A latch-key child, I spent weekday afternoons in middle school reveling in basic cable, watching as much as possible before my father came home from work and switched the TV to the nightly news. VH1’s documentary series Behind the Music, chronicling the rise and falls of rock stars of varying degrees of relevancy, was in heavy rotation. My after-school specials were hour-long sagas of addiction, car accidents, infidelity, and brushes with death, lessons learned from TLC, Poison, Meat Loaf, and many others.
Behind the Music: Shania Twain was one I watched dozens of times, a rags-to-riches story in which I felt personally invested. 1997’s Come on Over was one of the first CDs I owned and scratched. From the biker riff on opener “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” on, its tracks promoted a leopard-print kind of feminism digestible to a preteen girl, in which the best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun, provided you were white and cis and financially stable. Hairbrush microphone in hand, I re-enacted Shania’s music videos in the mirror, rocking my yet-to-be hips and practicing an unimpressed scowl. And maybe not quite like a woman, I certainly didn’t feel like a little girl.
Much of Twain’s Behind the Music episode is about the love story between Shania and her producer, Mutt Lange, who wrote most of the songs on Come On Over. He’s the “one” in “You’re Still The One.” Mutt is not interviewed in the show, just spoken about over a black-and-white photograph of him pouting with hair feathered like Jim Morrison’s. A decade later, Mutt would cheat on Shania with her best friend in a very public scandal. Despite not having listened to Shania in years, I was wounded by the news; Behind the Music made it really look like they’d made it. Twain’s feminism was manufactured by a man, and a rat at that. And boy, did it sell.
“Come on Over” is the top-selling country album of all time and the 6th best-selling album in the United States. Shania Twain is also the all time top-selling female artist in any genre of music. But success can no longer be measured in album sales–we now factor in Twitter followers, streaming numbers, and app downloads. If television took us behind the music, the internet lined us parallel with it, with annotations in real-time. Instead of getting to know an artist reading by about their backstory, you can just follow them on Twitter. Rockumentaries still exist and still yield profit–Katy Perry and One Direction crushed the box office with theirs–but they are now supplementary. We used to only hear from our idols a few times a year, if that, in episodes instead of moments. Behind the Music, officially cancelled in 2012, doesn’t fit into today’s immediate narrative, interrupted by attention spans instead of commercial breaks.
The music video for “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” an homage to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” was adapted into a Revlon commercial in 1999. Shania is wearing the “men’s shirt and tight skirt” mentioned in the lyrics of the song, perhaps as a contrast to further accentuate her feminine wiles. This lipstick will make you feel like a woman even if you’re wearing a broad-shouldered button-up that makes your waist disappear! It’s easy to dismiss the ad campaign as superficial, even degrading. But listening to “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” alone in my bedroom is the first memory I have of being actively proud of my gender.
I wore a men’s dress shirt to the Women’s March on Washington D.C. on January 21, 2017, the day after a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women become President of the United States. I had found the shirt the night before folded on a ledge in my apartment building where residents put items they no longer want but someone else might. Though not a particularly macho look–the collar is lined with paisley–wearing something that wasn’t designed for my body felt like a small act of defiance, more subtle than the bright pink knit hat on my head.
But once I started marching, surrounded by some 500,000 identities, I realized that I had been conflating womanhood with femininity, not unlike the Revlon commercial. The act of defiance was not wearing a shirt that looked a certain way; it was rejecting the tag on its collar. Fashion can certainly make a statement, but womanhood is more than an aesthetic; it’s a feeling, a feeling shared by millions of kinds of people that Saturday afternoon, on sidewalks and on screens. I saw all of the different things a woman could look like, how even the tiniest of choices she makes–like a style of shirt, or even a shade of lipstick–can be a power grab.
When Taylor Swift, who has surpassed Shania in the art of the country-pop crossover, tweeted her support to the marchers, the Twitter backlash was fierce and immediate, as Swift had declined to endorse a candidate in the 2016 presidential election. She is held accountable as a feminist in a way Shania never was. And yet, as celebrities become more accessible, they are less relevant than ever. The celebrity appearances–from the likes of Madonna, Scarlett Johansson, Alicia Keys, and Amy Schumer–ended up being the most underwhelming part of the March. The collective of women, of no names and mothers and scholars and misfits who gathered together, spoke louder than any one person at the podium. We didn’t need any glossy figureheads for inspiration; we had each other. We marched, we chanted, we looked beyond the monuments. Maybe we made a difference, maybe we didn’t. But that day, it sure felt like it.
Susannah Clark is the Managing Editor of The Collapsar.