Equally Objectified

The video to Sigma’s latest long ft. Ella Henderson, Glitterball (see below), consists of a group of people going swimming in the sea. This isn’t your usual Brighton family holiday, no, it’s a group of conventionally good-looking and toned young people larking about. The women wear bikinis, squeeze each other’s bums, hug frequently, and show a lot of cleavage, whilst the guys, well the guys tend to be wearing quite a lot of clothes with perhaps the odd flash of six-pack in the background. So why, given that there are a plethora of semi-naked bodies and a roughly even gender split in the video, couldn’t they have objectified the men as much as the women?

We’ve been conditioned to view women’s bodies in a certain way on-screen whilst men’s bodies are often treated very differently. Blurred Lines, the infamous Robin Thicke song, epitomised this attitude with a terribly misogynistic and sexist video (and that’s saying nothing about the lyrics). However, it’s interesting to watch a parody version of the video (see below) in which the female models are replaced by men in g-strings and tiny underwear. It seems there’s something a little ridiculous about men having little stop signs stuck to their bottoms and dancing so provocatively, whilst it was presented as almost ‘normal’ for women to be treated and viewed in this way in the original video. At least that’s what I think we’re being made to believe – that treating women like this is OK and when it’s guys it’s just quite silly and comic.

The feminist film critique Laura Mulvey calls this phenomenon the male gaze – the way in which visual arts are structured around a masculine viewer. A guy (usually white, cisgendered and heterosexual) isn’t going to want to see a video of a man rubbing sun tan lotion into his six-pack or bending over to pick up his beach towel, no, he wants women to do that, or at least that is what the relentlessly objectifying world of music videos and advertising tells us. Equality is a long way off and sexism towards women is just part of the culture.

So there’s a long way to go until men and women are equally objectified in music videos (come on guys, time we stripped off and started massaging ourselves provocatively) and even further still until people aren’t objectified at all (because people are people, not just bodies). Until then here’s Marina and The Diamonds evening the scales a little…

The Many Mixed Messages of Meghan Trainor

The tube strike last night was the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with Meghan Trainor’s back catalogue. The walk from Piccadilly to Paddington (the buses were just too full) gave me plenty of time to enjoy both her number one hits and her lesser known numbers. There’s many an inspiring message in Trainor’s songs but the more I listened the more I began to realise that the messages were really rather mixed.

You may know Meghan Trainor from her number hit All About That Bass – a lively piece that contests the mainstream’s obsession with slim woman and instead celebrates a diversity of body shapes. “I see the magazines working that Photoshop,” sings Trainor, “We know that shit ain’t real, come on now, make it stop. If you got beauty booty just raise ’em up, ’cause every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” This is an inspiring message about celebrating one’s big behind (mine is not inconsiderable in size) until it becomes clear that the point of one’s body is to attract the opposite sex. “My momma told me don’t worry about your size, she says, boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” So it’s not about embracing your body, whatever size it is, it is about trying to find a man. To make it worse Trainor then calls out slimmer women for being “skinny bitches” but quickly covers it up by saying she’s joking. So it certainly is a jumble of mixed messages as it both subverts and conforms to the media it challenges.

Dear Future Husband deserves a whole blog post of its own but for now I’ll just focus on the highlights. On the one hand she calls out her future husband for expecting her to stay at home and cook because, like him, she has a 9 to 5 job. This is great, equality in employment for men and women (of course, this is not to shame women who don’t have jobs and who do enjoy cooking). Then she sings a little about sex: “I’ll be sleeping on the left side of the bed, open doors for me and you might get some…kisses. Don’t have a dirty mind, just be a classy guy, buy me a ring, buy, buy me a ring.” This is somewhat more problematic as she asks her potential partner not to have a dirty mind immediately after leading him on to believe she was going to sing about follatio: she’s set him up for a fall there. Meanwhile, the request for a ring falls somewhere between a demand and a plea  – if people happily consent to marriage then that’s fine by me but it seems as if Trainor seeks matrimony for matrimony’s sake and perhaps to fill a hole in her life, arguably not the best reasons to get hitched. But this is understandable given the pressure young people are put under to find the ‘right mate’ and the way love is presented to us in terrible Hollywood movies. But there’s still a while to go before pop successfully challenges this propaganda.

Somewhat more explicitly in Title she tells her future boyfriend to “treat me like a trophy, put me on the shelf” – so here she is demanding to be objectified. This, I’m sure, would be fine in some sort of consenting sex game but here it does just seem that Trainor craves the validation of men and actively encourages them to reduce her to inanimate object status. This is not a good message to be spreading. Close Your Eyes is a nice song in which she eschews trying to fit in and look good even though she recognises that “everybody wants to be cool, yes they do, and I’m just like them.” Here, Trainor highlights the very mixed messages themselves that pepper her lyrics.

Perhaps, the most bleak of Trainor’s messages comes in her song Never Ever, a ballad about getting over dumb guys and embracing being single. “Never ever ever will I need someone, never ever do I rely on one, ‘cause I’m all grown, I’m all grown, and I’m okay on my own, okay on my own…Well you can try, to say that I am co-dependent, but I depend on me, yes me and only me.” The sentiment is clear and the desire to be independent strong but I worry that these lyrics could only have arisen in an isolated, consumer society such as our own in which the very existence of society has been denied (thanks Margaret Thatcher) and atomisation and isolation are on the rise. As community and social cohesion suffer so we try desperately to find meaning in relationships, normally with just one other person, and this often results in too much stress and expectation being put on a partnernship. It seems that community oriented co-dependence (or perhaps inter-dependence) is off the cards and we may well end up being forced to rely purely on ourselves. Perhaps Trainor’s lyrics are a grim prophecy of things to come and she is a modern day oracle. Perhaps.

Now, enjoy this post modern reworking of a Meghan Trainor classic…

It’s All A Load Of Kabul Sh*t

The lyrics of Lily Allen’s song Kabul Shit speak for themselves. Climate change, corrupt politics and warmongering foreign policy are all astutely analysed in rhyming verses. So before you cast your vote this Thursday think on the words of that famous mockney singer:
 

There’s a hole in our logic,
There’s a hole in the sky
And one day just like magic
We’re all going to die,
‘Cause we didn’t turn the lights off
And we didn’t take the bus,
Even though we know we should have
Oh, silly old us.

 

These lines refer to the hole in the ozone caused by a range of chemicals including CFCs. Interestingly, in 1987 the Montreal Protocol was signed: an international treaty that phased out the production of numerous substances that contributed to ozone depletion. Unfortunately, the Kyoto Protocol – designed to limit the amount of carbon emissions and hence curb global warming – has proven much less effective even though 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. As Allen points out we carry on ignoring the evidence and consuming resources at a planetary pace, “Oh, silly old us.”

 

Well we should have recycled
And saved our resources
While there’s still someone else’s
Someone call the armed forces,
And we’ll blame it on terror
Also known as religion
But we shouldn’t feel guilt
For protecting our children.

 

Here Allen references resource wars – wars fought to gain control of a specific resource, such as land or water. The song alludes to the Iraq War – waged by the US and UK to allegedly find weapons of mass destruction but subsequently revealed to have been about ensuring access to oil. The war has been deemed illegal and many want to see George Bush and Tony Blair put on trial as war criminals. The lyrics also refer to terrorism, often evoked by Western governments to further justify racist and belligerent policies. Of course, some terrorism does reside in extreme forms of religion and one could even argue that capitalism is its own extreme religion forcing us to kill others for continued growth and profit. “But we shouldn’t feel guilt for protecting our children” is a wonderful sign off as Allen notes people’s tendencies to justify all sorts of actions for the safety of their own family, even if other families are harmed in the process – many of us did support the Iraq War even though it proved devastating for Iraqi civilians.

 

I don’t have the answers
I don’t know where we start,
Start to pick up all the pieces
Of everything we’ve torn apart.
Now, you’d think that we’d be grateful
For the fact we’ve got a choice
Instead we throw it back at people
Who don’t even have a voice.

 

This verse refers to scapegoating – the act of blaming someone for another’s wrongdoing. Recently we have seen Ukip scapegoating immigrants for the UK’s economic woes. Yet inherent to capitalist economics are periods of boom and bust linked to speculation on commodities (e.g. the internet, housing, financial ‘innovations’). However, rather than try and understand the root causes of these problems racist right-wing groups like Ukip play on xenophobia to try to turn people against immigrants. In the early 1900s the Jews were scapegoats, in the 1960s Enoch Powell called for ‘rivers of blood’ and recently Nigel Farage has been blaming Romanians. This is an ignorant and pernicious trope that Allen rightly challenges.

 

And the teachers always told us
Told us we should love thy neighbour,
And my mother always told me
Told me I should vote new labour,
But I don’t know who to trust
And I just find it all confusing,
All as useless as each other
Past the point of being amusing.
 

Allen highlights the increasing adoption of neoliberal policies by the UK’s main political parties. A trend initiated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party in the 1980s and adopted by Blair’s ‘New Labour’ party in the 90s and 00s. Now it seems that neoliberalism is a song all the parties sing too – one that promotes privatisation, austerity and deregulation. When all parties put profit over people it’s not surprising they all appear as “as useless as each other“.

Lily Allen’s is a political and pop tour de force. In a few verses she analyses the status quo with laser precision. So, before you put a cross in a box remember that this status quo does not have to go unchallenged – the power of elites and capital, the neoliberal consensus, the damage of climate change, the erosion of democracy and the waging of wars are all things that can change if we adopt policies that promote people and planet together. We do have agency and we can take action – it begins with a vote. The alternative is denial, the consequences of which are already proving dire:

 

Excuse me, sir,
But is this what they call denial,
Just to carry on regardless
We’ll only do it for a while.
We’ll carry on straight down the line,
Down the road to nowhere,
Do you know where it is leading us
And do we even wanna go there?

Out Of Style

Style, a new song by Taylor Swift. The lyrics tell the simple story of a fraught relationship. Swift is picked up by a male lover who she can’t stop thinking about despite the fact he rarely calls and is rumoured to have been sleeping with other women. He drives a little recklessly and they eventually go back to her house. He admits the rumours are true and Swift also states that she has been sleeping with others. A catchy chorus intersperses these dramatic moments:

“You got that James Dean, day-dream look in your eye
And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like
And when we go crashing down, we come back every time.
Cause we never go out of style,
We never go out of style.”

The chorus captures two central themes of the song. The first is that of crashing: be it a car or a relationship. Nevertheless, Swift asserts that they will survive the metaphorical car crash of their partnership and keep returning to one another. The second theme concerns their looks – they are both classically and timelessly attractive. Other verses sing of his “long hair, slicked back, white t-shirt” and her “good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” Meanwhile, the video shows Swift and a male model casting smouldering looks, walking in front of projected images, holding up pieces of glass, striking poses, getting wet by the sea and generally doing what conventionally good-looking people do.

However, there is something very concerning about the central message of this song. The fact that Swift and her partner will never go out of style because of their looks is basically a threat: if you’re not one of the stylish few then you never will be. If a man does not look like James Dean and if a woman does not look like Taylor Swift then it’s off to the ‘ugly’ pile. Now, a social hierarchy based on looks is no new concept but it does often rest on the presumption that beauty is an objectively measurable scarce resource possessed by a lucky few. Furthermore, the less this view is questioned and contextualised the more it seems that the timelessness of beauty is an unquestionable truth. Hence, Swift’s ability to never go out of style.

