Why I don’t like One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” a feminist perspective.

The other day my sister asked me why I felt the need to break my arm lunging to change the radio station when What Makes You Beautiful came on. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It’s wasn’t just because they were a boy band, or because I had already heard the song enough times to fill a lifetime, or because I’m just not into this particular type of music, but something else. I figured out why. It’s the lyrics.

I’m only going to put in about half of the song. I think that’ll be enough. The song is about this guy singing to this girl about how beautiful she is.

You’re insecure
Don’t know what for
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door
Don’t need make up
To cover up
Being the way that you are is enough

Everyone else in the room can see it
Everyone else but you

Let’s start here, focusing on the first few lines. You’re insecure/Don’t know what for. I do. She’s insecure because she’s been bombarded with media and images of beautiful, perfect, unattainable women; women from television shows and movies and billboards and magazines, and she feels like she doesn’t compare. She can’t compare. She’s in high school (presumably). Those years can be the shittiest in life. Her breasts aren’t big enough, her lips are plump enough, her eyebrows aren’t waxed enough, her butt is too small or too big. When she looks in the mirror she doesn’t see the beautiful young lady she is, she sees the love handles on her hips, and the gap in her teeth, and her eyes are too far apart, and her scrawny legs. She doesn’t see the girl you see, because women aren’t supposed to. To know you are beautiful is to be full of yourself, or too confident, stuck up, conceited.

But also, perhaps she is insecure not about her beauty, or her weight, but we can conceive that perhaps she feels inadequate for other reasons, such as she doesn’t have as many friends as she would like, she doesn’t feel smart enough, she hasn’t been to a party, she secretly doesn’t want to drive, or rebel, like all of her other friends do and so in that way she feels like she is an outsider, etc. There are other reasons to be insecure besides beauty.

[Chorus]

Baby you light up my world like nobody else
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed
But when you smile at the ground it aint hard to tell
You don’t know
Oh Oh
You don’t know you’re beautiful

Let’s be honest here, she could be faking that hair flip and coy glance downwards. Whoever this little girl out there is, no offense to you, but it is a possibility.

If only you saw what I can see
You’ll understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
You don’t know
Oh oh
You don’t know you’re beautiful
Oh oh
That what makes you beautiful

But wait, a minute ago you were saying how she shouldn’t be insecure, but it is that insecurity that you like? That’s what makes her beautiful? That is exactly what I just said up above in my very first paragraph. Girls aren’t supposed to be confident. They’re not supposed to know they’re beautiful. We like them insecure. We like them anxious. It makes girls “cute” and “delicate” or some other bullshit like that.

So c-come on
You got it wrong
To prove I’m right I put it in a so-o-ong
I don’t know why
You’re being shy
And turn away when I look into your eyes

Everyone else in the room can see it
Everyone else but you

Well, I just told you why. Or maybe she’s just shy. Maybe she likes you and is embarrassed. Maybe she grew up in a family that never taught her the skills to look people dead in the eye when they talk.

There’s basically no new lyrics after this point in the song. It just repeats itself a few times before ultimately coming to a final and complete end.

I just don’t really understand the song. Yeah, boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl is beautiful, boy sings about girl…. but then he sings about her beauty, she doesn’t realize her own beauty, that’s why he likes her, and then he wants her to own her beauty? The logic doesn’t quite follow.

Mulan is Badass. And also Real!

Mulan, one of my favorite all-time Disney movies and heroines, is a feminist. I don’t know how you can miss it. The entire time throughout the movie, men and women are telling her what she must do and who she must be, and a woman should ____. Get married. Bear sons. Be punctual. Poised. Graceful. Skinny, but not too skinny. Able to fricken pour tea without setting the Matchmaker on fire, for goodness sake! Mulan is not any of those things, and she struggles with her self-identity, fearful of failing and bringing shame to her family.

Then a war starts. Her father is wounded and can’t go to war, but he must. So, to protect her father, she cuts her hair, dresses as a dude, and enlists in his place, but (surprise!) struggles. All her life, she’s been a woman, delicate and fragile and lovely. Now it’s Be a Man, dammit! Finally, she’s allowed to grow, to become strong, to think, to sweat, and eventually she rises up the ranks to one of the best soldiers there. She becomes as swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon.

(Off topic, do we hear all the ways they are characterizing men? It’s all really violent natural disasters; the pinnacle being mysterious as the dark side of the moon. All the way into space now, huh? You’re not just the most terrifying and destructive things on Earth, but otherworldly. I see. Interesting.)

So then they go off to battle. And this is not a normal battle. This is like fifty billion-to-one massive start-praying-guys-cause-we-are-so-effed smackdown. But is Mulan terrified? Hell no. She’s all like “Chilax guys, I got this.” Mulan, single-handedly, with one cannon, takes down the swarming anthill of Huns. Then, when she tries to warn people that the head Hun dude Shan-Yu is still alive, no one listens to her! After saving all these people, no one will take her seriously just because she’s an innie instead of an outie. At this point, if it were me, I’d say screw them. Just go home, take a nap, and let Shan-Yu teach them a lesson, but Mulan is a much better person than I am.

Then, my absolute favorite part, the soldiers are trying to break into the palace after Shan-Yu kidnaps the Emperor (the same way Gaston tries to break into the Beast’s castle), and the boys leave General Li (which is technically abandonment) to follow Mulan and crossdress as: Concubines.Image

And damn, do they look fabulous!

Mulan goes on to save the Emperor herself, and General Li, then kills Shan-Yu, saving China a second time, and after all that manages to scrape together a great fireworks show to celebrate. Then she goes home. She rejects the money, the fame, the prestige she’s offered and goes home to her family with no regrets. That’s how you do it. Kick their asses to Kingdom Come, then walk away. Like Cincinnatus. 

And then all of China bows down to you. That part still gives me chills.

The coolest thing about Mulan however, is that she most likely may have probably actually existed!Image

This story if very old, like 12th century old, so some of the details may be a bit fuzzy, but basically it went down like this:

Her name was Hua Mulan. The bad guy was Tujie. Tujie decided that he wanted more land, and the best and easiest way to get more land was to take it from others. That didn’t got down so well, so the Emperor decided to wage war, and a man from every family was called. Mulan’s father had taught her how to fight, but he was old, and her little brother was too young. He wouldn’t let Mulan go in his place, and so she dressed up as a boy and confronted her father in a fight and won, proving she could handle herself. He was convinced. But he still didn’t want her to go, so she dressed as a man again and went anyways. Like all stubborn children do.

The war lasted 12 years, and Mulan was an exceptional soldier, eventually becoming a general. No one discovered her secret, not even her good friend General Li.

Finally, the enemy king was ambushed and captured. The war was over. Money was handed out to all the soldiers, but Mulan refused, wanting only a camel to get home. She wanted to get out of there as fast as possible because he commanding General thought Mulan would be a perfect husband for his daughter. So Mulan pretended to be injured and snuck away on her camel.

But this commander dude couldn’t take a hint, so he sent General Li after her with wedding gifts and instructions to go arrange the marriage. And then Li discovered General Mulan was a in fact woman! So what did he do? The only logical thing. He married her. And everyone lived happily ever after… as far as we can tell.

Feminist in cartoon and in life. Long story short: Mulan was a pretty badass woman lady person.