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How the music videos of the 2010s saw women take back power

From Rihanna’s revenge fantasy to Lady Gaga’s surrealist pop vignettes, the male gaze of the 00s was subverted and exploded

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

In 2014, the almighty Jennifer Lopez delivered a polemic on sexist music videos, in the form of a music video. “I Luh Ya Papi” opened with a scene that showed a male creative pitching various ideas for J-Lo’s new visual, only for the star and her friends to howl with laughter and shoot him down. “If she was a guy, we wouldn't be having this conversation at all,” cries one of J-Lo's friends in the video. “Why do men always objectify the women in every single video? Why can’t we for once objectify the men?” And so, the rest of the video shows a regal J-Lo wielding her female gaze as she watches barely dressed, oiled-up men dance and wash cars all around her.

This gender-theory-essay-as-music-video could only have happened in 2010s: the decade when the word "feminist" became so mainstream that Beyoncé used it as a prop at the VMAs in 2014. