Naked Women and Pop Music

Rihanna posing on her throne in Pour It Up.

Where do we draw the line between exploitation and empowerment?

This blog post was originally published on 20th November 2013.

 

I will preface this by saying that I’m still not sure where I stand on Robin Thicke and his infamously Blurred Lines (here’s the NSFW video if you haven’t seen it yet), both in terms of the video and its message.* That’s just to give you a small indication that this topic isn’t fully sorted out in my mind yes, as I doubt it is in most people’s. This is a thorny and difficult issue to broach, and it probably always will be. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

This past year has seen something of a hysteria emerge over the image of women in our modern media, particularly in regards to their frequent over sexualisation in music videos. In turn the issue at hand has spread to many other subjects, from feminist responses to the concern over what effect this may be having on children.

It all started with the Blurred Lines video. And in turn, the furore over the video – those playful, topless women prancing around to the delight of fully-clothed men – highlighted the issues some people had with the lyrics hidden under that catchy minimalistic beat. Most of the critics have linked the song to rape culture. To date over 20 student unions at UK universities have banned the song from playing in union spaces due to its “utterly degrading” message.

Then came Miley Cyrus and the VMAs. Never has a twerk caused such fallout.

Amid all the hurtful jibes, the jokes, and the general frenzied babble, two sides emerged from the wreckage. In one corner we have the detractors, spearheaded by Sinead O’Connor. She wrote an open letter to Cyrus following the incident, which is full of kind and motherly wisdom like “You are worth more than your body or your sexual appeal”. And while I agree with much of what she says, I can’t help shake the feeling that her letter was a little presumptive too, as well as shameful towards female sexuality – or at least that version of it (though Cyrus did nothing to help her cause by mocking O’Connor’s mental health issues in response).

In the other corner are Miley’s supporters, who argue that the girl’s just doing what she wants to do and making a hell of a lot of money in the process. She knows exactly how to play the game and generate enough attention to make her album Bangerz shift a chart-topping 270,000 copies in its first week. They have a point.

All this meant that when Wrecking Ball came out, a song which I think is quite unexpectedly masterful, with a message more meaningful than most we find in pop music – quite apart from its video, which by the way I think still falls within the boundaries of good taste and artistic expression – it got lost in all the hullabaloo.

What is it about nakedness, particularly female nakedness, that gets us in such as state? Overt and often shocking sexuality seems to be the answer to that problem. Our modern society has reached such a ridiculous stage that it hardly seems possible for the female body to be depicted without a) it being openly sexualised in the depiction, or b) for us to project sexuality onto that depiction, as is so often reinforced and encouraged by societal forces.

It’s something as obvious as this which we often tend to forget: there is nothing inherently sexual about the naked human form, whether male or female. Nor should there be. But thanks to a history which has largely been dictated from a male viewpoint, which still affects us to this day, and which is backed up by our popular media, to most of us a naked woman has become an inherently sexual symbol.

Just think about that for a moment. A person’s body, simply because of its gender, immediately conjures up ideas of a sexual nature – often a hyper-sexual nature. How often do you see naked women in popular culture being used to signify anything else but sex, whether it’s motherhood or weakness or sincerity or vulnerability or simply just a single woman choosing to wander around her house without clothes (incidentally, this is a brilliant way to spend the day)? The answer is very rarely.

The fact is that, because nakedness is still pretty taboo, the only time it ever really gets used in popular media is in association with an equally taboo topic – sex. Never mind seeing normal everyday people being naked in normal, everyday, pretty banal ways.

Of course, visual signifiers are frequently also used to indicate to us that we should be looking at a woman in a sexual light, such as high heels, heavy makeup, push-up bras, and the list goes on and on. But the girls in the Blurred Lines wore nothing but thongs and a little lipstick, and we were clearly supposed to find them sexually provocative.

Perhaps at this point you’re thinking that my argument is null. Of course men will find most naked women attractive, and that has nothing to do with society and everything to do with how we humans work biologically. You may even say that most women would find a naked man just as attractive (overlooking homosexual and bisexual tendencies for the time being, for the sake of simplicity, although that is indeed another important piece of the puzzle). I have three responses.

Firstly, this may be true, but if so why doesn’t the naked male form appear so blatantly sexualised in our popular media – indeed, why do we see so few naked men in comparison? Why wasn’t Robin Thicke naked too alongside those lovely ladies?

Secondly, if we assume that the majority of women are heterosexual, most of them will not have an automatic sexual response to the sight of another naked woman. Yet in our popular culture, the idea of what a heterosexual male finds arousing – to the exclusion of the desires of heterosexual women, gays and lesbians, and everyone else – has become so pervasive that I think even women have been conditioned to find other women inherently sexual. This has much to do with the “male gaze”, an idea I’ll return to later.

