Talking With Girls About Katy Perry An exploration of the limits of the appropriate.

Girls know what kind of music is made for them to consume. They know what they like and what they do not like, and why. They know how to make choices based on aesthetics and morality in ways that mainstream culture does not give them credit for. Their preferences are complex and their critiques are serious. The girls I am talking about are between the ages of 8 and 13. My colleague Diane Pecknold and I have been talking with them for the last three years, and these conversations for the subject of our book-length manuscript in the works. Now numbering nearly 100, most of the girls have been involved in some way with rock camps for girls in New York, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Portland. Talking with girls about music-making and consuming inevitably introduces the boundaries that age and age-appropriate behavior place on how girls act, or are supposed to act, around music. This activity also sets into stark relief the idea of the normal girl who has markers of race, class, and sexuality that girls only sometimes are able to recognize and express.

They are not alone in this, since the discipline of Girls’ Studies is itself slowly working towards modes of inquiry that do not construct the girl as always already white, middle-class, and heterosexual. Correlated with the construction of the girl as under threat by the mainstream media, girls also understand themselves as potentially victimized by music they love. The complicated relationship between girls and music is only legible through conversations with the girls. When girls play at being women by imitating people or media around them, they are both praised for appropriate or normative behavior, as well as censured for inappropriate behavior (both by adults and by each other). Inappropriate behavior can be directly correlated to the degree to which a girl matches the norm: in pop cultures as well as therapeutic environments, girls of color and poor girls are consistently called out for their perceived deviance from ideas that a girl is innocent, non-sexual, and passive. Their musical preferences are similarly monitored. Depending on their social location, girls have more or less access to varieties of adult play or taste, and different ideas of what may be good or bad for them. On the one hand, girls’ perceptions of appropriateness for themselves hold them and fix their position within an external metric of normative age-appropriateness, gender expression and sexuality. At the same time, these preferences and performance modes can create opportunities for resistance to the stabilizing strictures of gender- and hetero-normativity by presenting the sexual girl as a possible identity. The sexual girl is a figurative and symbolic entity who is the object of extreme cultural anxiety, and so the possibility for real girls to use certain modes of music is foreclosed because the music is viewed as inappropriate both by themselves and people around them (like parents, teachers or other adults). Most girls are good learners. Nearly all of the girls we talked with about these ideas had thoughts about what was appropriate for them and what they considered inappropriate. What surprised me was that they even use this word, appropriate. In the first group I ever talked to (8- and 9-year olds from Portland, Ore.), I asked:


Sarah Dougher (SD): What do you guys think about Katy Perry?

C: Um she’s um …

N: She’s pretty much out there …

R: I didn’t really like her music video at the end there were fireworks coming out of her chest. It was really inappropriate. Especially for my sister, she just like ran out.

These girls expressed reticence about their opinions on Katy Perry because they were shy about discussing what about her made them uncomfortable. One girl also recognizes that Katy Perry actually caused her younger sister to flee the room. The observation that pop music contains mature subjects that threaten littler kids is reiterated by an 11-year old from New York:


“And it’s like kind of—pop music is like kind of like watching a rated-R movie when you can’t [someone else giggles]. It’s kind of … that’s kind of what it is, but definitely not as bad. Just like little kids, just really little, they’re singing songs about stuff that I don’t even sing about and that’s just like they’re watching rated-R movie, which is not just right.”


In discussing material they feel is too mature, girls differentiate themselves from even younger girls. This did not necessarily create an opportunity for them to claim to like or enjoy the music they deemed inappropriate, only to condemn it even more deeply for being potentially harmful to younger people. They claim the authority by reproducing propriety narratives they may have learned from external sources, and use that agency to enjoy inappropriate music all the more.

Here is a snippet of a conversation I had with a group of 15 girls in Los Angeles. It gives you a sense of how these girls know for certain when a song is for them, and the reasons a song might not be for them. Swear words and censorious bleeps, lyrical or visual content that makes them uncomfortable, and sexist or offensive content are all cited by this group as reasons a song might not be appropriate.


SD: Do you have a good idea about when a song is appropriate for you?

All: Yes!

SD: How can you tell is a song is not appropriate?

Kid: When it has bad words or the content is not your level of maturity or age.

SD: How can you tell that? Can you tell it or does somebody tell you that?

Kid: It’s kind of both ways for me. Sometimes you have no idea what the word means sometimes, or sometimes you never really hear it, or it gets bleeped out.

Kid: You can also tell that maybe it’s saying things that you don’t really feel comfortable hearing, and you’re like why are they saying this about people, that’s not nice.

