These Songs Cleverly Call Out the Patriarchy, Empowering Everyone

Music reveals more than you think about gender identity

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Artwork by Bridget DeLuca

When music tackles identity, it can get happy or sad, light or heavy, sweet or sour — after all, everyone expresses themselves differently. In the past few years, women have been owning the true power of their identity more and more. From the international Women’s Marches to #MeToo to various disappointments in government leadership, there have been moments of both challenge and unity fueling a new wave of women empowerment — not just politically, but personally.

Many emotions emerge in songs that gets real about the state of womanhood in a patriarchal society. Each in their own cleverly-worded, passionately-performed way, these songs prove that. They borrow age-old remarks, such as “you’re one of the guys” or “you throw like a girl” and flip them on their heads to reveal how gender inequality is baked into our culture, affecting women, of course, but men and non-binary folks, too.

While this list is far from being reflective of the diverse pool of woman artists making kick-ass, feminist music out there, I do hope that all can find something that they relate to in these songs. I also encourage you to share your favorite feminine anthems and why you love them. I’ve created a Women Empowerment playlist with more picks, which I will happily add to with your suggestions.

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Women Empowerment Playlist by Briana Bonfiglio on Spotify

1) Most Girls, by Hailee Steinfeld

“You’re not like most girls,” the dreamy football player says to the shy bookworm. He’s leaning against her locker, she’s smiling down at her shoes. We all ate this shit up when we saw it in movies. “Yeah! Not like that annoying cheerleader, Becky!” we all thought, rooting for the underdog.

What we maybe didn’t realize is that these character portrayals (think: nice girls in conservative clothing, nasty ones in scant gym shorts) really just helped pit women against each other from a young age. “Most Girls” reminds us that there is no one way to express your femininity or your sexuality as a woman — “Some girls/Look best in their tiny dresses/Some girls/Nothing but sweatpants, looking like a princess.”

By saying “I want to be like most girls,” Hailee Steinfeld tells us that, at the core, women are great, amazing, “smart and strong and beautiful,” people. Therefore, gals should support and learn from one another whether they spend their nights finishing off books in bed or drinks at the bar. Basically, women are sexy, fun, cool and lovable in their own ways, so don’t compare us.

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Steinfeld, 22, rocked out as Mark Ruffalo’s fictional daughter in “Begin Again” (2013). Photo courtesy IMDB.

The song also makes a great case for body acceptance/awareness, as opposed to body positivity“You know some days you feel so good in your own skin/But it’s OK if you want to change the body that you came in/Cause you look greatest when you feel like a damn queen …”

So many body positivity campaigns don’t acknowledge that people are not always going to “love the skin they’re in” all the time, and there’s no need to be stifled by the pressure of positivity.

“…We’re all just playing the game in a way trying to win at life.”

And the verse’s last line reminds us: the only person we should strive to be better than is our present selves.

2) 4 Days with Me Will Change Your Life (Cool Girl), by Coping Skills

Tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic as hell, this song doesn’t pull any punches. The “bummer pop” duo, as they call themselves on Bandcamp, are probably the best band I’ve seen live in a dark basement with a canned spiked cider in hand.

Like the phrase “you’re not like most girls,” being called “one of the guys” is equally head-scratching. It prefers masculine traits over feminine ones. The minds and musicians of Coping Skills, Lauren DeLucca and Rachel Dispenza, paint such a clear and familiar picture of what it can be like to ride with the dudes, especially when you’re young.

“I’m the manic pixie girl of your sopping wet dreams/Every word that comes out of my mouth is exactly what I mean/I love all your favorite movies and I love all your favorite shows/and I love it when you spew at me all the useless things you know.”

The song ironically talks about the types of “friendships” men seek from women — ones where girls only aim to please. Do listen to the song, because the delivery of the lyrics says it all and more.

“I will never call you out for being a dick, or point out all the times your stupid rape jokes made me sick/I will giggle even when you’re not funny at all/I can even make your penis seem as big as you are tall.”

As you can see, it’s a gem of a song. Highly recommend.

3) Praying, by Kesha

In the era of #MeToo, many women have become empowered to call out their abusers. Kesha does this and then some in “Praying,” showing how she’s grown from her painful past. The lyrics also call to mind that women are not the weak ones. Abusive men are.

The toxic masculinity and entitlement of men is obviously sickening and, in some situations, discouraging. But it does not give them power over an entire gender. Speaking out, working through our struggles and unlearning what society has taught women — that it’s our fault, that we’re here for men’s pleasure, that we’re weak, that we shouldn’t have been doing x, y and z, or that this is just how men behave — makes for a serious reckoning. And, like the performers who joined Kesha for “Praying” at the 2018 Grammy Awards, we need to stick together.

Kesha’s performance of “Praying” at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in 2018 was an absolute tear-jerker.

4) Like A Girl, by Lizzo

I could write entire essays about Lizzo’s new album Cuz I Love You, which is all about self-love and self-empowerment. “Like A Girl” stands out among the bunch with its clever lyricism.

“Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for President/Even if there ain’t no precedent, switchin’ up the messaging/I’m about to add a little estrogen/Buy my whip by myself, pay my rent by myself.”

I mean, it really doesn’t get better than those first two lines interplaying “president” and “precedent,” referring to the fact that there has never been a woman, let alone a woman of color, as president in U.S. history. And she basically states outright that she’s about to change what message the phrase “like a girl” sends out into the world.

“If you fight like a girl/Cry like a girl/Do your thing, run the whole damn world…”

Plus, she keeps it intersectional — as true feminism should be:

“If you feel like a girl/Then you real like a girl/Do your thing, run the whole damn world.”

5) Rose-Colored Boy, by Paramore

Fergie taught us “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” but Hayley’s letting us “cry a little bit longer.” Although this song is actually about mental health, not feminism or gender inequality, that’s how I found myself relating to it — and it works on both levels.

“I ain’t gon’ smile if I don’t want to/Hey man, we all can’t be like you/I wish we were all rose-colored too/My rose-colored boy.”

I first interpreted this song as a sort-of political anthem, where a down-to-Earth individual recognizes the severe problems in the world and is tired of (privileged) people saying it’s “not that bad.” And since the chorus is a woman speaking to a man, I also saw the lyrics as putting men — or anyone who doubts the struggles women face — in their place.

But going back to the song’s intended purpose, which is to take the shame away from mental health, it works on both angles. Feminism isn’t just about making life better and healthier for women, it’s about making it better and healthier for men, too. Taking down the patriarchy isn’t about taking men down; it’s about balancing the scales of masculinity and femininity in the world, and toxic masculinity feels like a huge problem for getting people’s mental health treated. Girls cry, boys cry. We all struggle and no one should have to hide it from others, or hide from it themselves.

Again, whether your favorite feminist song makes you mad, sad, excited, confident or hopeful, remember, that’s all part of the process to owning your identity — regardless of how you identify or express. Share the songs that get us closer to the truth of human femininity and masculinity.

Reporter & Writer | SUNY New Paltz ’18 | Here you’ll find: Words about music and activism and what happens when they come together, plus other musings of mine.

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