The Battle of Female Sexual Expression Against The Consequences That Stem From It

29 Apr

The opera, Carmen, premiered in France in the year 1875. According to the synopsis, it tells the story of a naive soldier Don Jose, who falls for the tricks of the seductive gypsy Carmen. 1“Carmen.” Metropolitan Opera, While that summary might have been seen fit by Bizet and 19th century society, I believe it purposefully paints a negative narrative over a female’s attempt to express her sexual freedom in a society that could not yet fathom that concept — and would not begin to for almost 150 years. 

Carmen is set in Seville, Spain, during an era in which there was a well-defined definition of the “ideal” woman: sexually innocent, quiet, kind and submissive. Ironically, Carmen’s personality differed entirely from that standard as a bold, sexually liberated and independent performer; yet the majority of the male characters were completely enamored with her. This fascination and lust for her may be due to Orientalism, the representation of Middle Eastern culture in a exoticized form that embodies a colonialistic perception, but an even simpler explanation was that they were intrigued by this foreign concept of female sexual expression, which Carmen conveyed through singing and dancing .2Home : Oxford English Dictionary,

At one point in the opera, there is a small glimmer of hope that her love interest, Don Jose, truly loves and respects her for her forward thinking mindset and commitment to freedom, but the last scene sadly solidifies the suspicion that he never truly understood her nor the concept of female sexuality. 

In this pivotal scene, the audience witnesses Don Jose realize that Carmen’s sense of confidence and freedom that he once loved would not waver merely because he wanted it to. With this realization that he does not control her, he stabs Carmen in order to live in the delusional that she is his possession, ultimately costing Carmen the life of freedom she always wanted. His actions revealed his complete misinterpretation of Carmen; he viewed her sexual expression as a tactic to allure him and took personal offense when he realized it was simply apart of her identity.

Although it is disheartening to see the male lead fall short of a feminist mindset, it is not at all surprising. The truly disappointing element to this scene was the connotation behind Bizet’s scoring, which subtly validates Don Jose’s actions. As soon as Carmen is killed, the audience hears a loud and victorious chorus chanting the “Toreador Song”, as the bullfighter Escamillo kills the bull in the arena behind Carmen and Don Jose. The selection of this ballad draws an eery comparison to Carmen and the bull, as both were viewed as wild and dangerous by the society around them and were punished for their differences. The use of a powerful chorus also emphasizes the idea that Carmen was never going to be accepted into a society that rejected her sexuality so strongly. Like the bull, she would either have to be killed or caged by a man, and the masses would sing triumphantly due to the suppression of female sexuality that so greatly offended them. 

While some may take comfort in the fact that this violent reaction towards female sexual expression took place in a different era, the unfortunate reality is that a large majority of people are still uncomfortable with the concept. Almost 150 years later, 21st century female artists have also fallen victim to society’s efforts to cage their sexuality. 

A prime example of this intolerance towards female sexuality is through the life and career of pop star Britney Spears. In 1998, Spears released her debut single, “…Baby One More Time”, which lasted 32 weeks on the Hot 100 Chart and ultimately launched her successful career. 3Lipshutz, Jason. “Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ Anniversary: 15 Little-Known Facts.” Billboard, 1 Oct. 2013,

In the music video, Spears is dressed in a revealing version of the stereotypical “catholic school girl” uniform while performing the hit single. The music video was viewed to be somewhat provocative for the decade, but Spears always expressed her embracement of her sexuality to the press. Initially, the media showered her with positive attention and praised her for becoming the next hit pop sensation. However, the longer Spears lacked remorse or hesitation to express her sexuality, the more irritated and uncomfortable the media became with it. In this interview with Australian journalist Mike Munro, Spears is accused of being a contradiction. 

*** Munro states that many believe Spears is a contradiction at 4:18 – 5:00 of the clip***

In the video, Spears kindly brushed by the accusatory tone of Munro and tried to explain that her sexuality is just one component of who she is through a metaphor. However, the media continued to forgo any niceties in addressing it. In the recently released New York Times documentary “The Framing of Britney Spears”, a series of interview clips are shown that reveal the constant criticism Spears faced regarding her sexual expression, such as being asked about her breasts, her virginity and her “paradoxical” nature as a sweet young girl who also speaks unapologetically about sexuality.4Stallman, Jason, et al. “The New York Time Presents, The Framing of Britney Spears.” Hulu, season 1, episode 6, At one point she even received a death threat from the Governor of Maryland’s wife, in which she stated that if given the opportunity to shoot the pop star, she would. This statement was made because she believed that Spears was a bad role model for children. 5Stallman, Jason, et al. “The New York Time Presents, The Framing of Britney Spears.” Hulu, season 1, episode 6,

Despite the criticism, Spears handled these attacks with a positive attitude and an unwavering defense that she was allowed to express her sexuality as a woman. In one interview shown in the documentary, Spears even stated, “Well I think we’re all girls and you know that’s apart of who we are and you’d be lying if you said you didn’t like to feel sexy.” 