Kid: Or maybe it’s offensive or sexist. Maybe by the music video you can tell.

SD: When you can see the images?

All: Yes!

Kid: Or you may not like the music.


The final comment, that you “may not like the music” introduces an interesting observation about taste; it suggests that a girl might resist or reject music that is marketed to her, and consequently reject the attending visual and lyrical information as well.

Judgments about what may be okay or not okay for them is often translated into what may not be okay for their younger sisters and brothers; the repercussions of enjoying inappropriate music are almost ineffable.

How girls correlate music they like with music they know is inappropriate for them focuses their censure on the bodies and acts of musicians they may have liked in the past (when they were “little”) who have grown (with differing degrees of grace) into adulthood. As artists they have liked in the past expresses the mobility of maturity, it not only destabilizes the relationship of the fan to the artist, but is viewed as grounds for dismissal from the playlist, as a 12-year old from Indianapolis describes:


“I like Selena Gomez … but at the same time I don’t like how she’s just trying to jump right into adult media because she’s trying to make herself look sexy but it’s like I just remember from when you were 15 on Wizards of Waverly Place! What is this about? It just doesn’t make much sense. I get that she’s trying to be different, well not different but trying to go how she wants to, but it just doesn’t seem like a good move on her part since all the little kids.”


Her friend agrees: “And like [she] was saying there’s a song there’s many songs that Rihanna sings, they’re inappropriate. You might like it, little kids might, little kids might think of something else but most kids know what it’s about.” Musical knowledge is one way that girls signal their agency and aesthetic preferences and their growth into some version of maturity that differentiates themselves from “little” kids. Their judgments about what may be okay or not okay for them is often translated into what may not be okay for their younger sisters and brothers; the repercussions of enjoying inappropriate music are almost ineffable.

As conservative as it is, much of the discourse about sexualization of girls comes from feminist voices. This reflects the longer history and complex relationship between adult feminists and girls. Girls have been singled out by feminist thinkers in the past as immature and irrational, and consequently unable to handle the responsibilities of citizenship, among other things. This fundamental problem of disidentification between grown women and not-yet-grown girls inflected philosophies of the woman in society through the enlightenment and as the category of teenager emerged in the last century. Even as lately as Betty Friedan, the adult feminist was contrasted to the adolescent (always heterosexual) housewife.[i] It is important to note that some of the first groundbreaking research in girls’ studies, a field which challenges the absence of girls in larger feminist intellectual projects, was on the topic of girls and their relationship to popular music.[ii]

Even radical voices such as the musician Alice Glass from the Crystal Castles characterizes (for no doubt complex reasons) children’s relationship to a figure like Katy Perry as essentially passive. Not given to subtle critique, she told NME, also not known for covering the subtleties of feminist debate:


“A lot of kids are more sexualized now than they were years ago and I’m not sure it’s a coincidence… Like f—king Katy Perry spraying people with her f—king dick, her f—king cum gun coming on f—king children. And little girls, like 6-year-old girls wearing a shirt with ‘I wanna see your [pea] cock’ on it … Don’t prey on vulnerable people like that. Don’t encourage little girls to get dressed up, to have cupcakes on their tits to get people to lick them off, ’cause that’s what you’re insinuating.”


Glass’s distaste for Perry may very well be based on aesthetic differences, but in this particular critique, Glass reiterates a familiar feminist screed regarding the sexualization of children, their vulnerability not only to sexuality but to the forces of the market. Research about the complex relationships between the predominance of sexualized images of girls and what girls actually do or feel reveals that “affective and ideological supposition often override complex empirical findings.” Danielle Egan writes. “This, coupled with the narrow framing of who is endangered—white, heterosexual and middle-class girls—further highlights how the girl within sexualization is ultimately more metaphorical than material … The sexualized girl is a sign. She is emblematic of a fractured and corrupted middle-class status as well as an expression of nostalgia for times past when taste, status, age, difference, and control were believed to be more transparent and manageable.”[iii]

