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Race, Femininity, and Music Videos

Is the portrayal of some racial groups and femininity in music videos a negative one?

Many investigations have been conducted regarding the representations of gender (for example Wallis, [2010]) and race (Conrad, Dixon, and Zhang [2009]) in music videos. As Cara Wallis notes, music videos are “an important part of a hugely profitable and ubiquitous music industry,” therefore their content often depends on what is good for profit; in other words, what will sell them to audiences. The study of music video representations of race and gender is highly important, as many viewers of music videos are impacted by their content. As stated by Frisby and Aubrey (2011), research shows the “exposure to sexually objectifying television can increase viewers’ definitions of their physical selves in terms of externally perceivable traits rather than internal traits,” which, they suggest, applies to music videos also.

Regarding race, Conrad, Dixon, and Zhang (2009) focused their study on rap music videos, and found that Black women in rap music videos, more often than men, have Eurocentric features such as “thinner noses and lips” and “straighter and longer hair,” promoting the ideology of beauty as Eurocentric. This could have a “negative effect on Black female viewers” (Conrad, Dixon, and Zhang [2009]), damaging their self-esteem through glorification of White female beauty standards, disregarding their own. The study also noted that African American women were often degraded and hyper-sexualized in rap music videos (they use the example of 50 Cent’s video for "Candy Shop"), which are “largely consumed by White audiences.” This is problematic given that it can potentially manipulate White females’ ideas of Black women, making the degrading of African American women in the videos “especially detrimental to attributions made about African American women” (Conrad, Dixon, and Zhang [2009]). Therefore, the study of these representations is essential in monitoring the circulation of damaging stereotypes and assumptions surrounding Black women.

Similar research on music videos has identified trends in terms of race and gender performance (e.g. women are more likely than men to engage in suggestive dancing [Wallis, 2010]) and although some studies have investigated deeper to find out whether this differs between popular music genres of videos (Frisby and Aubrey [2012]), there is a lack of evidence of less popular genres being examined. For example, Cara Wallis (2010) found that in the videos she studied, men were much more likely to engage in “more dominant modes of nonverbal behavior” than females, however, this is only true of the popular genres she studied (popular rock, rap, and pop). Similarly, Frisby and Aubrey (2012) found that popular female artists music videos contained “at least one of four of the indicators of sexual objectification” (pp. 81). Again, this is only true of the pop genres they studied, so not a complete representation of music videos as a whole.

It may be argued that it is only necessary to study popular genres of music videos as these reach larger audiences, thus have a wider impact—however, looking at a less mainstream music videos also will also enable me to identify whether trends previously discovered by other authors are true of music videos in general, or merely a standard of music videos coming from a profit based motive, therefore ones serving capitalism. As noted in Frisby and Aubrey’s work (2012) “the artists record label and larger media company that owns the label assert a great deal of control over the public image of contemporary music artists” (Fitts, 2008). This could mean that artists who work independently of a label, or under a smaller independent label (such as Rough Trade), have more autonomy of how they represent themselves, so sexual objectification of women or excessive promotion of Eurocentric beauty features may be less common in these types of music videos. If this is the case, then my results may suggest that the sexual objectification of women, over-represented Eurocentric beauty standard and hyper-sexualization of Black women in music videos are a feature and a result of capitalism.

Methodology

In this study, I aim to identify whether music videos of certain genres normalize the White Eurocentric beauty standard. I also want to discover if the commonly found patterns of sexualization of female artists (e.g women in music videos are “more likely to be used as props,” Aubrey and Frisby [2011] and Arnett [2002]) are only applicable to the most popular genres of music, i.e. pop, pop rock, hip-hop, R&B.

The sample I chose to analyze is Sky Ferreira’s music video for her indie pop song titled "I Blame Myself." This is relevant to my research because it potentially opposes the view that women are usually shown as submissive to men, and that Black male characters often use women to signify their status (Conrad, Travis, and Zhang [2009])—the opposite can be seen happening here and Sky is using the Black male characters to assert her own status. Contradictory to existing research, much of the dancing in this video isn’t overly sexual throughout, and at times Sky seems to want to portray herself as tough and aggressive (supposedly typical masculine traits), opposing the typical construction of gender, thus making this an interesting source for analysis.

Secondly, I want to analyze Babe Punch’s video for "Control." Babe Punch is a female-dominated, independent, and self-promoting alternative rock band, providing a contrast to my first sample. Analysis of this video in comparison to the previous sample of a pop music video will show if females are represented in different natures across different genres AND marketing methods—not just the generic capitalist-serving pop.

My analysis will focus on key elements of performance, which include the nature of dancing, costume, and facial expression. This technique of analysis was influenced by Cara Wallis’s study, Performing Gender (2010) in which she focused on key elements of performance and assessed whether they were masculine or feminine traits. Objectification theory (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997) will also provide a stance for my analysis, which states that “girls and women are acculturated to internalize an observers perspective as a primary view of their physical selves” (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997), and that this, in turn, can lead to body monitoring, anxiety, and mental health risks.