Thirdly and finally, I am less concerned with natural human attraction between the sexes than I am with the fact that our popular culture does so much to exacerbate the over sexualisation of one side of that gender balance, to the detriment of men, women and children the world over.

Let’s circle back to the topic at hand – hyper sexualisation of women in music videos. Earlier I said that plenty of people support Miley Cyrus as a female role model, precisely because she uses her own body in a way that she chooses, to benefit herself. But the music industry isn’t painted in just black and white, especially when it comes to the women in it. Let’s take a moment to look at some concrete facts.

There are plenty of female artists, and we can name plenty of very successful ones: Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and now Miley Cyrus. But behind the scenes, 66% of people working in the UK music industry are male. That figure rises to 77% in promotion and management work. There are only 26 female A&Rs, or talent scouts for record labels, in the whole UK. At the executive and management level the feminine influence dwindles even further. Only 15% of members of the Music Management Forum are women. And while 22% of men in the business earn more than £29,000, only 6% of women can claim the same. In fact, a massive 47% of women in the music industry earn less than £10,000, compared to 35% of men.**

So what does this mean? At the upper echelons, the music industry is still very much a man’s world. White, heterosexual men are overwhelmingly the ones who make the decisions at the top. They’re the ones making the massive salaries, not the majority of artists they sign onto their record labels.

But what about the Madonnas, Katy Perrys and Beyoncés of this world? These empowered female artists also make an awful lot of money, and seemingly get to make a lot of their own executive choices too. Is it possible the music industry could be using even these powerful women for its own gain?

I’ll sidestep the question for the moment, though I will return to it soon. Instead I want to look at a two interesting and recent examples of how sexualised women are used in music videos. The first is Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here, and the second is Rihanna’s Pour It Up. Both these videos are NSFW, by the way.

Hard Out Here was written to be something of a feminist anthem, attacking both the sexist nature of society in general and the music industry in particular. Allen pairs some heavy-handed lyrics (“If I told you ‘bout my sex life you’d call me a slut / When boys be talking ‘bout their bitches no-one’s making a fuss”) with some very satirical visuals – twerking behinds, gushes of champagne and well-tongued bananas all make an appearance.***

I agree with the message of the song and appreciate the fact that Allen is trying to call attention to something we so often choose to ignore. But it raises an even more interesting issue, because the video has also been criticised for being racist. By repeating the visual signifiers of sexualisation we so often see in other music videos, even if doing so in a sarcastic way, the video walks a dangerous line between mockery and actual unintended replication of the objectification it’s trying to ridicule.

Racism has been suggested because 4 of the 6 back-up dancers are black, and they are emphatically the focus for most of the video. The remaining two dancers are white. Incidentally, I did spot a 7th dancer who was also white, but she appeared only briefly towards the end.

Those black, female back-up dancers are, like pretty much all black, female back-up dancers in the music industry, nameless, faceless and without agency, used merely for their bodies, while a white woman sings about the advancement of feminism without really acknowledging them at all. This article highlights what I think are the most common complaints about Hard Out Here. Whether the video is racist or not is not what I want to discuss here, but I do think it suggests something interesting about how easy it can be to inadvertently over sexualise women or reduce them to objects even while trying to do the exact opposite.

Lastly, I want to look at Rihanna’s latest video, for her song Pour It Up. This is an interesting video to watch because it raised a lot of emotions in me. At first I wondered whether to be offended by it. Was it showing women in a demeaning light? Or were they empowered by flaunting their sexuality as they desired? I’m not sure if any music video has ever before confused these questions so successfully, and in so doing I commend it.

And in the end I decided that I quite liked it.

Rihanna wears very little in the video. She is seen pole dancing and twerking in a way that I can only describe as very vigorous. She has money stuck in her bra; she throws it around; she licks it; she throws it over herself. She is decked out with expensive jewellery. The entire thing is a vision of decadence and excess, a celebration of her opulence.

Despite this, and even despite the initial impression it may make, I think the video is actually quite empowering. Interestingly there are absolutely no men in the video, a fact that you may not realise until the very end. The way it is shot makes it hard to tell exactly how many back-up dancers are used. I didn’t realise until a second viewing, but the main woman pole dancing is actually Rihanna herself. Shadows and silhouettes are used to destroy boundaries between women until you cannot tell them apart, uniting them in the process. The pole dancing isn’t even particularly sexualised – through a combination of camera distance, opacity and lighting, what is stressed is the athletic and flexible nature of the activity rather than its sexual overtones. Indeed, it is quite beautiful.

The song itself is hypnotic and foreboding, rhythmic and almost robotic. Rihanna sings relentlessly, almost in a monotone, about a strip club where she calls the shots. She handles the money and she knows exactly what she wants. Interestingly, in the persona of the song Rihanna is not the pole dancer but the patron at the club, even as we see her dancing in the background. She brags in a repeated refrain: “I still got my money”.