Unfortunately, Spears lost control of the narrative of her sexuality when her ex-boyfriend, singer Justin Timberlake, released a music video for his single, “Cry Me A River.” 

In the video, Timberlake seeks revenge on his ex-girlfriend, who strongly resembles Spears both in physique and style, by breaking into her home, recording himself with another woman and stalking her. Not only do the lyrics paint a victim narrative of Timberlake, but the strategic accompaniment of a choir harmoniously singing, “cry me a river” as the song fades to the end contributes to his vengeful motive. The use of a choir echoing the main lyrics of the song dangerously enforced a group mentality that Spears should be shamed and that Timberlake deserved sympathy as a victim of Spears’ inconsideration for his feelings. 

The release of the music video led to a mass movement of slut shaming of the pop star as well as constant scrutiny from the press. This lack of privacy and negative attention contributed to Spears’ public mental health crisis that ultimately resulted in the loss of her independence through her legal conservatorship, which was implemented in 2008 by the request of her father. More than 10 years later, Spears is still fighting to end her conservatorship. 

Although the consequences Spears’ suffered due to her self expression were detrimental to her mental health and career, there is a silver lining to her story; she was able to pave the way for future female artists to continue the fight against the narrative that sexually liberated women are evil or villainous. One of the most recent female artists who took on this fight is singer and actress Miley Cyrus.

Cyrus grew up as the beloved child Disney star, playing the iconic character Hannah Montana. From a young age, she quickly earned the label of being the ideal female role model as a sweet, innocent and feminine young girl. However, at the 2013 VMA Awards Show performance, Cyrus decided to officially break away from that image and seize a new sexual and independent identity as an artist. 

As seen in the video, Cyrus dances provocatively in latex spandex, a bra and a foam finger with singer Robin Thicke. The performance shocked audience members and viewers, leading to backlash from the media. Cyrus defended herself and the performance consistently, stating that she believed people were thinking about the performance more than she did herself because she was simply trying to express herself. She also commented that she was aware that the performance would make history and, as a female artist who wanted to launch her career, it was her intention to do so. 6Miley Cyrus Defends Her Performance at MTV VMAs. 4 Sept. 2013,

Similar to Spears, Cyrus avidly defended herself and her sexuality against media backlash, but she did admit that it led her to feel sexualized instead of empowered. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaarmagazine, Cyrus stated, “I didn’t want to show up to photo shoots and be the girl who would get my [breasts] out and stick out my tongue. In the beginning, it was kind of like saying, ‘[Screw] you. Girls should be able to have this freedom or whatever.’ But it got to a point where I did feel sexualized.” 7“Miley Cyrus ‘Felt Sexualised’ While Twerking during 2013 MTV VMA Performance.” BBC News, BBC, 15 July 2017,

However, despite the scrutiny Cyrus faced, she remained committed to speaking out about her sexuality and maintaining her identity as an independent female artist. In her 2019 VMA Awards Show performance, Cyrus returned to perform her single, “Slide Away.” 

In this performance, not only do the lyrics portray a message of remaining true to one’s self despite the loss it may bring, but the incorporation of a chorus is finally used to reiterate a positive feminist message. As the chorus accompanies Cyrus by echoing the lyrics “slide away”, they in turn are emphasizing the truth of the message behind the lyrics; that a woman is not a villain for taking control of her life and embracing all aspects of herself, including sexuality. 

Miley’s control over the narrative of her independence and sexuality as an artist and woman sparked positive responses from the media; a glimmer of hope that the attitude towards female sexuality may be changing after all. 8Spanos, Brittany. “Song You Need to Know: Miley Cyrus, ‘Slide Away’.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 29 Aug. 2019,



1 “Carmen.” Metropolitan Opera,
2 Home : Oxford English Dictionary,
3 Lipshutz, Jason. “Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ Anniversary: 15 Little-Known Facts.” Billboard, 1 Oct. 2013,
4, 5 Stallman, Jason, et al. “The New York Time Presents, The Framing of Britney Spears.” Hulu, season 1, episode 6,
6 Miley Cyrus Defends Her Performance at MTV VMAs. 4 Sept. 2013,
7 “Miley Cyrus ‘Felt Sexualised’ While Twerking during 2013 MTV VMA Performance.” BBC News, BBC, 15 July 2017,
8 Spanos, Brittany. “Song You Need to Know: Miley Cyrus, ‘Slide Away’.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 29 Aug. 2019,