Sex in pop culture is traditionally a heteronormative display of male fantasy. In music videos, there are countless examples of passive, bedroom-eyed women, scantily clad, gyrating for men. Even as “feminism” becomes this year’s pop buzzword, we’re still not immune from music videos like Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean”, which flaunts the Victoria’s Secret cookie-cutter beauty of its female protagonist, or Drake’s “Hotline Bling” which, at the same time as being a song admonishing women for so-called ‘loose morality’, features a lot of women twerking. The male gaze dominates music videos, and even women we view as empowered – like Selena Gomez in “Good For You”, and Tinashe in “All Hands On Deck” – kowtow to it. And while embracing the sheer power of sex appeal is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s always refreshing to see something that deviates from the sea of passive, objective femininity that dominates the music video visual landscape.
As the discussion around feminism, and what it means to be seen versus what it means to act as a woman becomes of prominence in pop culture critiques, we’re starting to see varying, and indeed, challenging interpretations of female sexuality in music videos. It’s no surprise that bold, thoughtful women are at the fore in this, with the latest Wayne Coyne-incarnate Miley Cyrus to take a stand against the infantilization of women in “BB Talk”, challenging anachronistic ideals of desirability. Here’s how Miley, and nine other women, subverted the male gaze in weird and wonderful ways throughout 2015.
MILEY CYRUS – “BB TALK”
After 2013 Miley was criticised for cultural appropriation, 2015 Miley has re-emerged with some important commentary on sex and sexuality in pop. As we watch her transform, gloriously, into a mini-Wayne Coyne, Miley uses absurdism in “BB Talk” to call bullshit on the way women are often infantilized not only in popular culture, but in their everyday lives, in order to appear attractive and desirable to men. As she rasps about her boyfriend’s vomit-inducing, reductive baby-talk – “you put me in these fucking situations where I look like a dumbass bitch and I'm not a fucking dumbass bitch” – it’s as confronting to listen to her preach as it is uncomfortable to watch her cavort about dressed as a giant baby, giving pause for thought on the passivity we require of women’s sexuality.
PEACHES – “RUB”
It’s not like Peaches to avoid something because it’ll make you squirm. Her video for “Rub” is one million percent not safe for work, but not in the same way as say, Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”, which is a cleaner, more airbrushed take on sex and sexuality. “Rub” is dirty, surreal, explicit, passionate and uncomfortable: all things we’re led to believe female sexuality is not. There are naked plus-sized bodies, hairy vaginas, sweaty orgies, same-sex cunnilingus, and all manner of other sex acts as well as hints of BDSM. There’s nothing sanitized about “Rub” and it challenges the notion that the only legitimate female sexuality is the one sanctioned by male desire.
MISSY ELLIOTT – “WTF (WHERE THEY FROM?)”
Could you be more overjoyed about the return of Missy Elliott? In “WTF (Where They From) (ft. Pharrell Williams)” she takes a stand against the fetishization and appropriation of black bodies (and against 2013 Miley), singing, “The dance you doin' is dumb / How they do where you from / Sticking out your tongue girl / But you know you're too young / A bunch of girls do it and the shit looks fun / That's how they do it where we from.” The video is a glorious dance epic (featuring Beyoncé’s dancing duo Les Twins) that uses movement to snatch back the sexuality that women of colour have seen commodified by white pop in recent years.
RIHANNA – “BITCH BETTER HAVE MY MONEY”
So much of what’s coded into expressions of female sexuality in pop requires a submission to ownership by an outside gaze, which is invariably male. In the gory, blood-splattered video for “Bitch Better Have My Money” Rihanna is a Tarantino-like bride character, ripped off by her accountant and seeking her just desserts. She holds another woman captive, and in the nudity of her hostage, there’s an important commentary on the captivity of female flesh in the public eye, which is often portrayed in violent, brutal or non-consensual ways. At the end of the video, Rihanna herself appears naked and covered in the blood of her aggressors. This image of her reverses the male gaze, rejecting ownership and proclaiming autonomy just as grotesquely as ownership is often wrested from her by the men who claim her.
