The XX Factor

Charli XCX Attempts to Define Feminism for Pop Music in a New Film

Charlie XCX performs in Las Vegas, Nevada in May 2015.

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been more than a year since Beyoncé placed her flawless self in front of an enormous, glowing “FEMINIST” sign, but the music industry has only just started grappling with the term, according to Charli XCX. In a new BBC documentary called The F Word and Me, the 23-year-old British pop star and songwriter uses her summer 2015 tour as a vehicle for exploring gender in today’s music scene. “Girls are ruling the charts like never before, so it feels like a great time to be a woman in pop,” Charli XCX says in the 42-minute film. 

Aside from a few musician-on-the-street comments at the beginning of the documentary, viewers don’t hear much from women of color, though—despite the fact that the upper ranks of the industry are largely filled out by people of color. Women of color fight against singular stereotypes, demands, and barriers to success, and hearing about those firsthand would have given this film a much more honest and nuanced view of how gender plays out in the field.

In interviews with her fellow musicians and label heads, Charli XCX details the dogged double standards that still plague the industry. “When I am assertive I’m a bitch, and when a man is assertive, he’s a boss,” said Nicki Minaj in a now-famous clip from a few years back. Lizzy Plapinger, co-founder of Neon Gold Records and one half of MS MR, tells Charli XCX that one of the hardest parts of her job as a label head is meeting with old white male executives. They won’t look her in the eye, she says, and only talk to her business partner, Derek. Her contributions aren’t taken as seriously as his; even the New York Times has said she “helps run” the label.

Working with Taylor Swift on her recent records has helped Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff understand this kind of subtle bias in music journalism, as revealed in The F Word and Me. “No one wants to believe that she writes the songs, and that’s such crap. Kanye makes a record, it’s just like, ‘You’re Kanye, you’re a genius,’” Antonoff says. He’s done tons of interviews where people ask of Swift, “Is she really as good a writer as everyone says?” Meanwhile, it took a male artist covering Swift’s songs to get cool-kid music outlets like Pitchfork to pay attention. (Journalists generally don’t fare too well in the rest of the film, either.)

Azealia Banks recently disavowed the term feminist on Twitter, arguing that feminism has contributed to the oppression of women of color; she aligns with the black-centered womanist movement instead. It may seem like petty word-parsing, but terms this heavy with real-life implications for all women are worth all the careful dissection we can muster. Charli XCX mentions that she admires Rihanna for dismantling “society’s idea of what a pop star should be—i.e., perfect, polished, and usually white.” The interviews she chose to conduct for The F Word and Me—which stick to her very white inner circle of tourmates, label heads, and affiliated acts—seem to prove that point.