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Hints of Feminism in Hilary Duff's "Dignity"

Listening to Childhood Albums as an Adult Really Makes You Think...

I have a very vivid memory of carrying a CD player to every room of the house so I could listen to Hilary Duff's (2003) Metamorphosis album wherever I went. When I got a little older, I eventually outgrew Duff's music...until very recently. After a conversation with a friend a month ago ended in, "Hey, that reminds me of that Hilary Duff song," I had the entire Dignity (2007) album on repeat for a few days. What struck me more than how much more mature it was than I'd realized as a child was how empowering the lyrics were as a woman.


Let me start this with a disclaimer that I am not educated enough on feminism to consider myself even an amateur feminist, but I am learning. As such, I am not speaking here from the experience of a feminist, who fights long and hard for gender and sex equity, but from my own experience as a woman in a misogynistic society (but if you're looking for an educated feminist to listen to, check out @herspective on TikTok. She rocks).


The first song that jumped out at me was "Dreamer." In this song, Duff is firmly telling a stalker to stop following her around and to stop pretending they are in a relationship (Stevenson, 2012). She speaks from the experience of being a celebrity, who are at a higher risk of being stalked (Wilson et al., 2018), but the message can resonate with the 16% of women in the US who have been stalked (compared to 5% of men; Women and Gender Advocacy Center, n.d.). She admits to being afraid—"[...] can't you see/That you're just scaring me?" In this song, she brings attention to how for women, one interaction with a man can sometimes turn into something terrifying, dangerous, or "messed up."


What stuck out to me about this song was how forcefully she is telling the perpetrator, repeatedly and firmly, "stop watching me." She is angry ("Don't you have better things to do with your life?") and sassy "I go to bed and I wake up/Isn't that interesting?"). This jumped out at me because girls are socialized to be polite and peaceful and nice (first presented by Lakoff, 1974). Women aren't supposed to get angry. We're supposed to be submissive. But here she isn't concerned at all with how she appears. Instead, she is demanding respect, like boys are taught to do.

Similarly, "Between You and Me" also focuses on how exasperating it is to be the object of male gaze. Once again, she firmly rejects a man's advances by telling him straight up, "So move on"—multiple times in fact, if the bridge lyric, "He never gets the hints that I've given him," tells us anything. And like "Dreamer," she also admits to being afraid of this stranger with, "It freaks me out inside," once again reminding us that for women, a simple interaction with a man can become dangerous.


She even takes the power in the interaction with, "Let me give you some advice," and, "He doesn't even know who he's trying to get with." This power-taking is impactful for two reasons. First, we typically hear about mansplaining, in that men more often dominant the conversation with topics they believe they know more about, while women are expected to just listen. Here Duff is breaking that mold of submission and claiming the power as her own by asserting that she knows more than him, enough to give him advice. These lines are also important because while men are taught that they are powerful and important, women are taught to hate themselves and especially their appearance so that the patriarchy can dominate over them and sell them products that will make them hate themselves less. Women aren't supposed to be confident, let alone egotistic. Yet with these two lines, Duff is both. And it's awesome.

What I find most empowering about this song is the chorus lyric:

"'Hello,' doesn't mean an open invitation."

I hope we all know by now that "no" means "no," but what people still have trouble grasping is that ONLY "yes" means "yes." From clothes to looking at a man to saying hello, as Duff inserts, anything a woman does can be considered an "open invitation" to a man to sexually harass or assault her. Even her looks can be used as an excuse; there are women who have been denied help after being sexually harassed or assaulted because, "Oh, he just thought you were pretty," like a woman on TikTok, who was told that very thing by a male police officer after she reported her sexual harassment (source pending--sorry!).


