The 2018 Grammys: “Praying” for Appropriate Female Representation

If you were one of the millions of people who tuned in to the 2018 Grammy Awards, then you probably saw Kesha’s moving performance of her 2017 single, “Praying.” Accompanied by other powerful women in the music industry like Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, and Andra Day, as well as the Resistance Revival Chorus, Kesha shared her #MeToo moment with the world as she sang about the sexual and emotional abuse she endured during her partnership with music producer, Dr. Luke. The white outfits worn by the female performers were akin to the white roses worn by celebrities in support of the #MeToo movement as well as the Time’s Up campaign to end sexual assault and inequalities in the workplace. Despite the power of Kesha’s raw, emotional performance and the white rose movement, I was still perturbed by an earlier performance on the Grammys stage.

Approximately half an hour prior, my friend and I contently sat on the couch in his apartment, awaiting Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s performance of popular hit and most watched video on YouTube, “Despacito” with excitement. As the audience cheered and the song began, I was entertained by the array of colorful lights that filled the stage as well as the song’s upbeat tempo, which was a great contrast to the slower songs I impatiently sat through earlier that night.

Unfortunately, the intrigue of the performance was cut short. Approximately forty seconds into the song, women dressed in incredibly revealing outfits took the stage and began dancing in a hyper-sexualized manner. Wearing only heels, daisy dukes, and barely enough fabric to cover their chests, these women were twerking, gyrating, grinding on male dancers (who were fully clothed), and performing an overtly sexual version of the salsa. My friend and I gave each other knowing glances as we both questioned this necessity of female sexualization, especially on a night supposedly focused on the elimination of sexual assault and harassment in the film and media industry.

Quite frankly, I just didn’t get it. What was the message of the night? One moment I’m unhappily subjected to an excess of butt-cheeks in a performance centered on appeasing masculinity and the next, I’m watching a powerful, tastefully-clothed group of women singing about being victims of sexual harassment and putting faces to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being in charge of your sexuality, but there is a problem when lewd dancing is intended for the male gaze. If the entertainment industry wants to make a big deal about supporting and protecting women who are victims, then why is it also objectifying women by using them as eye candy? How do we expect a male audience to understand an acceptable way to view women if this is normalized? While this objectification does not outrightly translate to harassment, it promotes the idea that women are instruments designed as sex objects. This thinking is incredibly problematic given the recent allegations and proof of inequality and harassment of women in the workplace.

On a different note, Lorde, who was one of the five artists nominated for Best Album of the Year, was snubbed a performance while three other nominees: Childish Gambino, Bruno Mars, and Kendrick Lamar all got their time in the limelight. Even Sting and Bono who were not nominated for any awards appeared on the stage three times throughout the night. There is not a clear explanation for why Lorde didn’t get a chance to share the glories of her album Melodrama with the Grammys audience, but as an implication for her exclusion, she chose to skip the red carpet altogether. Sonja Yelich, Lorde’s mother, tweeted an excerpt from The New York Times mentioning that Lorde would be left out of the performance schedule and wrote “This says it all.”

For such a crucial time in women’s rights history, with the Harvey Weinstein allegations in addition to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the Grammys did not treat or portray women adequately. When asked about the reason behind so few female wins, Grammys president Neil Portnow claimed that women in the music industry need “to step up.” You can only imagine the kind of backlash this comment received by Twitter users from across the country. But the issue is not that women need to “step up.” Instead, it is that they are in the shadow of male artists, and have been for decades. There wasn’t a lack of female artists that released phenomenal music in 2017; they just weren’t nominated or didn’t win. SZA, for example, was nominated for five Grammys and did not win a single one.

Despite the message the Grammys were trying to portray in support of #MeToo and Time’s Up, they did a subpar job of putting action behind their words and instead ended up flustering the audience with mixed signals. In the words of Janelle Monae, “…just as we have the power to shake culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.” So let’s stop pretending that Lorde’s lack of performance, SZA’s zero wins, and hypersexualized female backup dancers are acceptable; instead, let’s have the well-deserved respect for women we have been promised.

Emily Beihold is a staff writer at The Triton.