Let’s hit the target when we take aim at sexist music videos

Robin Thicke performs his controversial hit Blurred Lines. Ian West PA Wire Press Association Images

A campaign has been launched to denounce sexism and racism in music videos. Rewind & Reframe is the brainchild of End Violence Aganist Women, Imkaan and Object, and comes against a backdrop of growing online and traditional media interest in the portrayal of women in the music industry.

Rewind & Reframe calls for age restrictions to be placed on music videos, in the same way that films or DVDs have age ratings. A discussion on racism and sexism in music is crucial, welcome, and long overdue; yet its focus on age renders the debate obsolete given the broader effects that sexism in music has on society.

As part of the campaign, people were asked on social media channels to provide examples of those songs which most offended, upset and disturbed them. The song Blurred Lines was a prominent choice, having already been banned in 20 Universities for its perceived glamorisation of rape and sexist lyrics. Other artists such as Michael Jackson and N-Dubz were singled out as examples, alongside the artist Nelly’s contribution Tip Drill. These examples form only a small part of a larger narrative in pop music that uses sexist lyrics and images.

A feminist response to the sexism contained within Thicke’s song has been ongoing. However, for the most part, critiques of this sort of music in the mainstream media have focused on the effects this type of content might have on children rather than the ways in which songs objectify women and have broader societal impacts.

The BBC recently reported that parents fear music videos have become too sexualised and violent, and Annie Lennox has called for age ratings as a response to what she considered to be the sexualisation of children. The current petition for age restrictions and discussions surrounding the watershed align with this focus on children and young adults. Yet it was women (and men) of all ages that provided examples of videos that made them feel uncomfortable or threatened.

This approach arises from a fixation on the potential damage of sexualisation to children and young adults in music videos and certain popular cultures. Branding music’s misogyny problem as one of sexualisation taps into long running and vocal campaigns on behalf of children and young adults who are said to be affected by popular music. But the sexualisation approach fails to adequately identify and deal with misogyny in music. A more ambitious, more accurate, method is necessary if we are to change how society sees popular music, its problems, and the solutions.

Beyond sexualisation

Using the language of cultural harm rather than sexualisation moves the debate forward. Whereas sexualisation focuses on the loss of childhood innocence, cultural harm perspectives look at the range of effects upon society that flow from the preservation of misogynistic popular culture. The nature of the problem is different according to cultural harm theories, insofar as it is not just about children “growing up too quickly”, but about children growing up in a climate of misogyny. The problem is greater than the sexualisation framework acknowledges, as music affects not only children but everyone within society, across different ages, races and genders.

A moralistic approach focused on protecting the presumed innocence of children avoids the very real issues of violent undertones, possessiveness, and misogyny and instead produces an over-focus on the appearance of women in videos. Nudity in these types of videos is only a symptom of deeper problems of power imbalances and messages that devalue women.

By broadening the scope of the problem, the cultural harm perspective allows for a deeper assessment of the problem of sexism and misogyny within popular culture. In particular it is the objectification of women and the ubiquity of this view of women in popular culture that signals cultural harm and necessitates action.

The debate surrounding age restrictions suggests that they can mitigate the harmful effects of these videos. However, the sheer ubiquity of this music means that age restrictions for children are inadequate, and adults’ ability to opt out is no more than a myth. In any case, even if this music was avoidable, its broadcasting in everyday places means its messages also become “everyday”; this is known as the normalisation effect (MacKinnon (1993)). Such normalisation creates a culture that tolerates misogyny that people cannot, practically speaking, be asked to avoid.

Conversation stopper. RIAA

By seeing this as a cultural problem, we can think about what exactly constitutes harm, and who exactly is affected. Such an approach would encourage debate and better targeted solutions instead of the application of conversation-stopping labels such as “explicit”, “parental guidance”, and “nudity”.

A good example of the difference can be seen in the fate of Flo Rida’s music video Turn Around (5,4,3,2,1). The original video includes close-ups of a large number of dancers’ shaking bottoms interspersed with images of women twerking against a wall and Flo Rida pretending to spank them. The video was later modified and toned down. However, it would seem that it was not the demeaning of women that resulted in the video’s modification, but rather it was the frequent appearance of women’s bottoms. The new radio-edit version crudely cropped the women’s bodies while their overall objectification remained untouched and unchallenged.

Attaching a “sexist” label to a video, as opposed to an “explicit” label, only modestly advances the debate, but what it does at least, is highlight the broader implications of this music culture to society as a whole. An 18 rating does not promote a discussion on the reasoning behind the label, it does not highlight the sexist content of the material, and it fails to reach those members of society that surpass the age restriction. It is not enough to stick an age label on a video and hope that sexism will go away.

“This post was first published November 13 2013 on LSE Engenderings