In popular music today, there is a significant increase in sexualized representation of women. There are many social and political implications when listening to songs on the radio, online, on TV, etc.
There is a lot of talk about whether this hyper-sexualization is empowering or exploitive. There is also conversation to be had about masculinity and how men in music have power and control over female bodies. The female body is somewhat of a performance site through which male dominance is subverted. It is a tough conversation surrounding which examples of popular culture are empowering to women in the sense that they are claiming their bodies to reconstruct gender identity and sexualization or if dominant male forces and cultural ideologies always counter this. By using textual analysis and ideology, I looked at examples of popular culture such as music videos and song lyrics.
There are examples of empowering sexualization in this new feminist era such as Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, but I will focus on exploitation of women bodies by male artists. Most representations and portrayals of women in music are sexualized and exploitive. Some music videos in popular culture featuring a male artist take advantage of women and assert power and control of their bodies. Music videos are now central to popular culture and media industries.
Instead of just playing on MTV, music videos have spread to airing on multiple channels as well as across musical genres. “They have moved from the margins of the culture and relative innocence to its very center and it’s caldron of controversy around the nature of the sexual imagery that came to define it as a genre” (Sut Jhally, Dreamworlds 3). When looking at music videos, I took a textual analysis approach. I looked at how certain music videos conveyed specific ideologies of gender and sexuality. Douglas Kellner, author of “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism and Media Culture” defines ideologies as “ideas or images that construct the superiority of one class or group over others and this reproduce and legitimate different forms of social domination” (Kellner 13). While keeping this in mind, I looked at two recent music videos.
Maroon 5 released a music video to their new song “Animals” in September. The lyrics are extremely interesting and problematic in the sense that they describe a stalking situation in which Levine sings, “Baby I’m preying on you tonight / Hunt you down, eat you alive / Just like animals, animals, like animals-mals” (Maroon 5, Animals). Also in the song, Levine sings about a woman who wants to stay away from him, but can’t because her attraction is too strong for him to handle. The music video portrays Levine as a meat butcher where a customer (that he stalks in the video) comes and orders meat. Levine is seen outside the customers’ apartment taking pictures and he has a whole room set up with pictures of her he has taken.
Levine is also covered in blood and hanging out in a dark, gritty room with slabs of meat hanging from the ceiling. Later in the video, Levine approaches the customer at a bar and she rejects him, leading to a fantasy montage of them in bed together, naked and kissing. This music video is a negative portrayal of women as it sexualizes stalking and exploits a woman’s body. The group is using the idea of animals as a metaphor for hetero-normative desire.
However, this ideal paired with the video’s stalker fantasy, the audience can determine the message as violent where the female object of Levine’s desire is threatened, endangered, and powerless. This is just another man in popular music assuming he already knows what a woman wants and that she needs him. With the stalking complex on screen, this reinforces male dominance. Levine is portraying a man who thinks he owns this woman, or that just because he likes her, he deserves to have her. Men’s thinking they have control over women has been an on-going problem in this society and Maroon 5’s music video strengthens this social dominance and construct the superiority of men over women.
No one should ever confuse stalking, a criminal act, with romance and love. Plenty of music video in popular culture perpetuate male dominate and hyper-sexualize women and the lyrics that go along with them are as, if not more, disturbing. Music created by male artists exploit and sexualizes women’s bodies when the lyrical content includes sexual assault. When looking at lyrics, I looked at Croteau and Hoynes’s ideas surrounding ideology. They define ideology as “a system of meaning that helps define and explain the world and that makes value judgments about that world” (152).
They go on and say how ideologies don’t have to reflect reality accurately and can often present a distorted version of the world. “When Marxists speak of ideology, they often mean belief systems that help justify the actions of those in power by distorting and misrepresenting reality” (153). Basically talking about what these messages tell us about our society. Eminem recently released a new track titled “Vegas”. The verse mentioned Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, and alluded to rape.
You’re lucky just to follow my ride/ If I let you run alongside the Humvee, unless you’re Nicki/ Grab you by the waist, let’s ski/ So what’s it gon’ be? / Put that shit away, Iggy/ You gon’ blow that rape whistle on me,” (Eminem, Vegas). Also Eminem has rapped that he would like to “punch Lana Del Ray right in the face twice like Ray Rice,” (Eminem, Freestyle Rap). These lyrics make it seem like rape and sexual assault is acceptable in this society. This belief system that rape is acceptable justifies the actions of Eminem because he is in power, distorting and misrepresenting reality. Eminem is reinforcing the belief that rape is acceptable by using his power in the entertainment industry and popular culture. The lyrics are exploitive to women because they objectify and degrade the woman body.
Rape is also about control and controlling women in music is also exploitive of women. Another example of rape in musical lyrics is Robin Thicke’s “Blurred lines”. The lyrics glamourize violence against women and reinforce rape myths with examples such as “Nothing like your last guy / He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that” (Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines). These lyrics objectify and degrade a woman’s body by using misogynistic language and imagery. If the lyrics are more closely looked at, there are certain lines that are explicit examples of sexually violent activity that reinforce victim blaming, such as a woman giving “mixed signals” through clothing and behavior. These lyrics also make it seem like rape and sexual assault are acceptable in this society, so artists keep singing about it and people in are society keep committing acts of sexual assault.
This belief system that rape is acceptable justifies Robin Thicke’s song because, like Eminem, he is in a powerful position in the entertainment industry and popular culture. There are masses of people that listen to his music for the sake that it is a catchy song and do not realize the harmful lyrics that accompany it. Without critical analysis of his lyrics, people of this society will continue to see rape and sexual assault as acceptable. “Blurred Lines” is also exploitive to women bodies in the sense that he is using them as objects. Thicke doesn’t think what he is singing about is wrong and he doesn’t consider how the woman feels in this situation at all. This is a highly sexualized song, but not in an empowering way.
Thicke probably thinks the song is empowering for women because there are definitely good examples of taking back sexualization such as Beyonce and Nicki Minaj. Thicke songs “tried to domesticate you/ But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature” (Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines). The whole song is about domestication and it is not about women exposing their bodies for their own amusement and empowerment, but for Thicke’s. Most representations and portrayals of women in music are sexualized and exploitive.
Especially today there is a spike in sexualized representation of women. Whether this sexualization is empowering or exploitive is debatable. Male dominance is subverted through the female body to maintain control and this is an ideology that society holds. By looking at music videos and lyrics by Maroon 5, Eminem, and Robin Thicke, I was able to conclude that most music created by white cis-male men is exploitative to the woman body.
I did not look at gender non-conforming men or male artists of color, so I cannot say whether their music is exploitative to the female body. While not all music is exploitative to women, I think sexualization coming from female artists can be deemed empowering. Artists such as Beyonce and Nicki Minaj are claiming their bodies to reconstruct gender identity and sexualization. I think dominant male forces and cultural ideologies don’t have to counter this always if women come together and reclaim our sexual identities.
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