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Expressive or Exploited? Female Sexualisation in Pop

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By Arwa Lodhi

At the Superbowl, Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ raised a lot of eyebrows. The main question seemed to be: was the singer getting too radical by dressing her dancers as Black Panthers?

If you ask me, that was the wrong question. The Black Panther movement was fierce and serious about making black lives matter in many different ways: they ensured all children of working mothers were fed a healthy breakfast before being shepherded off to school; they raised funds to support families in need, and they put forth political candidates to run for office. There were plenty of women in the Panthers (including singer Chaka Khan) but never once did they wear provocative little military outfits. Rather, they donned traditional African kaftans, regular 70s fashions, or mainly the black leather jacket, polo neck and beret that characterised the movement.

What I was wondering about Beyoncé’s performance was: why did the dancers have to be half-dressed? And what’s more: why does it seem women in pop today feel the need to constantly present themselves in an ever-raunchier sexual light?

‘Female Empowerment’ Designed by Men

Female sexualisation in pop is rampant, but Beyoncé isn’t the only one involved. Back in the day, a teenaged Britney Spears became famous by dressing up like a Catholic schoolgirl and begging her lover to ‘hit me baby one more time’. Today, Miley Cyrus has become more famous for twerking and swinging naked from a wrecking ball rather than for her wonderful voice, and makes highly sexualised videos directed by men like Terry Richardson (who has been accused of sexual assault by a few of the models he’s worked with).  In fact, while some argue that Cyrus and other pop stars are empowering women by expressing their sexuality in such performances, the reality is that often these women and their actions are managed and directed by men.

Larry Rudolph, for example, is the man behind Britney’s ‘Baby One More Time’ video, and the rebranding of Brit as ‘a sexy pop princess’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s now Miley’s manager, too – and he’s the man behind the idea of having Miley twerk and simulate masturbation on stage with Robin Thicke at the MTV Music Awards. He also started a gyrating girl group called G.R.L. along with Pussycat Dolls founder Robin Antin and producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke – who just happens to be the man behind Kesha’s success – and guess what? Kesha has since been locked in a legal battle with him, claiming he abused her for years.

Who Benefits?

Blatant sexuality may be masquerading as female empowerment, but who are these sexual displays truly aimed at, and what results do they have?

Certainly, they sell music – to both male and female fans. But they also sell messages: messages that say women’s value is based largely on the size and shape of their body parts and the sexual things they do with them. Messages that tell young girls that being highly sexualised is the norm, and that tell young boys that women are always  available and ‘up for it’. Sure, it’s fine to have a large sexual appetite, but if these women were really all about being empowered, wouldn’t they be showing themselves say, lording over loads of gyrating, oiled, half-naked male bodies rather than showing off their own? It’s clear from just about any music video that the viewer is assumed to be male, and the content of the video is aimed to titillate him.

Indeed, the double standard for women and men in pop is as strong as ever. Male pop stars are constantly surrounded by scantily clad women, while they sing in anything from jeans and a tee shirt to a full suit (Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video, below,  is a great example), illustrating how the music video is designed specifically for the ‘male gaze’. Can you even imagine the uproar if a little boy were to be dressed in a nude coloured bodysuit, dancing with very adult-like moves to a song about one-night stands and alcoholism, or writhing around a cage with nearly nude adult? And yet Sia did this with two of her hit videos and very little was said about it – because the child in question was a girl.

Such sexually charged videos are certainly exerting a negative influence on girls. Even back in 2007 the American Psychological Society issued a report on the sexualisation of young women. They found “virtually every media form studied provided ample evidence of the sexualisation of women”.

In study after study, women – and increasingly, young girls –  are portrayed in overtly sexualised ways — vastly more than men. Unlike films, music videos are available for young children to watch without restriction, but are getting so raunchy, there is a warning of ‘Adult Content’ before some, such as Miley Cyrus’s latest MTV Music Awards performance where she ‘ejaculates’ smoke and glitter. Since the music video was originally created for youth culture, it’s a sad day when MTV has to carry warnings of ‘adult content’.

The hypersexualisation of women in pop is not a morality issue, it is one of women’s safety and equality. Studies show that girls who are exposed to sexualised content are more likely to endorse gender stereotypes and place attractiveness as central to a woman’s value. Boys who are exposed to this content are more likely to sexually harass females, and have inappropriate expectations of them. A shocking one in three girls in the UK say that they are ‘groped’ at school, or experience other unwanted sexual contact. Sexual harassment is practically routine at work, on public transport and other public spaces

Following a series of reviews, most recently the Bailey Review on the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood, the UK Government has decided to enact a series of measures to tackle sexualisation, including tighter guidelines on outdoor ads containing sexualised imagery, age-ratings on video games, restricting children’s access to online pornography.

 

A new project, Rewind and Reframe, has been set up by leading women’s groups in the UK – the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan and Object – to provide a platform for young women to speak out about sexism and racism in music videos by blogging and sharing their experiences on a new website. In the words of one of the young women from the project:

“There are times when I hate myself for liking certain kinds of music or song. They have good beats but the videos and the message is sometimes completely repulsive, and even hateful… Music videos are affecting dance too – women are just expected to dance in a sexual way… There is nothing left for women that has not been sexualised. People always talk about choice, but where is my choice to not be sexualised when everyone expects and sees only that when they look at me?”

Just as there is a fine line between pornography and art, there is also a fine line between sexualisation and sexual expression. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with women being sexy and expressing their desires – but by catering to the male gaze and male fantasies many artists (usually at their male managers’ bequest) have crossed the line into exploitation, using their sexuality to sell music.

These women are ultra talented and hardly need to do that to be successful. As one strong, sexy and best selling artist, Adele, once said: “Exploiting yourself sexually is not a good look. I don’t find it encouraging…To sell more records I don’t need to do that. I just stand there and sing.”



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