But I like context and ours is one of capitalist, consumerist patriarchy. Bodies are constantly commodified and objectified by consumer capitalism’s endless quest to turn everything into profit. Advertising, films and television fall back on simplistic tropes of body image in an effort to get us to hate our bodies and buy their products. It is not that the people we see on adverts are more beautiful than the rest of us – bearing in mind they are heavily made up and airbrushed – it is that a group of predominantly male ad execs with limited imagination and social awareness will have once again failed to exercise any creativity or compassion. Meanwhile, whilst sexism is continually being challenged it still remains rampant – in the streets, in work places, in the home and in presentations of beauty. Watch 4music for any prolonged period of time and more often than not it is women who are presented sexually on-screen and reduced to sexual objects in lyrics. It happens to men too, but not as much. Furthermore, these women are often held accountable for how they appear rather than the larger dehumanising cultural and political milieu. In essence, sexist, consumerist capitalism dictates to and sells us a very limited, dubious conception of beauty.

So what could beauty look like in a world beyond patriarchy and consumerism? Imagine a beauty that transcends gender binaries, one that is happy to embrace queer bodies and blurred boundaries, rather than forcing us into little boxes. Imagine a beauty that ages, one with wrinkles, sagging skin and grey hairs, rather than one that relentlessly presents youth as the one thing worth possessing even though aging is the one thing we all do. Imagine a beauty that is not dictated to us by billboards and those who profit from them, not predicated on the fear of loss, and not treated as a scarce resource in constant need of capitalisation, but one that is an abundant commons available to all, hierarchy free, enjoyed as it changes, enjoyed because it changes and never answerable to currency.

This unfettered beauty already exists in our society and is available to all, should we wish to engage with it. Of course, it can be very difficult to feel beautiful in a society where we are constantly made to feel ashamed of ourselves for the way we look. Challenging this agenda will be tough but worth it as we prove that style is something for all of us and not just reserved for the James Dean and Taylor Swift lookalikes, although they are welcome to partake of it too.

The Wrong Direction

One Direction. They’re popular, they’re big (but not quite as big as they used to be), they’re successful, they’re chart toppers (8 at the last count), they’re on posters…but one thing the One Direction boys don’t appear to be are feminists. My case study shall be their number one song ‘Steal My Girl’ and for those of you feministically inclined alarm bells might already be ringing.

Everybody wanna steal my girl, Everybody wanna take her heart away, Couple billion in the whole wide world, Find another one ‘cause she belongs to me.”

For something to be qualified as ‘able to be stolen’ it must first be considered property. Thus, Harry, Liam etc are suggesting that women are belongings. A proposition already championed in places such as the Bible, what with marriage traditionally being a ritual in which a woman became her husband’s chattel – an article of movable personal property or a slave. For young men of the 21st century to hold such reactionary views is deeply concerning. “Find another one” they sing as if said “girl” is some sort of Pokemon card that can be traded with carefree abandon.

I don’t exist, If I don’t have her,” sings Louis, alluding to the feeling of deep, unconditional love. This might be touching if Louis’ existence did not depend on his ‘having’ (aka owning) total possession of his partner. Christian Gray anyone? “She knows, she knows, That I’m never gonna let another take her love from me now,” croons Harry. This, quite simply, is a threat. What if she doesn’t want to love you Harry? What if she doesn’t want another to ‘take’ her love and just wants to be independent? Meanwhile, we’re seeing love treated as a quantifiable, discrete entity that has to be given exclusively to one other person, for ever. Not much room for manoeuvre there.

She belongs to me” completes the song, summing up the 1D’s views toward women. It seems they don’t want ‘their girls’ to have opinions especially with regards how or who they love. Looks like 1D have a few lessons to learn. We’ll just have to introduce them to some of pop’s more famous feminists including Miley Cyrus and Meghan Trainor. They can remind the boys that women, or any human for that matter, are not collectables and their organs are not for trafficking.

Now enjoy their video, starring Danny DeVito and a boatload of stereotypes.