It’s OK patriarchy, I understand Adam Lambert made you feel funny

Adam Lambert, all glammed up, holds the back of a male band member's neck, going in for a kiss
So you may have heard Adam Lambert performed at the American Music Awards on Sunday (the video has been removed from YouTube). And then Good Morning America canceled his appearance on the show scheduled for this morning. Why?

“Given Adam Lambert’s controversial live performance on the AMAs, we were concerned about airing a similar concert so early in the morning,” a spokesperson for the network said.

Because Adam Lambert doesn’t understand the difference between 11 at night and hour I don’t want to be awake in the morning? The performance was apparently “controversial” because of some (very theatrically) simulated oral sex and a same sex kiss. Hasn’t Janet Jackson incorporated simulated oral sex into her performances for years? Didn’t Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera already do that same sex kiss thing? Bondage-themed performances seem old hat at awards shows (except, hmm, they are usually headlined by female performers). Seriously, what’s the big deal?
Oh right. Adam Lambert’s male. And gay (not just for pretend!).

In patriarchal culture we assume a (straight cis) male gaze. The Madonna/Britney kiss is not processed as a threat to straight male supremacy because it dovetails nicely with acceptable straight male desire. Women are seen as objects of male desire, and therefore the culturally acceptable object of sexual desire, period. So a same sex kiss between women is fine – maybe a little “controversial,” but in a good way. Especially if the women kissing are perceived as straight and cisgender – Britney may have kissed a girl and liked it, but it was understood mostly as an act. After all, the kiss is more about male desire than the desire of the women actually involved. I’m sure there was some outrage over the Madonna performance, but even Rush Limbaugh focused his criticism on how Al Qaeda, which he presents as representing an inferior culture, would react to the kiss. I remember most of the reaction being more like ZOMG MADONNA AND BRITNEY KISSING SO HOT. Some folks in the media called the kiss a publicity stunt, but this view recognizes that a same sex kiss between women gets positive attention. The move seemed to help Britney’s career, and was read as Madonna recognizing her as the queen of pop’s successor (seriously Madonna, you couldn’t wait for Beyoncé?).
Adam Lambert’s performance, on the other hand, is seen as a threat, enough to have an appearance canceled on him. If audiences admitted they thought Adam Lambert leading a guy around on a leash, getting fake oral sex from a guy, and kissing a guy was hot it would call into question male supremacy as reinforced through heterosexuality. The number positioned men as the objects of male sexual desire, and men objectifying men calls the most simplistic understanding of gender hierarchy into question. I mean, if straight male viewers didn’t let homophobia dictate their reactions, if they actually let themselves enjoy the performance that might make them *gasp* gay! It would at least complicate their understanding of desire. Plus the glam-inspired performance had a male presenting but femmed up Lambert dominating strong, muscular men. And we could never accept femme as empowering, especially for a dude person!
The view of this performance as controversial in a bad or icky way is down to a very traditional form of sexism, in which women can be objectified for a mainstream audience but men can only be objects of desire if it’s in a clearly heterosexual situation (and usually one that reinforces gender norms and power dynamics – Twilight, for obvious example). When folks react negatively to this performance it’s clear something got to them. Hey male gaze, your arousal is showing.
Feministing Community blogger erin-tc points out that the double standard regarding male and female displays of homosexuality, which Adam Lambert called out during an interview on the CBS Morning Show today, was repeated in that show’s coverage.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • eli_mh

    I’m all for fucking with preconceptions about gender in the media, but I’m not going to laud a performance where a man drags women around by their legs and leads kneeling people around on leashes like dogs. Remember the outrage a few years ago when Snoop Dog pulled a similar stunt? The fact that it’s a queer man participating in a transgressive and dehumanzing portrayal of sexuality doesn’t make it any less offensive.

  • katemoore

    No, I’m still not going to applaud this performance. What about the part at the beginning where Adam, a man, was dragging a woman around the stage by her leg? You know, the part that the press has been noticeably silent about. The more I read, the more it pisses me off, because it’s just further proof that to society, it’s A-OK and completely non-notable to represent women in this submissive, object-of-extreme-dominance position.

