Reinforcing Sexism? Women in Music Videos

I’ve hit middle age so I’ve been watching music videos again.

In fact, I’ve seen the video for Katy Perry’s “Roar” around 30 times. This isn’t because I’m a weirdo (for the record, I am). It’s just that I have a young daughter and “Roar” is a solid party favorite among children and parents because the song, like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” is a hymn to self-empowerment.

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Katy Perry in the video for “Roar” (source: www.hollywoodreporter.com)

But I haven’t heard any Nicki Minaj blasting out at children’s parties, even though she’s also for self-empowerment. Minaj says of her “Anaconda” video (main image): “[It] was important for us to show [me toying with a banana, then chopping it up] in the kitchen scene, because it’s always about the female taking back the power … and if you want to be flirty and funny that’s fine, but always keeping the power and the control in everything.” To that end, she twerks furiously at the camera, even drumming on the posterior hemispheres of a fellow Amazonian in celebration of big bottoms and curvy bodies, before leaving Drake with serious blue balls after a private dance.

Sure enough, “Anaconda” provoked a lot of media discussion and controversy. Minaj was accused of hypocrisy for claiming that the song and video were honoring bigger-size female bodies against an alleged trend in rap videos to feature very slim, size-zero women—one trend I haven’t noticed myself. Katy Perry’s “Roar,” meanwhile, only caught a little flak from PETA for its use of wild animals, even though Perry wears a revealing push-up jungle bikini outfit through most of the video.

The difference, though, is obvious: while “Roar” is about becoming a stronger woman following a failed relationship, “Anaconda” is straightforwardly about sex, and about possessing the kind of body that turns men on. In fact, while “Anaconda” cheers the fuller backside, it’s actually titled after the male member: “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon,” opines a sampled male voice throughout the song.

I guess I’d be pretty disturbed if I went to a children’s party to find a clown and a group of under-10s twerking away to “Anaconda.” But I would also be pretty freaked out if The Exorcist was broadcast on TV at teatime. Minaj’s music is not meant for children, even if some children listen to it or watch her videos. Her themes are certainly of an ‘adult nature’ and she raps frankly about the joys of male objectification: “He said he don’t like ’em boney, he want something he can grab.” Her videos frequently involve performances that, even if directed towards female viewers, are at least partially subsumed into a dominant patriarchal culture where women’s bodies are only objects for male pleasure.

A study from 2008–10, “Women’s Interpretations of Music Videos Featuring Women Artists,” published in the Journal of Research on Women and Gender, found that the majority of the surveyed female viewers were critical of overtly sexual performances by women artists, but the participants also argued that the artists had had creative input and choice in deciding to do so. Nevertheless, the authors of the study, Elizabeth McKenna Boosalis and Kim Golombisky, maintained that:

“[T]o make sense of their discomfort with the videos, participants relied on popularized notions of feminism. Thus, participants employed oppositional discourses from women’s movement [sic] to reject sexual objectification without recognizing dominant-hegemonic discourses that naturalize women’s beauty imperative. This resulted in unproductive critiques.”

While Katy Perry might not be inviting or reinforcing male sexual objectification in quite the same way as Nicki Minaj, perhaps she too is promoting a sexist beauty imperative when she applies lipstick and dons her push-up bra in the “Roar” video.

A beauty imperative is also at work in another anthem of female self-empowerment from Disney’s Frozen, wherein slim, saucer-eyed Elsa lets some of her clothes go:

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Frumpy to leggy: Elsa in “Frozen” (source: www.pinterest.com)

From “Anaconda” to “Let It Go,” it seems that music videos do partake in male sexual fantasy and portray a masculine-ordered beauty imperative. But they are so only as part of a bigger patriarchal superstructure, intent on packaging roles for women from early childhood, where talking Elsa dolls will sing out “Let it Go” in the pinkified section of a toyshop. Indeed, if we accept that we live in a patriarchy, how could they not?

Witness the difference in categorization between members of the Fab Four and the Fab Five.

