‘What It Feels Like For A Girl': Madonna’s Feminist Anthem Still Rings True, 15 Years Later
Madonna isn’t one to be told how to act, what to say or how to feel.
“Don’t ever tell me to stop.”
“This is who I am. You can like it or not.”
“I’m not your bitch.”
Along with churning out several dozen bonafide pop classics in her over thirty year career as an entertainer, she’s made a legacy out of asserting herself, breaking down barriers and challenging patriarchal double standards, especially in terms of gender and sexuality.
Give her a glass ceiling, she’ll break it — or, at the very least, deliver a searing “f–k you” in the form of art.
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Fifteen years ago (the song was made a single in April of 2001), Madonna released “What It Feels Like For A Girl” as the third and final single from 2000’s Music.
The dreamy song, crafted alongside Guy Sigsworth (Seal, Alanis Morissette, Britney Spears) and inspired by 1993’s The Cement Garden, opens with a few lines spoken by the brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg from the film:
“Girls can wear jeans. Cut their hair short. Wear shirts and boots. ‘Cause it’s okay to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading. ‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you? What it feels like for a girl…”
“What It Feels Like For A Girl” works in two ways, simultaneously celebrating the specialness and power of womanhood and femininity while criticizing laughably misogynist expectations of women to be all things pure and sweet, featuring some of the most incisive and quietly devastating lyrics of her career.
“When you’re trying hard to be your best / Could you be a little less?”
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It also lent itself to one of the most unrelenting, undeniably bad-ass videos of her career.
The video is essentially a foil to the featherlight production of the original: Set to the tranced-out Above & Beyond remix of the song, the hi-octane clip is a 4-and-a-half minute cathartic rampage of tasers, car crashes and fiery explosions in the streets with Madge and an unlikely elderly Thelma to her Louise rescued from the Ol Kuntz Guest Home. It’s unemotional, confrontational and even disturbing; exactly what “good little girls” aren’t — consider it Grand Theft Auto with Grandma.
The violent video was quickly banned from daytime rotation on MTV — a double standard, as some critics pointed out at the time, in comparison to similarly aggressive, testosterone-driven output by the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit — not to mention their wildly successful original programming. Jackass, anyone?
Beyond the song still sounding fresh (which it does, a testament to Madonna’s frequently forward-thinking productions), the message of “What It Feels Like For A Girl” feels just as relevant today, especially on this celebration of International Women’s Day — a time when she’s “too old” to kiss Drake while Hugh Hefner is championed as a boss in his late eighties dating twenty-somethings. A time when the way Kim Kardashian displays her body is policed. A time when Amber Rose wears insults as armor and women like Jennifer Lawrence, the highest paid actress in Hollywood, continue to be paid far less than their male counterparts in the workplace.
Madonna may not speak for every woman and their individual experience (and surely, she does not), and the world has changed substantially since 2001 (in some ways, anyway), but the question presented in the title alone still resonates over a decade later: Do you know what it feels like in this world for a girl?
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