So Rihanna is in a position of supreme power here. She boasts about her ability to make money and spend it lavishly on whatever she wants. At the same time there is a strange duplicity of roles. Rihanna sits in a golden throne wearing a fur coat – a stereotypical image of a pimp if I ever saw one – but simultaneously she is the pole dancer there to entertain the pimp.

Who is she entertaining but herself? Again, there are no men in the video! This is a vision of a strip club where women dance for women, an oddly subtle metaphor for women freed from the incessant sexualisation placed on them by a male-focused society. There are no men to dance up to, no men to pole dancer for, no men to twerk against. Instead Rihanna twerks against the throne, a bed, the floor – she twerks against nobody. She twerks for herself.

Forgive me if this is sounding ridiculous. But this was something of a revelation for me. Rihanna’s twerking is probably as close to female sexual self-gratification as you can get in a music video. She doesn’t need a man to please her, because she can please herself. In the background swarm strange images of water and waves, replicated endlessly. I don’t know how else the video could have symbolically expressed female sexuality but the dark ripples and rolling surf certainly works for me.

At the same time, the song can even be taken as a critique of the lifestyle Rihanna sings about. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that the strip club is a “hallucinatory metaphor for an identity crisis about sex and materialism”, as Camille Paglia does, but you could certainly argue that the ominous music and repetitive lyrics form an almost hellish image of a vacuous existence where there is nothing but money. As Rihanna sings, “All I see is dollar signs”.

Even so, Rihanna presents herself as having total control over what she does, what she spends her money on, and who she spends her time with. This is certainly no weak woman. Some of the only feminist criticism I can raise against the video is that it still seems to play by the rules of the “male gaze”. Men will still watch this video, and it may cater to them in several ways. Most obviously, Rihanna is half naked in sexually suggestive positions, and the camera does linger over female body parts several times.

But here I will make a suggestion. Maybe an action or a visual can still be incidentally pleasing to the “male gaze” even while it is empowering to women. I do think that it can be empowering for women to see depictions of other women expressing their sexuality openly, particularly if it is in ways that society doesn’t tend to endorse, because then we see examples of a strong female who is willing to be sexual in a way that is pleasing to her, without shame or fear. And then we may feel able to embrace our own sexuality in the same way.

In the end I think women should be able to feel sexual in whatever ways they want, and equally feel non-sexual in whatever ways they want, and society should have much less of a say in that than it currently does. The video for Pour It Up might not get all the way there, and it still has its problems, but it does at least start a conversation in the right direction.

Either way, there remains a real worry that men in the music making business may be using female pop stars to sell a regurgitated, weakened, confused – some might even say fake – form of female empowerment back to us, all with the greater aim of making themselves very rich. Is Miley Cyrus twerking your idea of feminism? When you see Rihanna writhe around in dollar bills, do you feel empowered or degraded? There’s no wrong answer here. These women are making their own choices, we presume, in how they represent themselves. But maybe Sinead O’Connor is onto something when she says that all the music industry wants to do to young women is “prostitute [them] for all [they] are worth”.

What we all need to do, every day, is be more critical and thoughtful towards the popular culture we constantly consume. We must remember that nothing exists in a vacuum and even big pop stars can be pressured immensely by societal demands. Do music videos like Rihanna’s express female sexual empowerment or do they provide yet another route to making money through the persistent over sexualisation of women’s bodies? This is an issue we need to work through together.

The dream is of space where women are free to express their sexuality without pressure from exploitation, coercion, societal forces, or anything other than their own desires. Maybe this will never be entirely possible. But every small step we take towards it is, I think, for the good of everyone everywhere, whether they are a naked woman or not.

 

 

* On second thought, permit me to change my mind a little. Thicke repeatedly tells the woman he is singing to that he knows what’s best for her. It’s alright honey, I know who you are really, I know exactly what’s good for you. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Never mind the problematic visual imagery of the video for now: at heart the song still feels the need to play along with stupid binaries like good/bad girls, civilised/animalistic girls, and we all know which sides of those equations are permitted to want sex. He might sing about blurred lines, but he stubbornly refuses to cross the important ones. And what exactly is the annoying, obtrusive #THICKE splayed across the video supposed to represent anyway, apart from his name and a stupid PR strategy – the girth of his dick or his stupidity?

** My statistics come from http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2010/may/07/behind-the-music-gender-gap and http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2009/jul/23/behind-music-female-a-rs.

*** Allen even uses a wonderful visual gag in reference to the Blurred Lines video: a mass of silver balloons spell out “Lily Allen has a baggy pussy”, whereas Thicke’s equivalent said “Robin Thicke has a big dick”. These pop stars are all so subtle.

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