Girls are positioned as vulnerable to information or ideas about sex, as discourses regarding sexualization would suggest. If narratives from both the right and the left are to be believed, when girls are exposed to sexual material, they become sexualized and this will result in all matter of problems including low self-esteem, eating disorders, poor performance at school and unchecked promiscuity. Girls are first viewed as passive targets of sexual information, but once they get the information, they morph into anarchic sexual beings whose actions need to be controlled if not straight-up criminalized. As popular culture seems to have become a place where girls are ever more sexualized, it is interesting to note that actual girls are waiting longer to have sex now than before, using birth control more consistently, and the number of girls under 19 who have had sex has dropped from 51 percent in 2002 to 43 percent in 2011.[iv] In her discussion of the relationship between public perceptions of the connections between “sexting” and the “sexualization” of girls, Amy Adele Hasinoff notes that girls’ conformity to dominant media cultures is inadvertently pathologized, and individualized resistance to mass culture is seen as the only “healthy or genuine form of agency.”[v] Girls’ choices about how they respond to mass cultural options are flattened and lose complexity; their choices are viewed as coerced and a sign of personal weakness that they must individually overcome. The response often comes in the form of media literacy training for girls to help them understand and cope with the relationships between what they perceive in the media environment around them, rather than a larger cultural projects to educate men, women, boys and girls about critical mass culture consumption and production and the realities of vulnerability and violence. Making the case for a de-pathologized version of children’s sexuality, both Jack Halberstam and Judith Levine suggest that children’s sexuality under neoliberal social and economic conditions is viewed and controlled as a “vector of abuse” rather than a locus of pleasure through moral panics and the gradual eradication of nearly all sex education outside the domestic sphere.[vi] To understand preteen girls as figures under attack from the mainstream media complex is to ignore not only their dynamic relationship with this material, but to make them agents in their own bounded existence, where in order to succeed they must undertake rigorous, individual monitoring of the self, and a careful adherence to the (white, middle-class, hetero-normative) standards they are presented with.

Girls’ choices about how they respond to mass cultural options are flattened and lose complexity; their choices are viewed as coerced and a sign of personal weakness that they must individually overcome.

We have done nearly all of our interviews with girls who have attended rock camps for girls. These institutions girls grew out of the experiences and practices of women who played music and became conscious of their social roles as women in the context of playing and performing music—significantly, many of the founders of camps trace their politics to punk self-sufficiency and punk aesthetics, which emphasize collective political values, youth empowerment and the idea that anyone can play music, or at least give it a try and have fun doing it—that you don’t have to be good or make money or pretend to be an adult to call yourself successful. Many camp organizers still battle the rockist hangovers of the foundation of the camp, as well as their own experiences with extremely bad behavior replaying sexism in music-making contexts. The ideal self-actualized music maker/camper, who uses her own voice to sing her own songs, is related to the figure of the “can-do” girl,[vii] who does everything right and ends up “empowered.” Her opposite, the “at-risk” girl (and importantly this can be the same girl), is the one who is unable to express herself in the ways that code “empowered.” She is silent, or too loud, or disagreeable, or has bad taste—and significantly this is also correlated with girls of color. The idea that pop stars are coerced into their own disempowerment has a remarkably strong influence on the rhetoric of the camp. I spoke with an organizer from Portland, who was not only involved in the first years of the camp, but then became the director for four years. In July 2013 I asked her if she saw Rock Camp as an answer to or response to the roles available for women in pop music. Her answer gives us a good sense of how the ideology of rock camp formulated and continues to perceive the oppositional forces its work seeks to overcome:


“[At the start] Brittney Spears and Spice Girls were our arch enemies … if being Britney Spears was who you were as girl, that’s fine. But you don’t have to be those kinds of girls to be a successful person.”


An important element of the ideology of the rock camps is that women and girls have been, and will continue to be excluded from making music by boys and men. It is useful to note that in the day-to-day work of the camp, however, most of this activity and rhetoric is implicit, rather than explicit. In the current cultural climate where fewer and fewer women (or men) self-identify as feminists, rock camps tread a fine line between doing explicitly political work, and couching their feminist ideology within the more acceptable (to parents/funders) rhetoric of girls’ empowerment.[viii]

Girls at rock camp are taught to enact agency as musicians, and they are encouraged to come up with their own lyrics and songs, working together in conventional rock-band structures, and then performing in front of their family and friends at the end of the week in a celebratory showcase event. In addition to playing music, girls at camp often participate in workshops designed to help them achieve a degree of media literacy, to help them process the information that popular culture sends their way. The rhetoric associated with concepts of appropriate and inappropriate is linked with the idea that there might be a way for a girl to engage with popular culture so that she can make better decisions about what is for her. In describing a media literacy workshop, volunteer Kelsey Truman writes:


“Media literacy is not about simply rejecting the mainstream, or cultivating guilt around your love of pop music—it’s about being able to take a step back and think about the messages that film, television, news, music, and social media send out, to determine who sends these messages and to what end, who benefits and who suffers. Specifically, we talk about depictions of women and girls in media and how to resist some of the toxic messages about beauty, bodies, relationships, and girl-hate. The girls come up with definitions for terms like sexism, misogyny, gender roles, and feminism, and generate lists of gendered stereotypes for men and women as they have observed in media.”


