Shakira: An unexpected feminist icon?

Shakira in 2017. Source: World Economic Forum/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It is not unusual for an artist to take inspiration for their music from romantic relationships, either from good times or bad. For Shakira, the Colombian singer and an icon of the new mass culture, it is cathartic. Her latest song, “BZRP Music Sessions, Vol. 53,” was written after her official separation from the Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué. It is supercharged. An Argentine journalist described it as a “scorned heavy metal” anthem and since it dropped on January 11, 2023, the song has become a hit and went viral on social media.

The lyrics not only directly and explicitly reveal the reasons for the couple's breakup, but they hint at a symbolism of common spaces that will be familiar to a female audience. Shakira, the Latin American megastar, is breaking patriarchal stereotypes.

The effect that Shakira’s latest song has had on the audience is perhaps the most controversial point of her career. Some see it as the complete opposite of feminism. The anger she displays is more of a masculine emotion than a feminine one. Women are often associated with more passive feelings and emotions, such as sadness or guilt. The patriarchy demands that women suppress their feelings of anger or anguish. Therefore, women who break their silence and make accusations are trouble. This rebellious attitude is welcomed by feminism; women no longer have to remain silent, and cheating is openly exposed.

Far from portraying herself as a submissive woman suffering from her ex's betrayal, she describes herself as a “she-wolf.” She is fully aware of her superiority and looks down on her ex (“A ti te quedé grande,” she sings, which translates as “I've outgrown you”) and her opponent (“No es como suena,” or, “It's not what it sounds like”). Instead of crying, she sings of “women invoicing” and therefore questions the idea of men being the providers on higher salaries, especially when it comes to the wives of footballers. Shakira doesn't need anything, neither fame nor money. Her successful career precedes that of her ex and far surpasses it.

Romantic love is political and patriarchal. From a Latin American feminist perspective, we would say that it is a mechanism of control and social organisation. Young boys and girls learn different models of romantic relationships according to customs and traditions that respond to a model of morals and ethics within a given culture. This culture imposes relationship patterns. Boys defend their independence while girls give up theirs as proof of their love.

Linked to this abandonment of self is the patriarchal model of motherhood as a woman's ultimate life goal. Countless children's stories support this model of romantic love. The prince fulfils his social goals (in the public space) and then returns to his princess, who takes care of the home (in the private space) having been saved from poverty, imprisonment or enchantment. It is a pretty basic formula, which fortunately also has a counter-model in children's literature. These days, many women do not have motherhood as their main goal in life, are more likely to be unmarried, do not conform to pre-defined roles and protest by breaking behavioural stereotypes.

Shakira is the loudest voice amongst a whole group of women who are not as visible as her, but who are joining this trend by opting for a freer life, with no restrictions and with life goals other than motherhood and marriage. More and more women are rethinking how they want to love and the relationships they want to have. The role of women in society is a model that can be deconstructed in order to analyse and produce changes, to obtain other achievements, which are different from those traditionally established.

The issue of economics is much more pressing. When Shakira sings, “Women don't cry, women ‘invoice’,” she raises a quintessential male topic. Is it wrong for women to earn money? Is the obscene amount of money Shakira earned from the three songs in which she refers to and even mentions her ex harmful? Are women not allowed to be ambitious? Relationships make men rich and women poor. It is no coincidence that the roles are unequally distributed. The role of child-rearing is best left to women, thanks to their politically attributed “instinct” to take care of children.

Shakira's image is contradictory: disruptive and hegemonic. It's not very feminist to compare women to cars or watches, as she does in her song, but it is very feminist to present an image of personal empowerment.

In true capitalist style, she profits from her body and her private life. She aligns herself with the traditional image of the female body as an object of desire. Sex symbol, sinner, provocateur, but also ground-breaking, her feminine sexual liberation coexists with a discourse around the romantic tradition. Her family life is upheld by a version of herself as a traditional mother and wife.

Her family videos show the sacrifices she has made out of love. She doesn't keep secrets from her audience. She is authentic in her duality; whilst in love, she follows the romantic norms and whilst scorned, she turns into an aggressive and angry heroine. Shakira's image is also influential throughout society, as researcher and feminist author Teresa de Lauretis writes:

“En los márgenes de los discursos hegemónicos subsisten rasgos de una construcción de género diferente. (…) Los discursos de los medios de comunicación son tecnologías de género porque tienen el poder de controlar el campo de la significación social y producir, promover e implantar representaciones de género”.

“Features of a different gender construction linger on the margins of hegemonic discourses. Media discourses are gendered technologies because they have the power to control the field of social meaning and to produce, promote and implement gender representations.”

However, is any female expression a symbol of feminism? It is when it empowers all women. Shakira's songs set trends, pave the way, copy or modify patterns that control women's behaviours. Shakira represents a model of hegemonic femininity and contradictions that are conceived and represented in her body.

Shakira, a Latina and businesswoman, sings a song in Spanish that holds a mirror up to the entire female community. She embodies the contradictions that still persist in many societies today: a woman who is sexually liberated and a woman who is a homebody.

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