Katy Perry may have just experienced the most controversial kiss of her career. No, not that one.
To recap: last week, Benjamin Glaze, a 19-year-old contestant on American Idol, was startled by Katy after he was asked whether he’d ever ‘kissed a girl and liked it’. Benjamin replied, ‘I have never been in a relationship and I can’t kiss a girl without being in a relationship.’
Katy got up, asked him to kiss her on the cheek and then surprised him by kissing him on the lips, to Benjamin’s obvious shock and embarrassment (he actually said, ‘You didn’t!’ as Katy put her hands in the air and high-fived her fellow judges, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan). He has since told The New York Times that he never consented to the kiss – and if Katy had asked, he would have said no because he wanted his first one to be ‘special’. He added, ‘I know a lot of guys would be like, “Heck, yeah!” But for me, I was raised in a conservative family and I was uncomfortable immediately.’
At a time when the public conversation around consent is increasingly urgent, it’s difficult to dismiss Katy’s actions as flirty fun. Gender-flip the situation and imagine the outrage if former judge (and Katy’s boss) Simon Cowell had kissed a teenage girl live on camera – especially one who had made it clear that she did not want to be kissed.
The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are calling out sexual harassment in the name of feminism. But feminism is about gender equality, about every gender having the same rights, opportunities and levels of safety. ‘Women don’t get a free pass in the #MeToo movement,’ was how one person on Twitter put it, amid plenty of online outrage. Katy’s fellow judge Luke saw it differently. ‘It’s unfortunate that stuff like that turns into a story that big,’ he said.
‘I gotta back Katy on that. She’s in there working hard and making fun TV.’ Again, gender-flip the situation and imagine the inevitable apology Luke would be forced to make if he had made the same statement about a man kissing a woman like that. There’s a serious double standard at play.
Benjamin’s response also reveals a lot about the problems we still have when it comes to understanding gender issues. Even in 2018, we still have strange, outdated standards for men and women. Men are supposed to pursue and be sexually con dent, while women are expected to be more reticent. When women challenge that stereotype, they’re praised for being bold (see Emily Ratajkowski, Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian, who are as often attacked for being sexually daring as they are celebrated for going against society’s expectations and pursuing what they want).
Men, however, aren’t given the same space to challenge the narrative and defy anyone’s expectations. It’s too easy to think, as Benjamin himself pointed out, ‘If this guy is a red-blooded male, why wouldn’t he want a kiss from a beautiful woman?’ We live in a world in which men are expected to display their sexuality constantly, while we simultaneously implore them to contain it. Men and women are subjected to endless mixed messages about how to behave, but each one is about enforcing an arbitrary, reductive standard for all genders. We’re still missing the messages about how to make other people feel comfortable.
There’s another thing we can learn from this incident: we can’t end harassment until we understand that it’s a power issue, not a gender one. Men are typically the perpetrators of sexual harassment because they tend to have more power than women in any given situation, because almost every aspect of society is set up to ensure the power balance is still tipped in a man’s favour (the gender pay gap, fewer women running companies and sitting on boards, and the fact that half of all women surveyed last year reported being sexually harassed at work).
Power, not gender, is how Harvey Weinstein got away with it for so long, with his victims saying they were afraid to speak out because it could cost them their careers. On American Idol, Katy Perry had all the power. As a celebrity judge, she was in a position to decide what happened to Benjamin. And her status meant that he wasn’t just subject to her unwanted attentions, but to all of the awkwardness, shame and embarrassment that followed. It doesn’t matter whether she was genuinely attracted to Benjamin, or whether she kissed him because she thought it would make good TV. She abused her power.
I hope we’re at the beginning of a really positive period of female empowerment; that we will see an increasing number of women taking charge and enjoying the success and status that men have enjoyed for so long. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and hopefully Katy’s kiss will teach us all how to use it.