Grappling with Shakira, her body, and feminism
by Sam Brasch, editor; illustration by Sarah Wool, editor
On the floor in front of me lay a matching black set of women’s yoga clothes I had bought from the ARC in a rushed pre-Halloween haze. I started with the shirt, lifting the tiny velvet number over my head and arms. It screamed with tension, exposing my less-than-feminine midriff and pressing my shoulders together in front of me. Somehow, after more than fifteen minutes of grunting, the sparkling black pants managed to stretch over my lower half, though in such a way that my roommate expressed concern regarding my future children. Having proven that the clothes fit, I peeled them off and set to work cutting them to pieces. The left leg of the pants: gone. The right arm of the shirt: see ya. An especially awkward midsection around my stomach and lower back: outta’ there. Replacing the clothes across my body, I appeared as a compressed ball of pure sexual energy, save the sections of fat that protruded out from the areas absent of fabric. I was the He-Wolf, on the prowl.
For those unfamiliar with the “She-Wolf” video that exploded over the Internet during the last year, my Halloween costume must have seemed a pointless disaster in comfort and appearance. Trust me, it was. But imitating the costume Shakira chose to wear in the opening cuts of the short video formed the apex of a yearlong obsession with the Colombian pop diva. At the same time, Shakira’s own intense focus on female sexuality forced me to grapple with ideas of feminism for really the first time in my life.
Already, I can see readers raising an eyebrow: “Shakira’s a feminist? Dude, she wore a skintight leotard and contorted herself in a cage while making orgasm noises. I mean, come on.” For those of you who have a hard time believing that Shakira, of all people, could fall under the umbrella definition of feminism, I hear you. But we need not look further than the first scenes of the She-Wolf video to see that Shakira is engaged with ideas of womanhood, if not feminism. At the start of the film, synthesized beats accompany her into her closet where we see a strange sparkling pink room through the other side of the wardrobe. In the next cut, we are there with Shakira in this strange, uneven, Pepto-Bismol-colored cave. Then, you realize the bizarre appearance of the cave looks familiar. Apparently all other subtle references to her own femininity flew too low below the radar. She had to dance within what CC philosophy professor Dennis McEnnerney calls “Shakira’s sparkling vagina from Star Trek.”
Worse, the costume Shakira sports in the vagina cave is the same one I elected to strap together for Halloween—skin-tight, glossy, and covering only about 35 percent of our total surface areas. By analogy, then, I had entered into the vagina cave, or in a less abstract way, I had chosen to embrace the Shakiran version of feminism for one night, somehow, as a man.
And, no doubt, Shakira does espouse a specific brand of feminism. Just before the release of “She-Wolf,” Shakira told Rolling Stone that she looked forward to becoming a mom—even if it came at the cost of her famous and mystifying hips. “My body feels like it is asking me to reproduce, to have a huge belly and carry babies.” However, even if Shakira wants to be a mother, she deplores the idea of being a wife to her long-term boyfriend, investment banker Antonio de la To. “It’s funny how the papers want to see you married and then they want to see you divorced,” Shakira offered in explanation. “Well, I won’t do any of it.”
But her opposition to marriage has deeper, feminist roots. “Women,” she said, “have to make enormous efforts throughout life, much larger then that of men. We deal with so many [sic] pressure: the pressure of aesthetics, and how society wants us to deliver our performances as mothers and wives.” Up until this point, Shakira has only cared to offer a performance as a multicultural pop sensation. Becoming a mother or a wife, if we can read a little deeper into Shakira comments, holds women back from what she calls their “subconscious dreams” or their own defined measures of success. For the diva, those subconscious dreams are frighteningly obvious — Shakira wants to be the next Madonna. She demands not just the conquest of Latin America, but the United States and the rest of the world and, to be sure, she will not let her own womanhood stand in her way. Classic femininity takes a back seat to ambition.
And then there is Shakira’s body. The singer is absolutely tiny, standing a petite five feet, two inches, but as the “She-Wolf” video shows, it is not size that matters so much as how she chooses to use her microscopic frame. Within the vagina cave, her movements are stilted, bringing to mind a much sexier version of Frankenstein. The video then cuts to an iron-barred cage where Shakira sports a skin-toned leotard. Shakira’s performance in these cuts might be described as the combination between advanced yoga and pole dancing. She twists and contorts herself across the cage, bending legs around her neck, and at one point using her butt (it would seem) to lift the rest of her body off the ground. (In anticipation of my Shakira Halloween, I tried to achieve this particular contortion. Whatever you want to say about Shakira, you have to give her some credit for abdominal strength.) Finally, the video finishes with Shakira dancing on a roof in what appears to be San Francisco. Her hair is pulled back, and she looks more masculine then she did in any of the previous cuts.
If Shakira refuses to take on feminine roles with regard to being a mother or a wife, she has no qualms with using her body to help her fit into masculine fantasies (and here, I do mean my own fantasies) about women. Her body and the femininity it carries with it becomes a means of dragging me along, of keeping my eyes fixed on the screen. But even as Shakira pretends to be a wild, sexy animal locked in a cage, she pushes the idea that these displays of sexuality aren’t just meant to appease my fancies. She’s a girl who just wants to have fun.
Here, we can begin to see how Shakira’s brand of feminism is so complex and even contradictory. Even though she despises feminine labels, she doesn’t mind letting drooling men like me objectify her, and even encourages it. She has no problem using her body—and the sexuality associated with it—to entertain and entice.
I can’t claim that I don’t enjoy the ways Shakira uses her body, but at the same time I feel left out. To be a feminist and a sex symbol at the same time requires the displacement of dialogue between the genders. Where a classic feminist would attack me for seeing a woman as a sex object and try to convince me to see Shakira as an end and not a means, “She-Wolf” just eggs me on. At the same time, this attitude pushes the idea that there is something I could never understand about being a woman. That, I think, is the metaphor of the She-Wolf closet. It’s a place where Shakira and her womanhood can exist apart from societal pressure. Behind that door, Shakira does not have to deny her own intense female sexuality. But still, when she leaves the closet and reenters her angelic white bedroom, she lays down beside her faceless boyfriend without a word. The She-Wolf closet is not only something that is exclusively hers; it is something he (and I) could never understand.
To Shakira, feminism no longer becomes a concerted effort to change the way men think, but a way to act alone as a woman. She hides womanhood in the She-Wolf closet, and then uses the veiled pieces of her feminine wardrobe to promote her own dreams of international fame. On stage or on YouTube, Shakira uses her legs, ass, and thighs as a set of tools meant to reduce male viewers like myself to testosterone-riddled blobs. She objectifies herself before I can. Maybe Shakira’s form of feminism seems far more fun for men and women alike, but it also isolates problems of gender perception rather than seeking their solution. And in that way, Shakira’s hips do lie.
I struggled to take a breath as the dense air of the Worner Halloween party combined with the squeeze of the He-Wolf costume. Around me, vampires and werewolves grinded up against girls dressed as bunny rabbits and the swine flu. I danced alone, flailing my body through space without any regard to the people about me, or those who must have been watching. To be sure, I won’t ever be able to enter “the She-Wolf closet” to see the deep difficulties and joys of womanhood, but there, on that dance floor, I certainly felt as if I was trying.