The role of women in 21st century popular music has taken a turn for the worse. While the music itself may have (debatably) improved, the respect with which women are portrayed has lessened substantially. What is interesting about this change is that the people involved in the production of popular music would hastily declare themselves feminists, whom Gloria Steinem, a well-known activist for women’s rights , defines as “anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” However, the exploitation of women through music videos, provocative attire and over-sexualized dance suggests that while the intentions of these producers and artists may be in the right place, to this end popular music blatantly contradicts itself.
Sex and provocative dance have their place within the music industry, just as they do in film and television. “But,” as Betty Friedan, author of the groundbreaking work The Feminine Mystique has pointed out, “what happens when a woman bases her whole identity on her sexual role; when sex is necessary to make her ‘feel alive’? To state it quite simply, she puts impossible demands on her own body, her ‘femaleness’.”
The underlying problem is that success within the world of music is defined for women by how much skin they flaunt, how “hot” they are and how provocatively they can move their hips. The statistics don’t lie: on VEVO’s Top 10 Most Viewed Videos on Vevo of 2013 list, all but two feature over-sexualized women. The first video on the list is Miley Cyrus’s video for ‘Wrecking Ball’. The video features Cyrus clothed in a white crop top, white underwear and Doc Marten boots. As the video progresses, Cyrus’ clothing gradually comes off until she’s on top of a wrecking ball in the nude. The video fell under heavy fire from music critics and the general public alike; Cyrus was deemed a slut, yet the video had approximately 543,004,000 views on VEVO.
The seventh video on VEVO’s most viewed list is ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke, featuring T.I. and Pharrell. The song was a summer sensation, grossing over 272,000,000 views. The song itself is sexual in its content, yet the most disturbing part of the video is not its lyrics; it is the fact that every woman pictured is wearing next to nothing, grinding up on men and performing subtle acts of sexual pleasure. The men, clothed in suits, do not return the affection.
“Some women may try to see sex as power, but many more realize power is still in the hands of men.” If popular media is so pro-feminism, why does it insist women have to bear their sexuality to be considered worthwhile for inclusion in a music video? Why must they submit themselves sexually to the advances of their male counterparts? By no means should women be restricted to wearing excessive layers of clothing, but their ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment’ should not consist in the very narrow requirement that they strip down to keep a high profile in the music industry. In this way, one notices how showing skin can be just as much of a restriction as not showing it at all.
The simple statistic that nearly every woman on the top of the charts has, at some point, released a sensual music video should be indication enough that popular media thrives on this limited conception of women. Without the perfect skin, hair, figure and clothing (or lack thereof) it is close to impossible for a female musician to succeed; yet men are allowed to keep their clothes on, and a modicum of extra weight while still enjoying the limelight. “But sex with women cannot be commercially boxed and marketed, precisely because it is human, because women are.” Popular music reduces women to objects, giving them the stage, but leaving out their humanity. Female empowerment has become the ultimate paradox of the twenty-first century.
Do you think a hyper-sexualized image negates any sense of feminism?