A Feminist Moment
By Rachel Lifter
A version of this essay appeared in n0thing, Edition I from January 2017
There is a super-cut on Youtube of all the times Mariah Carey talks about “moments” while hawking her wares on HSN 1. Among others, she speaks about “a retro moment of gypsy whatever”, “a fun, cute, remix moment”, “a fragrant moment”, “a full-on evening moment” and “the bandana moment…whatevs”.
One of Mariah’s “moments” stands out above the others: the “festive” moment. Since she released her Merry Christmas album in 1994, Mariah has been wearing her love of “festivating” proudly on the sleeves of her seemingly endless array of skin-tight, red-and-white Santa costumes. Over the past five years, the “festive” moment has become less a moment and more a tradition. Mariah’s second Christmas album – Merry Christmas II You – came out in 2010, and 2016 marked the third year that Mariah hosted her “All I Want for Christmas Is You” concert series at New York City’s Beacon Theater.
The AIWFCIY concert series feels like icing on the cake of Mariah’s 25-year career. To produce this extra layer of sweet, silly goodness, she offers up four shimmering outfits, dancing children in party dresses, an extra festive version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and a handful of “diva” moments. For example, at one point on stage, she uses a tissue to dry her eyes and coyly suggests to the assembled crowd that someone might think to bring her a more delicate handkerchief in the future. The justification: “a tissue is just not chic enough for this occasion.”
Mariah plays the “diva” regularly. In her new reality series Mariah’s World, for example, she gives her video testimonials while wearing a bejeweled, corseted leotard and lounging on a spread of small sofas in her palatial home. At another point in the series, with a laugh and a shrug, she tells the camera that she has a clause in her contracts that states she cannot be shot in fluorescent lighting without her sunglasses…Christie Brinkley taught her that trick.
The 2009 video for her hit single “Obsessed” is a seminal “diva” text in Mariah’s oeuvre. She appears in the video not as Mariah Carey, but rather as “Mariah Carey: the diva”. In the opening scene she steps out of her Rolls Royce and waves to fans before going into New York’s Plaza Hotel. In another scene she is propped on a chaise lounge in a dress made from silk and chains. Posing for famed photographer Patrick Demarchelier, she twists into a series of seductive poses for his camera’s lens. The photographer’s assistant, crouched at her feet, uses a hair dryer to provide the sense of movement that is crucial to any diva’s hair.
The song’s title and lyrics refer to a feud Mariah had with another pop star, but in the video’s narrative the “obsessed” character is an unknown man. He follows “Mariah: the diva” as she walks down the street and dances around in a room covered in her pictures. He does not loom only from a distance, however. In fact, it is he who plays the photographer’s assistant, holding the tiny hair dryer on the Demarchelier shoot. During these scenes he gazes at “Mariah: the diva” longingly, obsessively.
Crucially, it is Mariah who plays this shady character. To do so, the pop star sheds her diamonds and décolletage-baring dresses and in their place dons a hoodie and a fake goatee. Similarly, she adopts a swagger to walk down the street, thus foregoing her usual 6-inch heel shimmy. What becomes clear is that “Obsessed”, to borrow from gender theorist Judith Butler’s formulation of drag, does not show a real life diva dressing up as a dowdy man. Rather, “Obsessed” reveals that all of Mariah’s performances are just that: performances 2. She plays the role of “shady man”, and she also plays the role of “diva”.
In her book Guilty Pleasures film scholar Pamela Robertson makes a claim for considering camp as a feminist strategy. She explains, “the very outrageousness and flamboyance of camp’s preferred representations would be its most powerful tools for a critique […] of gender and sex roles” 3. In this sense, the “outrageousness and flamboyance” of Mariah’s “diva” character might best be understood as a political strategy, as a form of gender critique and, more specifically, a reflection and criticism of the restrictive boxes into which female pop stars are coerced.
Mariah fans – or “lambs”, as she likes to call them – have at least a basic outline of the abusive relationship that cast a shadow over her early career. She speaks in Mariah’s World about these early experiences: how she felt like she was trapped in a tower, like Rapunzel. All the while, of course, she was singing about dreamlovers, heroes and fantasies. Eventually, she was able to extricate herself from that relationship and its professional and personal implications, although, as she notes on her 2008 E=MC² album, she is still dealing with its “side effects”. Crucially, it was not by the hand of a dreamlover or hero that Mariah was able to escape that hell, but rather by her own hand – or, in Mariah’s terminology, by her own butterfly wings.
Here, we might think of Mariah’s “diva” character as a feminist strategy. Her “too-much-sparkle-and-décolletage” burst through the structures that contained her as a young woman. The oversized shades and 6-inch heels that she refuses to take off are her butterfly wings, carrying her through her HSN moments, her AIWFCIY festivating, the “Obsessed” video, and her Mariah’s World reality series. All these diva moments add up, and what they add up to is an exercise in feminine excess as a response to the delimiting structures that shape women’s agency and subjectivity within pop music.
Mariah reminds us that pop is a battleground, and she invites her listeners to fight – and festivate – by her side.
“The photographer’s assistant, crouched at her feet, uses a hair dryer to provide the sense of movement that is crucial to any diva’s hair.”
1 Videostuf, “Mariah Carey Needs a Moment”, Youtube.com, 27 July 2011; [accessed 10 December 2016].
2 In her seminal work Gender Trouble, Butler explains that drag should not be understood simply as men performing as women. Rather, drag reveals that gender in and of itself is a performance. We all dress up and play the parts to which we are assigned. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 10th Anniversary Edition, (London and New York, 1999).
3 Pamela Robertson, Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna, (Durham and London, 1996), 6.