FKA TWIGS – “M3LL155X”
The whole of FKA twigs’ audio-visual EP M3LL155X challenges perceptions of sex and sexuality with some pretty confronting imagery. She appears as a blow up doll in “I’m Your Doll” and is raped by a man who leaves her deflated on the bed. The image isn’t just about the physical rape, but about the way women’s bodies are inherently vulnerable to patriarchal ownership. The violence is unsettling to watch, and erases any insensitivity we might have developed towards a woman’s lack of autonomy in the cinema of entertainment media. Meanwhile, in “Glass and Patron” she aggressively births a seemingly never ending ribbon which she and her dancers become engulfed in, suggesting the inextricable and primal link between woman and life, empowering a woman’s reproductive sexuality as more than just an object of male fetishization.
SIA – “BIG GIRLS CRY”
Sia’s music video output is interesting in light of her conscious decision to completely remove any visual representation of herself from her work. Often employing wunderkind dancer Maddie Ziegler as her proxy, Sia’s decision to become “invisible” asks one important question: does a woman in pop really need to sell her sexuality in order to sell her work? Sia asks her fans and detractors to judge her based on the merits of her art, and completely removes the temptation for prying eyes to attempt to claim her body instead. At a time when performance art arguably relies heavily on narcissism and sexuality, Sia has removed both of those from the equation while continuing to produce provocative, and massively popular, music videos.
HAYLEY KIYOKO – “CLIFF’S EDGE”
“Cliff’s Edge” is a tender pop love song that might, if released by any other hot young female performer, feature the same kind of dreamy cinematography but with a perfectly-sculpted Joe Jonas look-alike love interest to pique the imagination of teeny bopper fans. Hayley Kiyoko cast a female love interest instead, ignoring convention to reach out to swaths of LGBTQ pop music fans who have otherwise been disenfranchised by the heteronormativity of music videos. “Cliff’s Edge” portrays the same-sex relationship as commonplace, as any heterosexual relationship would be portrayed, and rejects sensationalism in order to produce something that normalizes marginalized sexuality with love and honesty.
LIZZO – “MY SKIN”
Lizzo’s “My Skin” takes the concept of “I woke up like this”, and singing “I woke up in this / My skin” twists it into a poignant commentary on the way we see colour and size. Repurposing Beyoncé’s “Flawless” war cry, “My Skin” is a visual reminder that the slogan doesn’t apply only to women who are a perfect size two with perfect caramel skin and perfect blonde weaves. On her website, Lizzo writes, “This is a summoning of bodies: all shapes, sizes and shades to unite in their pride, and wear their skin like the gift it is.” “My Skin” is a deliberate and powerful anthem to learning how to love, and possibly more importantly, respect the skin you’re in, even when that skin doesn’t fit into the ideals of beauty and desirability fed to you by popular culture, society and the media.
AMY SCHUMER – “MILK MILK LEMONDADE”
Sure, Amy Schumer is a comedian and not a pop star, but considering how popular her video for the parody track “Milk Milk Lemonade” was this year, it’s hard to leave it off the list. Schumer is the champion of subversive female sexuality, and she (with pal Amber Rose) makes a mockery of the male gaze and masculine desire by getting pretty realistic about 2015’s most fetishized body part, the female bottom. Of course, Amy’s video is hilarious, but as she raps “This is what you think is hot” followed by lines like “This is where my poop comes out” she highlights the ridiculousness of male fantasy and at the same time endearingly humanizes the female anatomy. Relying on the facts of anatomy “Milk Milk Lemonade” de-objectifies something that’s become little more than 2015’s visual calling card to male arousal.
COURTNEY BARNETT – “PEDESTRIAN AT BEST”
“Pedestrian At Best” speaks to the visibility of women in the public eye. As Courtney Barnett skulks about dressed as a sad clown, she’s the object of bystanders’ mockery. She’s touched, laughed at, cajoled and judged by those around her, even though she never offered herself up for any of it. The video is reminding us that by virtue of being a woman, scrutiny by strangers is predictable and inevitable. As Courtney sings, “Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you” she reminds us of the harsh reality of expectations, and how difficult it can be when society is so judgemental to women who fail to meet those arbitrary rules set for them. “Pedestrian At Best” speaks to the anxiety that women have about living up to the high standards placed on them by prying eyes.
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