After a discussion about stereotypes of women in the media, workshop participants at the Indianapolis camp were given the opportunity to “talk back” to images in small groups. One group of girls zeroed in on an advertisement for Katy Perry’s album, Teenage Dream, which features the singer lounging naked on a bed of clouds. Wielding Sharpies, the girls wrote a series of directives on the page, covering the image with text. They wrote:


Girls make their mark on, and feelings about, Katy Perry. (Credit: Sarah Dougher)

Girls make their mark on, and feelings about, Katy Perry. (Credit: Sarah Dougher)


“Put some clothes on!”

“Why would someone put this on a cover?”

“Kids like her.”

“You’re not sexy”

“At least there’s a cloud here”

“Don’t buy this album!”

“Underwear please!”

“This is inappropriate”

“Katy Poopy your[sic] not sexy”

“Put on your clothes!”

“This is not right”

“This is not Katy Perry”


What at first we might see as a positive, empowered approach to Katy Perry’s overt sexuality and the threat it might pose to girls—since we see girls “talking back” to the image they are told is threatening to them as an empowered stance—could just as easily be understood as a conservative curtailing of girls’ agency in response to a sexual image. Kelsey told me that although she tries to remind girls that the focus of their anger should not be on the models or artists themselves but the corporations that are selling product using the images of women. She writes:


There are a few dangers in this workshop. One is the idea that conforming to conventional femininity is oppressive, or a sell-out move. I try to stress that any expressions of self are valid—if you want to wear make-up, wear make-up because you can have fun with it. Don’t wear make-up because you feel like you are expected to, or because you feel like you’re not good enough without it. … Another problem is that a lot of girls want to respond to sexualized, barely-clothed images of women with directives like “Cover up.” Something else I try to emphasize is that we should be angry at companies who manipulate and use women’s bodies and exploit sexuality to sell products—not at the models who appear in these ads.[ix]


When girls are seen as targeted and passively victimized by dominant ideologies in the form of images and narratives foisted upon them by mass media, they are denied agency in determining the meaning and significance of this music and these images. The girls in this workshop reiterate the idea that a sexualized image of a musician is bad and not ok for them to be seeing.[x] In this situation, the girls are working with a real ambivalence about Katy Perry. As one girl describes the workshop later:


“In our workshop … we took magazines and took Sharpies and we basically marked them cover to cover. And we just drew what we think they should have. We have the one that was Katy Perry and we were writing “cover your body this isn’t you.” And don’t act like it is because even if you were somebody, if you used to cover up yourself. People will still like you. It’s just when you wear that stuff you act like how people make you. And you have to stand up for what you really are and don’t say that you want to be somebody or not because that’s not real.”


The idea, again, that performers are being coerced to wear skimpy clothes, is pervasive, and she goes a step further by intoning a note of reassurance toward Katy Perry by reminding her that people will still like her if she covers up.

Perhaps the weirdest and most telling comment of all is the simple denial that this image “is not” Katy Perry; that this image cannot possibly connect to the creator of the music a girl could like. The existential challenge is one that draws our attention to the existence of girls’ pleasure itself, the expression of which is both held at bay and propelled by the music they love.

[i] Cited by Mary Celeste Kearny in “Coalescing”

[ii] Garber & McRobbie

[iii] Egan 7-8.

[iv] Egan 36.

[v] Hasinof 110.

[vi] Gaga Feminism, In a Queer Time and Place, Harmful to Minors

[vii] Anita Harris, Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century chapter 1.

[viii] In her sociological work on rock camps, Danielle Giffort identifies the idea of ‘implicit feminism’ to describe: “…a strategy practiced by feminist activists within organizations that are operating in an anti- and post-feminist environment in which they conceal feminist identities and ideas while emphasizing the more socially acceptable angles of their efforts.” Giffort 569

[ix] Truman, Kelsey. “Shouting Back: Teaching Girls Media Literacy at Girls Rock Camp Boston” The Media (Blog) August 30, 2013. accessed April 2014.

[x] As scholar Emilie Zaslow recognizes “young people do not simply soak up the dominant ideologies offered to them. Rather, young people engage critically, sometimes ambivalently with media and culture through selection of genres, texts and styles, talk about media and integration of media and consumer goods into their personal arsenals of life strategies”(39).



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—(2005) In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press.