Emily Mackay

Emily Mackay is a freelance writer and copy editor based in Southend-on-Sea in the UK, though she originally hails from northern Scotland. She was previously reviews editor at NME, and her reviews and features have also appeared in The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, the Quietus and more. In 2017, she published her first book, for Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series, about one of her greatest loves, Björk’s 1997 album Homogenic.

"From ingenue to strap-on dildo: Björk’s adventures in gender"
“Men are allowed to be characters,” Björk said in 1997. “The funny guy, the sexy guy, the caring guy, the professor… but women are just supposed to be ‘female’.”

This presentation will explore how Björk’s creation of her own “characters”, figures representing each song and album, allowed her to slip the constraints of gender norms.

I’ll explain why and how we move, in Björk’s work, from the versions of a young woman we recognise as Björk on the sleeves of Debut and Post, to the aloof “warrior of love” on Homogenic’s cover, and, crucially, to characters not always identifiably female: the bear in the Hunter video, or the androgynous androids in the All Is Full of Love video.

I’ll explore how that firmer characterisation on Homogenic helped her to push the world back from her private life following a crisis in her relationship with fame, and how the harder stance of those new characters relates to the beginnings of a shift in Björk’s initially skeptical stance on feminism.

I’ll examine how her characters develop in later work, as Björk’s feminism becomes more outspoken and nuanced, reflected in the abstracted, visually extreme figures who fronted albums such as Volta and Vulnicura. I’ll also look at how Björk's collaborations with artists including Anohni, James Merry and Arca have informed her approach to gender and sexuality.

This will culminate in a look at her most recent album, Utopia, which plays confidently with gender: Björk appears on the cover with a mask fused into her face which resembles labia; in another image, she appears clad in fur and sporting a strap-on dildo while playing the flute. I’ll explain how these characters relate to the album’s themes of matriarchy and of breaking free from toxic emotional heredity, and imagine how gender might look in Björk’s future paradise.