  • anna_banana

    yeah i have to agree with the above two commenters on this one. i read that the people who disapprove of the performance objected not to the same-sex kiss (who knows if theyre tellin the truth on that though) but to the simulated oral sex act. that and the pullin of the woman by the leg was crazy for me. and id like to see a clip of janet jackson doing such an explicit act like “theatrically” receiving oral, becuz shes sexual.. but i dont think shes ever done that

  • DeafBrownTrash

    This is a great post. The media’s double standards on Adam’s sexuality vs female pop singers’ sexualities just angers me. I see nothing controversial about his act onstage (although I don’t care for his music, which is a different story).
    I hope Adam Lambert will continue to piss off the conservative public with even more risque sexual acts onstage. I look forward to it.

  • fwavebex

    I see your Adam Lambert and raise you a Zumanity… lol.
    This video provoked an interesting discussion at one of our house parties, where a bunch of us were discussing a recent dance we had done for Social Theatre. I had borrowed some choreographed elements from this clip of “2 Men”. So we brought out the laptop and showed it to everyone.
    One not-so-progressive male (the rest were cool with it, or pretended to be), took offense and stated that he didn’t want to see two men kissing. When challenged, he claimed he was fine with ‘gay people’, but saw no reason why he should have to see it.
    “But why do you feel like you get to dictate what can be seen?”, he was asked, and had no answer but a snarky “Well, what do you want me to say? Because I’m a boy?”
    so yeah.

  • tzaddi-93
  • annebella

    Adam Lambert’s choreography came off as abusive and violent. The kiss was one thing; the rest of his performance was degrading to the dancers — both male and female. Just because media and pop culture don’t rise up and object over certain female performers’ acts doesn’t mean I should applaud a male performer’s act that I find equally offensive and objectifying.

  • gab

    I never even thought about the sexist implications of this; I thought it was just homophobia. Excellent points, thank you for bringing it to my attention :)

  • S.P. Burke

    I do agree that there’s an incredible double standard between bi-curious girls and actual gay men in our media.
    That being said, Adam’s performance WAS pretty garish, in the same way Janet Jackson’s or Britney’s or Madonna’s performances have been garish. It’s something common I’ve seen with artists on MTV generating controversy: they don’t really care about it’s societal context, more just a way to get ratings and album sales. This is why I didn’t care much about Madonna kissing Britney and Christina, or any other stunt she’s pulled. Madonna doesn’t care about societal commentary, she’s just pushing buttons for publicity. Adam was doing the same thing and he knew it.
    And just a silly thought, the guy Adam’s kissing in the picture actually reminds me of a lesbian I knew in college. Is that weird?

  • Chelsa

    Bring on the BDSM choreography! I thought it was hot. And let’s be clear, he was “dominating” men and women… so it’s not a “Woman need to be submissive always!!1!!1″ thing, it’s a sexual power-play thing.

  • terrio

    I’m a feminist woman with a disability-I do disability and arts advocacy, worked at Planned Parenthood, etc-I give LOTS of latitude to expressive performance and inclusion. But this whole BS performance has gotten way too much attention, including this article.
    Adam is on the make for his 15 minutes of fame, before he has to figure out a *real* way to make a living in this world like the rest of us.
    His so-called performance was offensive-and for once I may agree with the ‘patriarchy’ if that’s what people are labeled who happen to prefer a little talent with their performing arts. I really dislike being categorized as such, due to having standards that don’t include mindlessly condoning the latest headline-grabbing moment of fame.

  • Lamour

    There is definitely homophobia colouring the discussions surrounding his performance, of course. But like others have said, there were legitimately troubling aspects of it as well. The “kiss” with the keyboardist was clearly non-consensual. And I do understand why people would object to seeing the oral sex thing on network tv at a relatively early hour. I consider myself to be sex-positive, but I do understand if others objected to such a graphic depiction of a sex act on network TV at that time.

  • a.k.a.wandergrrl

    I think Jos’ analysis here is excellent, but I also agree with many of the commenters’ criticisms of the objectification in the performance. What I’d like to hear is a real explanation of exactly what the network folks find troublesome. The generic explanations don’t lead to the type of meaningful conversations we could be having (beyond the activist-type folks around here).

  • KMcClure

    Some people like to be laid down nicely on soft white sheets and make sweet, tender love to the person they care about, some people like being tied up, whipped, and put on leashes by the person they care about. There are hundreds of thousands of people who practice s/m all over the world and it is not demoralizing or degrading. It is their personal choice and I would like to believe that those progressive enough to be a part of the feministing community would accept all forms of sexual desire.
    NEWSFLASH: even some feminists like to be dominated in bed. (Just don’t ask me to cook for you afterwards)
    but that is all besides the point. If you’re enraged about Adam Lambert’s artistic expression or the media with which he chose to display it then I sure hope you don’t have the following people on your ipod: Prince, Madonna, Micheal and Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Pink, Shakira, or even the effing Rent soundtrack. Basically anyone awesome has toyed with s/m in their lyrics, videos, performances, or photo shoots a few times. Sex and pain are artistic, get over it.
    And for the record, the woman “Adam, a man, was dragging around the stage by her leg” WAS A DANCER and that was a DANCE MOVE.
    This is bogus.

