By Shambhavi Saxena:
In 2013, singer-songwriter Annie Lennox criticized the music industry’s highly sexualized visual content as “clearly one step beyond [freedom of expression] … into the realm of porn.” Considering that the underlying intention of the music videos she disapproves of, is to sell, and specifically, to sell sex for massive profits, Lennox has a point. The music industry is notorious for the exploitation of the women who make it what it is. From background dancers to solo artists- compromise of comfort is key when the goal is money, and the raunchier the performance and accompanying lyrics, the better. Apparently.
The nature of women’s sexual expression has been a problematic debate for centuries, perhaps even millennia. A glance at cultural products depicting women, whether paintings, works of literature, romantic ballads, pop music, and actual pornography itself, reveals the passive role prescribed to women. The products borrow from, as well as inform real life practices of gender(ed) roles, manners, “proper behaviour” etc. which directly impacts human life. While Lennox may condemn the free reign given to sexual expression in popular music videos as ‘unsuitable’, there is a positive flipside to it as well.
One may have reservations about the circumstances through which music videos are made and consumed, but little attentions has been thus far given to the effect produced by sexualized representation of women. On one hand, the women featured in such videos are rendered as objects for the pleasure of a male gaze, or for a female observer to emulate for the male gaze. The sustained use of footage of isolated body parts of women (read: legs, butt, breasts but almost never face) across whole genres of pop, rap and hip hop videos is, in compliance with Lennox’s claim, pornographic. But on the other hand, the industry has come out with a series of videos where the willing sexual expression of women artists, independent of a male presence, is focal. These videos seem to recognize the sexual agency and desire of the female singers. While in some cases, the catalysts for their emotional or sexual responses are men; these men exist outside the limit of the song or video and are, in a complete reversal of the usual tradition, made the unwitting participants in female expression.
One of the videos that came under fire by Lennox and indeed a large section of the internet was Miley Cyrus’ hugely successful and shocking song “Wrecking Ball”, which featured the 21-year-old singer’s naked body. She is seen in both ‘vulnerable’ and ‘strong’ postures, and literally lays herself bare when singing of a personal experience with heartbreak. There seems to be a huge number of people who are threatened by a woman’s body, when it isn’t presented for their consumption. The music industry, widely considered a breeding ground for sexism and misogyny, might just be making a turnaround by challenging its own traditions.
Perhaps one of the most sexist music videos to ever grace our screens has been Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Line”, which is in itself an apology for rape, privileging the gratification of the male over all else, even consent and rights. An epic checkmate comes in the form of Lily Allen’s video “Hard Out Here”, which simultaneously mocks Thicke and discusses the oppressive conditions of a woman in the music industry. Many feminists have raised issues about Lily Allen’s objectification of women of colour in her video, but the objectification of any woman is the valid and central concern of her song. Allen’s song writing has always been sharply critical, witty and observational, coupled with irresistibly catchy tunes. In this single of hers, she makes an open call to action: “If I told you ’bout my sex life, you’d call me a slut / When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss / There’s a glass ceiling to break.”
The reactions to Nicki Minaj’s newest single “Anaconda” raise the same issues. Certainly, the lyrical and visual content was riddled with problems despite Minaj’s claim that it was empowering, but again, the effect produced by the video is important. A black woman as an independent sexual actor is not acceptable to internet. The moment there is an awakening of female desire, fear is struck into the heart of those (particularly men) who will not reconcile with the fact that their monopoly over sex may well be over.
The most recent artist to take up the mantle of feminism in an explicit way is BeyoncÃ© Knowles, during her 2014 Video Music Awards performance. In the middle of her performance, ‘Queen Bey’ samples a recording from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED speech on feminism, while the word “FEMINIST” lights up the screen in the background. In a brave move for a woman of colour in a thoroughly exploitative business, BeyoncÃ© reclaims feminism and female independence symbolically for herself, her fellow female musicians, fans and anybody who happened to tune into the VMAs at that moment.
The challenging, rather than pornographic content of these videos anticipate an introspective exercise on the part of those people who watch them. Representations of woman are changing — at a rate that may be too fast for the conservative, and too slow for the radical — but the fact is that they are changing. There is a fast growing trend of self-reflexive criticism being offered by artists, and though this may not be a solution to the central problem, it is certainly a beginning, a step in the right direction.