The Beatles and Spice Girls

Sources: playbuzz.com and fanpop.com

As individuals in a pop group, The Beatles were reduced in terms of personality: John, the cheeky one; Paul, the mother’s favorite; George, the quiet one; Ringo, the funny one. The Spice Girls were reduced simply to how they were styled: Ginger, Sporty, Scary, Baby, Posh. And, pace Azealia Banks who recently tweeted on the possible racism inherent in styling Mel B as “Scary,” at least her epithet might have something to do with an interior personality aside from how she looked.

But my qualification is this: just how dominant is this masculine order? The implication from the study quoted above is that it is total, or at least effectively so. After watching the “Anaconda” video, my first reaction was: “Wow, this is pretty pornographic!” It seems directed almost exclusively at heterosexual male arousal. On further viewings, my reaction was, “I just don’t know.”

Some of the participants in the study had the same reaction to other videos by women artists, as McKenna Boosalis and Golombisky point out:

“As ‘I don’t know’ illustrates, we witnessed participants struggling to explain an inconsistency between sexual objectification and women’s power, and participants often seemed hesitant or ambivalent about their own explanations. Participants also tended to explain this inconsistency as a result of women’s movement [sic], which they framed as progressive, even if they didn’t quite convince themselves. In fact, this produced another unfortunate tension that made women’s movement responsible for sexualizing women, even while participants rejected sexual objectification and embraced women’s movement.”

What is missing—I think to a patronizing extent—from their analysis is the idea that the participants may be lost for words because they are allowing for an epistemological lack of knowledge as to the female artists’ intentions, or more pertinently, the artists’ desires, sexual and otherwise. The participants’ confusion may indicate an acceptance that there remains an area of personal and artistic freedom within the hypersexualized and beauty-demanded displays of female artists’ music videos. And if this possibility isn’t accepted, the conclusion seems to be that both artist and viewer are controlled by patriarchy to such an extent they might as well be robots. The question then arises as to how some people, such as McKenna Boosalis and Golombisky, struggle above this all-pervasive programming even to recognize it as completely dominant.

I think the reality is even more complicated. Problematic. A bit like sex. And desire.

An artistic creation like a music video might partake in patriarchal structures such as pornography. But this does not actually make them pornography because it is never entirely clear what the artists’ desires are (perhaps even to themselves, to speak a little psychoanalytically). Pornography, on the other hand, demands that any such ambiguity be expunged. Women’s bodies to be used sexually by men: end of story. This is not so even in a video as heteronormativity salacious as “Anaconda”; it also depends on how much an artist like Nicki Minaj buys into it, how much of her booty shaking is effectively a compulsion because she feels this is the way to be a woman, whether the relations between the sexes are just an alienated sadomasochistic interaction between “anaconda” and “ass.”

In another video, “Lookin’ Ass,” Minaj criticizes all the men in clubs constantly sizing her up: “Look at y’all lookin’ ass niggas. Stop lookin’ at my ass, niggas. Look at y’all lyin’ ass niggas.”

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Nicki Minaj firing off in the video for “Lookin’ Ass” (source: www.ibtimes.co.uk)

Whatever you think of her use of the n-word, it seems she also despises constant sexual objectification…although her point is somewhat undercut by her use of that most phallic of symbols, the M16 assault rifle.

Minaj, and many other female music artists, have an ambivalent attitude towards objectification but they shouldn’t be condemned for that. In fact, it makes them more human. I suspect that the eradication of sexual objectification is neither possible nor desirable because all of us crave a little objectification sometimes, because sexual relations (of all kinds) are about the body as much as the soul. There lies the complexity. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Objectification becomes a serious, psychologically harmful problem when it is demanded of people—and in a patriarchy, those people are almost always women and girls—all the time, when those objectifying and those objectified are inculcated into believing that this is how sexual roles and relationships are, should, and always will be.

Because women almost always are on the receiving end of this sinister (and often violent) extrapolation of objectification into nearly all areas of life, it’s unsurprising that even when they enjoy some of its attributes, they tend to take it far less seriously than men.