  • borrow_tunnel

    Okay is everyone forgetting that he shoved not only a man but a woman into his crotch as well? IDK what to make of it just wondering what you all are thinking. If it’s BDSM play or w/e I guess it’s okay but I don’t think there’s any excusing his fingering one woman onstage. I would be okay with it if it was consensual and they had talked about it beforehand but he did say that he was just going with the flow or whatever so I’m gonna guess he didn’t ask the female dancer.
    It’s at about 3:07. Other videos might give you a clearer picture of what he did.

  • KMcClure

    here is some spanking, grinding, and even pushing faces in her crotch via everyone’s fave gal JANET.
    for those of you who aren’t offended by something like dancing and sex, enjoy it.
    “relax it’s just sex”

  • Honeybee

    Since I’ve read that everyone involved in his performance consented and everything was coreographed beforehand, I’m not totally clear on why there is so much outrage. He didn’t abuse anyone. Maybe he did something that could be abuse in some cases, but since this wasn’t abuse, I struggle with why it’s offensive.
    Also as feminists we are sex positive. so why would we suddenly get upset about a depiction of a sex act? Isn’t that what the conservative right is for?
    Personally I loved the performance!

  • ladylicious

    Am I the only one who was more offended by the lack of depth to the lyrics, horrible computerized production, sad beat, and general lack of artistry in the song? That was terrible. Adam Lambert is a huge talent with an amazing voice. How was that piece of crap he just took onstage supposed to be his big break? I mean, BDSM is an interesting subject matter and that was one of the least titilating things I’ve ever seen. Even though he looked great, nothing about that was hot. After watching that crapfest, I can’t even get into any analysis regarding implications about sex, gender or feminism. It’s like, who cares? That sucked.

  • katemoore

    I’m not anti-BDSM. I’m just being realistic; 95% of the audience is not going to view it that way. If anything, it’s co-opting that imagery to fit into a mold where women as slaves are considered “hot.”

  • Jos

    I also like to cook.

  • dustxandxlight

    I already posted this on the earlier post about Adam, but here it is again just for the hell of it:
    Wait, so why are we happy about this Adam Lambert performance again? Just because he’s a gay man that is openly displaying his sexuality?
    That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s being defined solely by his sexuality, at least in this performance. I think that sexualizing men in such a strong way can be just as dangerous as sexualizing women.
    For me, this isn’t an issue of censorship or his performance being ‘inappropriate.’ It’s about who he is to his fans and to the people that watched the AMA’s. His performance was about literally nothing but sex, and whether gay or straight, man or woman, that’s not something that should be embraced. What about, say…his music? (Which I don’t like, I’m just saying…)

  • Gesyckah

    “a *real* way to make a living” = not doing something you enjoy.

  • marie123

    “If anything, it’s co-opting that imagery to fit into a mold where women as slaves are considered “hot.”
    Are you just choosing to ignore the fact that he also dragged men around by leashes? Adam dominated both men and women in his performance. It was not a celebration of the degradation of women, but rather a portrayal of erotic BDSM and powerplay that went beyond gender boundaries. For Adam and a lot of other people, portraying people as slaves is erotic and hot, and in this performance both men and women filled the submissive role.
    I understand that lots of people are offended and put off by BDSM, but to be up in arms that women were degraded in the performance while ignoring the fact that men were degraded as well is just disingenuous. Is BDSM wrong only in certain contexts? Is it ok for a man to enjoy being submissive, but completely wrong and unfeminist for a woman to enjoy it too?

  • Tabs

    I’m totally down with performances about ‘literally nothing but sex.’ (Although the AMAs might not be the best venue.)

  • eli_mh

    No one is criticizing Adam Lambert for expressing his sexuality, the criticism comes from the fact that the performance was not “personal expression”, it was a big-budget choreographed spectacle designed specifically to exploit the stereotype of the dominating, predatory, gay male. Do you really think ABC or the AMA’s give a shit about sexual expression or queer politics? Of course not. Lambert’s performance was transgressive and explotive. The fact that it involved a queerman doesn’t lessen it’s contribution to Rape Culture.
    And don’t patronize us, of course everything was consensual and everyone got paid. I’m sure those women Snoop Dog borught to the Grammy’s on dog leashes got paid too.

