15 Years Since ‘Stripped’ We’re Still Nowhere Near Gender Equality
Revisiting Christina Aguilera's 'all grown up' album, you see that the double standards she sang about then still exist today.
Photo by Cobrasnake via RCA
Say what you like about the flailing "Dirrty" dance routines it spawned, but Christina Aguilera's sophomore album Stripped still has merits beyond the cliché of a former teen star removing her saccharine casing to reveal her womanhood. Executive produced by Christina at 21, the record (which recently turned 15), explores nuanced articulations of sexual desires and fears all while highlighting the social double standards that say neither of these things matter.
Coating the album in such loud "I'm all growed up!!" messaging didn't damage its commercial heft. Stripped has hit platinum four times in the US and is the UK's third-highest selling record by a female American artist of the 00s – beaten by Norah Jones' Come Away With Me and Lady Gaga's The Fame. The record shifted 4.3 million copies in the US, and received three Grammy nominations, winning one for best female vocal performance on "Beautiful". But sadly, Stripped's messages still have work to do in 2017. Today, women's rights over their own sexuality, safety and voices – especially when speaking out about said rights being taken from them – are still under threat. And in some ways it feels like we're still stuck in the tired old binds of patriarchy.
Let's start with the sex stuff, then. Christina comes out swinging in hot pants, sharing a sex-positive, feminist message that kicks out against the virgin-whore complex. Lil' Kim-featuring single "Can't Hold Us Down" confronts sexist double standards in both the music industry and wider society. Women must neuter their sexuality to save men's egos, as Christina sings: "If you look back in history / it's a common double standard of society/ The guy gets all the glory the more he can score / While the girl can do the same yet you call her a whore". This is like feminism 101, yet still a concept both men and women struggle to grasp today. This month alone, Rita Ora has been blamed by tabloids for giving X Factor alumni James Arthur a sex addiction, and Harvey Weinstein's victims have been blamed for showing too much skin in his vicinity. This culture is influential: recent Family Planning Association statistics show one in ten of us think it's taboo for women to simply carry a condom.
Casting women as the active enjoyers, rather than passive recipients of sex, runs through this album like the slits in Christina's chaps in the "Dirrty" video. And it's important: if men don't think women are empowered to say "yes", why would they ever think women are empowered to say "no"? "Dirrty" is essentially Christina both sing-rapping and screaming about sweating and grinding in the club before Redman raps the same. It's lascivious and visceral and the fact it upset po-faced adults and this BBC reviewer alike is testament to how quickly people could forget the simple joys of being horny. Desire is more nuanced elsewhere: "Infatuation" is a Latin-infused ode to a gorgeous, but perhaps dangerous man, while "Loving Me 4 Me" gives a sexy update to Rotary Connection's Nuyorican Soul classic "I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun", dripping with sensual references to intimacy.
Sure, sex positivity has its feminist detractors: who really benefits from a woman dressing like she's in Girls Gone Wild and pronouncing how up for it she is? etc. But despite "Dirrty"'s best intentions, much of the sex on Stripped shows a more mature appreciation of female-centred sensuality. Part of that, and so much of gender equality, depends on women's desires – inside and outside the bedroom – being heard. We're so deep in the sauce of seeing hetero sex as all about making sure men orgasm that repeating some of the album's themes still matters. Looking at things like this recent study, which found that young British women were regularly coerced into having anal sex that they find painful, there's always room to acknowledge that, y'know, sex be good for everyone taking part. I mean, at the very least.
Beyond sex, Stripped throws out more than one rallying cry for women's voices. "Can't Hold Us Down" goes direct again: "This is for my girls all around the world/ Who have come across a man that don't respect your worth/ Thinkin' all women should be seen and not heard/ So what do we do girls, shout out loud". It's almost as if Aguilera could pre-empt Twitter harassment where MPs and campaigners are subjected to death and rape threats for suggesting Jane Austen's face could be on a banknote, actresses harassed for being in a film remake, and other women told to just suck it up and face abuse for sharing an opinion. "Call me a bitch because I speak what's on my mind", indeed.
While much of the album is about men's impositions on Christina's mind, sanity or security, a great portion dedicates itself to responses to anger and upset. Linda Perry's Beautiful is an ode to self-worth and respect. The gnarled pop-rock of "Fighter", is a guide for working women to not just get even, but get better than their detractors. In a world where only five countries have got a gender pay gap below 20 percent, that sentiment still goes a long way.
And almost self-reflexively, Christina wills women to roar along with her in the last third of the album, which crescendos with three huge, showy ballads (let's not pretend these songs are musically flawless by any means). "Cruz", "Soar" and "The Voice Within" are all about using inner strength to escape past sadness and insecurity. It's worth remembering that self-esteem, not just beauty related, affects 78 percent of women, who say they feel pressure to never make mistakes or show weakness.
Now, obviously Stripped is not the solution to all women's problems. It had blind spots of its own, most glaringly around race. "Make Over", which interpolates Sugababes' "Overload" (yes, Mutya Buena and co receive royalties from Stripped), is a proud refusal of "bullshit" standards of western beauty. But Christina (a white-passing person of mixed heritage) fits those standards pretty well. So well that she and her stylists felt confident to borrow from black culture – in particular bandanas, braids and slick baby hairs – to parlay her rebellion. It's gross. But note her tourmate Justin Timberlake had been doing the exact same thing with a fedora plopped on top.
In a way, Stripped doesn't teach us much that's new. It relays messages that feminists of various stripes have been trying to shout about for decades. But if the record, 15 years on, still gives any woman the confidence to speak up and be heard, to take charge of her sexuality and ownership of her body, or even just sing along loud enough to amplify its messages, then more power to it, and more power to Christina's ridiculous voice. She started the album by asking girls to shout out loud, but she also leads by example. It's about time the world follows.
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