Continuing on the theme of setting boundaries with men, I had "Play with Fire" on repeat all. day. long. This song is about a random encounter with an ex in which Duff feels happy and confident in her new life—and with her new partner. She states, "I decided only he can play with fire." This line came off slightly sexual to me, as in she does enjoy being with men but only allows one specific man to be with her. She is setting that clear boundary that what is a "yes" for one man does not automatically become a "yes" for another man. Maybe you didn't hear the line as a sexual innuendo, but she is still setting a boundary of what only one person is allowed to do to her.

With this song, she was also once again breaking that old rule that women have to hate themselves so that patriarchal capitalism can sell confidence to them. The entire idea of the song is your attention feeds my ego; you still want me and that makes me feel good about myself. The specific line, "I don't have time for this/I'm off to play in Houston," announces that she is important and he is not worth her time. But women aren't supposed to be egotistic! Women are supposed to feel bad about themselves!


The lyrics and stories aren't the only aspect of this album tied into feminism, but the process behind the writing was too. Duff co-wrote all but one song on this album because she was adamant about telling her own story. She says:

"I wrote it. It has all of me in it. I never did my records like that before. I got to choose the music, but this time around it was like, I'd sit down and think, What happened to me yesterday?"

(Duff, via Rayner, 2007)


Again, since women are supposed to just shut up and be nice, a woman telling her story to a global audience is no small feat. As the gender constantly degraded for being "too emotional," hearing a woman spend 14 tracks owning (and profiting off of) her emotions was quite empowering for me as both a woman and a writer.


Speaking of, Duff also encourages men to own their emotions. Alongside those standards of femininity, the patriarchy also pushes an ideal standard of masculinity, referred to as "toxic masculinity" for the negative effects it has on men's mental health and women's literal safety. Men are supposed to not show emotion (besides anger, of course) so that they can seem "tough," but in this album, Duff encourages who I assume is the man in her life to open up to her and let her into his feelings. In "Never Stop," Duff emphasizes their partnership in that she will be there to help him "when the darkness rolls in" or when he feels like "[his] world is breaking down." She is encouraging him to let her into his negative feelings so she can help, rather than to bottle them up so that he can appear strong. Similarly, in "With Love," she asks him to tell her "what's been on [his] mind lately," so long as he does so with love in mind, rather than through an outburst of anger. Again, she is gently encouraging him to open up to negative feelings, but here fights against the pressure on men to only embrace anger.


The album is not a perfectly feminist anthem, however. I did find the difference between "dangerous" men and "dangerous" women quite problematic; in "Gypsy Woman," Duff talks down about a woman for going through men, while in "Danger," she admits to being attracted to a man for going through women. These two songs conform to the problematic idea that men can are celebrated for having multiple sex partners in their lifetime, while women are shamed for it. Rumour has it that "Gypsy Woman" is about her father's mistress, and while I understand it can be difficult to speak poorly, especially to the public, about a parent, I do wish there was less focus on the woman and more focus on the man who actually broke up the relationship.

I can't blame her for it, though—women are taught to attack even each other's sexual behaviour and that internalized misogyny can be very hard to rewrite. It's possible though: compare the slut-shaming ideology of Taylor Swift's 2010 song "Better Than Revenge" to her 2019 sexually empowering song "The Man."


From, "She's better known for the things that she does on the mattress," to, "They'd say I played the field before I found someone to commit to/And that would be okay for me to do."

Besides that, this album had me snapping my fingers in agreement as if I was at a slam poetry event, and I applaud and admire Duff and any woman who breaks the "nice" mold of femininity to speak out against the patriarchy and its effects on both men and women. Especially through art.



References


Much of what I've learned about gender discrimination came from Lex Konnelly's Language and Gender course.


Hilary Duff. (2003). Metamorphosis [Album]. Buena Vista & Hollywood.


Hilary Duff. (2007). Dignity [Album]. Hollywood.





Swift, T. (2010) Better than revenge [Song recorded by Taylor Swift]. On Speak Now. Big Machine.


Swift, T. & Little, J. (2019). The man [Song recorded by Taylor Swift]. On Lover. Republic.



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