There’s a moment in Barbara Gowdy’s short story Lizards that highlights this situation. Characters Emma and Gerry have just been to two strip clubs, one where women strip for men and a second where men strip for women:

“In the car they had an argument about whether the women in the [second] club had been turned on. ‘They were sure acting like it,’ Gerry said. Emma said they were having a good time, but it was a parody, it was women acting the way they thought men did. ‘I’m a woman, I know how women feel,’ she said, and he granted her that, although she suddenly realised it wasn’t true. She had no idea how other women felt. It occurred to her that she might be missing entire traits—irony and caution.”

Emma’s position on sexual objectification is problematic—but she knows that it is, and it will likely continue to be however much she gets to know about herself and patriarchy.

It’s a commonplace to assert that hip-hop and R&B lyrics and videos are riven with sexism and misogyny. This is true, although there are always many exceptions.

Non-misogynistic videos

Aaliyah, TLC, and Saul Williams: a few of the many exceptional R’n’B and hip-hop artists that didn’t resort to misogyny in their videos (sources: nyulocal.com, realstylenetwork.com, and classictic.com)

While some of the sexism and misogyny in hip-hop and R&B might be pretty extreme, it certainly also exists in other pop genres. When she went to see on the big screen for its 50th anniversary, my girlfriend was slightly shocked to notice how the women in a film as charming as A Hard Day’s Night were almost purely ornamental.

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Source: pazespa.tumblr.com

Sexism in hard rock was so ubiquitous in the 1980s, it was parodied in the film This Is Spinal Tap. The band just can’t understand why the cover to their album Smell the Glove, which features “a greased, naked woman on all fours, with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it,” might cause offence.

Addicted to Love

“Addicted to Love”: gender roles restated, reversed, and parodied (sources: duckduckgrayduck.com, brycebluell.com, and YouTube

Then there’s one of the most iconic music videos ever: Robert Palmer’sAddicted to Love.” Despite criticism at the time of its release that the miming backing band looked like clones or clothes dummies, the video and song are widely loved and its style has so penetrated popular culture you can dress up as the members of the band for Halloween. Shania Twain paid tribute to the video, with roles reversed, in “Man, I Feel Like A Woman.” Kim Gordon took a more politicized view by recording the song karaoke-style in a Macy’s video booth. Responding to Palmer’s portrayal of women as mindless clones, Gordon decided to sing against a backdrop of the male stereotype of men at war, specifically the US Army landing in Vietnam, a war which the superpower famously lost.

Although in her recent memoir, Gordon does not seem to have found the original video too objectionable: “I liked Robert Palmer’s video, with its background cast of zombie models identically dressed and holding guitars.” She recognizes her ambivalence towards it.

meghan trainor

Meghan Trainor in “All That Bass” (source: yumikum.blogspot.com)

In the past year, Meghan Trainor has earned millions of YouTube views for her song “All About That Bass” which, like Anaconda, celebrates the fuller female figure and sticks it to “skinny bitches.” Unlike Nicki Minaj, Trainor is popularly viewed as wholesome, promoting a more positive image. Along with other commentators, I’m not quite convinced that she is.

Furthermore, is art better or worse for being “wholesome”? I’d rather go down to the crossroads.

Ideally, women in music videos should be able to sing and perform whatever the hell they like. But perhaps all songs and videos, by female and male artists, should focus less on women’s bodies. Perhaps this would help to show the main consumers of pop music—young men, women, and children—that relations between the sexes do not have to be about your “anaconda” or your “bass.”

This is why I support the call to the UK Government by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan and Object to make “the forthcoming pilot to voluntarily age-rate online music videos…mandatory and apply to all videos,” even if I am not entirely convinced by some of the theory that provoked such a call. The report’s other recommendations seem eminently sensible in an era where any image, including extreme pornography, can be accessed very easily:

  • Compulsory age ratings for all music videos, to ensure there is consistency in the regulation of music videos viewed online and on hard copy, as with film.
  • Those working in the music industry—including artists, video commissioners, video directors, and music company executives—should listen to the views of young women, including especially young black women, and commit to eradicating sexism and racism from their work.
  • The Government should ensure Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), which deals with consent and equality as well as media literacy are taught in all schools.

Perhaps these recommendations can help my own daughter to grow up understanding that to be a human being and a woman, you do not have to be something for another, including especially boys and men.

Again, I have to say that I don’t know. But I hope so.

Feature image courtesy of www.mtvbase.com

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