

Sky Ferreira responded to the piece (all her tweets, including a photo with Madonna can be found in this Billboard article), and in the end, the controversy may have afforded her more publicity than she’d had before. But I worry about the high school students in 2016 that look at the cover of her album and see only one thing–sex. Without the help of serious journalists, young people won’t understand that an artist, a human, pulses behind the photo that deserves to be judged on her talent and musicianship before her appearance.

About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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