  • Lexicon

    I’ve seen Janet, in multiple concerts, simulate vaginal-penile sex, and she often restrains, straddles, dry-humps, and directly grabs the crotches of chosen audience members. In that way, because she seems to act without receiving consent, she’s far far far more inappropriate than Lambert was IMO.

  • ebetty

    I have to agree. I didn’t find anything original or artistic about the performance and the vocals were atrocious.
    Lambert and his people would have had to been pretty naive if they didn’t anticipate this uproar — precisely because there was similar hullabaloo with his predecessors (Jackson, Spears, Madonna etc.) Only he upped the ante and did all these women did and more. So for the reaction to be greater makes some sense.
    All these charges of homophobia and sexism in the media probably have some validity. Yet on the opposite side, I sincerely wonder how many of those who defend this performance would do the same if the performer had been straight cis male etc.
    To me ( much like the Details magazine photoshoot) it is just another tired ploy to attract attention with gratuitous sensationalism. It’s more media that links sex with violence. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

  • nattles_thing

    Yes, because in a performance where male dancers get manhandled twice as much as the female dancers, the audience is naturally going to decide that Adam Lambert is saying submissive women are hot.
    It’s funny how an awful lot of people who “aren’t against BDSM” get really uncomfortable when anything with an even slightly BDSM-flavor makes it into the mainstream.

  • Icewyche

    Actually, I was more offended by the HAIR. The 80’s are DEAD, people – can we please let them decay in peace? ;-)

  • Nepenthe

    Sorry. I can’t get on board with the sexualization of violence. I’m not a feminist because I want to defy the conservative right; I’m a feminist because I think that women are people and people don’t deserve to have violence against them be depicted as sexy.
    The pro-BDSM-esque performance crowd might have a point if violence against women wasn’t already considered a sexy thing to the point that we can’t prosecute rapists and mainstream television shows in primetime can show images of rape and abuse without complaint. As a sexual submissive, I get BDSM. But as someone who was raped by my play partner, I don’t think that we need to actively spread the violence is sexy meme.
    The audience can’t tell the difference between consent and non-consent: the fact that many people watching read this performance as non-consensual, including me, indicates that without explicit depiction of consent, the types of performance that Lambert used are indistinguishable from depictions of truly non-consensual acts. There’s nothing transgressive or progressive about depicting non-consensual sex when such depictions are ubiquitous.

  • rhowan

    “id like to see a clip of janet jackson doing such an explicit act like “theatrically” receiving oral, becuz shes sexual.. but i dont think shes ever done that”
    Here you go: Janet Jackson theatrically receiving oral in a music video back in 1994.

  • cattrack2

    Everyone has seen Janet do that in concert, she did it to great effect in her HBO Velvet Rope concert. But the difference is that one is a premium, adult oriented channel, while the other is a mainstream (supposedly) family acceptable program. There’s certainly a strong homophobic element to complaints, and if Lambert had left it at kissing a guy, he’d have an argument but simulated oral sex? At a prime time awards show on ABC??? It might’ve been 11p in NYC, but it was still prime time everywhere west of there. This wasn’t a gay rights statement by Lambert as much as it was pure sensationalism for his career (and it worked!) …And part of this is just the tendency of ALL parents to be uncomfortable with anything sexual. You know how many complaints network TV & the NFL get about erectile dysfunction??? Enough that some 2 bit congressman (liberal Dem if I recall) wants to pass a law against it.

  • katemoore

    No, and you’re completely missing the point. That aspect of the performance, the men on leashes, has been pretty roundly lambasted by the press. But when it comes to a woman being dragged around by her leg? Nobody cares! It’s business as usual in the patriarchy. This is not about BDSM. Jesus christ.

  • katemoore

    It’s about context. Again, 95% of the audience probably isn’t even aware of the BDSM scene. They don’t know the acronym. Their only association, if pressed, would be “Oh, women being tied up. Hot!”
    And as another poster said, the AMAs and ABC don’t give a shit about BDSM or sexual expression. They care about ratings and any potential losses to their ratings. That’s why the parts with women have gone mostly unmentioned; because patriarchy thinks that’s A-OK, and it isn’t harmful to ratings.