Babe Punch, "Control" (2017)

In this music video, women are shown to be engaging in behaviors that Wallis (2010) classified as masculine attributes/actions more likely to be performed by men. These include the aggressive playing of an instrument and passionate singing. Many ‘female’ attributes that Wallis identified are not displayed in the performance, such as ‘sultry looks’, ‘delicate self-touch’, and ‘smiling’, suggesting that Wallis’s findings do not apply to this source. With there being only one male band member and the rest female, it is logical to infer that the women have played active roles in the making of the video and their performance. Furthermore, the band does not conform to music industry standards, such as being signed to a label, having a manager or promoter to find them work (gigs) and choose who makes their music videos/produces their music. Alternatively, they rely on self-promotion and finding producers/film-makers themselves, which may explain why their performance does not reflect typical ‘feminine’ traits, as they do not have a record label pressuring them to conform to the gender stereotypical standards of many mainstream pop videos. This then, may provide an answer to my earlier question of whether videos that do not come from a profit-based motive (ie ones that are not produced by major record labels) have the same level of sexual objectification as ones that do. As established, Babe Punch’s Control is not a media text produced in the interest of capitalism, and (using Wallis [2010] as a guideline), the elements of performance can even be considered more ‘masculine’ than ‘feminine’ - showing that not only does the video contain very few if any signs of sexual objectification, it also does not conform to the standard formula of gendered stereotypes. Alternative rock may therefore be an exception to Wallis’s (2010) and other similar studies which did not cover a wide enough ground to make a general conclusion on sexual objectification in ‘music videos’.

Sky Ferreira, "I Blame Myself" (2014)

This video proved a highly interesting and thought-provoking analysis, being somewhat self-contradictory. The video does contain some of Wallis’s indicators of sexual objectification—delicate self-touch, sultry looks, suggestive dancing etc. However, Sky, being the centre of attention in the video, was in no way being used as a ‘prop’ or status symbol by men, unlike videos that Conrad, Dixon and Zhang (2009) mention (e.g. 50 Cent, "Candy Shop").

In the video, Sky plays a ghetto gang leader, with the Black male backup dancers playing the roles of her gang members. As some have discussed on social media, she is arguably using the men as ‘props’ to assert her status through gaining a ‘tough’ appearance, especially having chosen to film her video in what the director (Grant Singer) calls a “quintessential American ghetto”. Moreover, many viewers have criticised the video for being ‘racist’, appropriating gang culture and portraying a negative image of young Black males, confirming that the analysis of femininity alone in music videos is inadequate, since it’s not always the men doing the exploiting—in this case, it seems that the men are there as accessories, as opposed to the female.

Reverting back to my previous point, the text can be seen as self-contradictory; although Sky displays some traits of sexual objectification, she also shows some of the more masculine traits identified by Wallis (2010), such as aggressive dancing and ‘passionate singing’, in addition to playing the role of the gang leader, using the men to enhance her performance.

Furthermore, Sky as a White female has chosen to use Black male dancers in her video and no Black females. As members of Sky’s gang, the men look up to and are in awe of Sky, which could potentially send the message that Eurocentric beauty standards sit above the beauty standards of Black women. This is particularly harmful to the self-esteem of Black female viewers, and also the discourse surrounding Black females.

Through my analysis, I have discovered that normalisation of Eurocentric beauty standards is evident in genres aside from pop, however not as prominent as in pop music videos produced by major record labels. When observing my findings, the use of women as props appears to be less common in alternative genres of music—in Babe Punch’s "Control," no one in the video appeared to be used as a prop, however in Sky Ferreira’s music video, it seemed that the men were being used as props. This bought to my attention the fact that representations of masculinity and exploitation of men require further academic investigation, and cannot afford to be neglected.

References

Arnett, J. (2002), as cited in Aubrey, J. and Frisby, C. (2012) ‘Race and Genre in the Use of Sexual Objectification in Female Artists Music Videos’, The Howard Journal of Communications, 23:66-87

Aubrey, J. and Frisby, C., (2011), Sexual Objectification in Music Videos: A Content Analysis Comparing Gender and Genre, Mass Communications and Society, 14:475-501

Babe Punch, (2017) Control, video recording, directed by Iona Skye Wood and Tommy Keeling

Conrad, K., Dixon, T., Zhang, Y., (2009), ‘Controversial Rap Themes, Gender Portrayals and Skin Tone Distortion: A Content Analysis of Rap Music Videos’, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, pp. 134-156

Fitts, R.H. (2008), as cited in Conrad, K., Dixon, T., Zhang, Y., (2009), ‘Controversial Rap Themes, Gender Portrayals and Skin Tone Distortion: A Content Analysis of Rap Music Videos’, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, pp. 134-156

Fredrickson, BL., Roberts, TA. (1997) ‘Objectification Theory: Towards Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks’, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp.173-206

Frisby, C. and Aubrey, S., (2012), ‘Race and Genre in the Use of Sexual Objectification in Female Artists Music Videos’, The Howard Journal of Communications, 23:66-87

Sky Ferreira (2014), I Blame Myself, video recording. Produced by Alec Eskander, directed by Grant Singer

Wallis, C., (2010), ‘Performing Gender: A Content Analysis of Gender Display in Music Videos’, Sex Roles, 64:160-172

Photo by Caique Silva

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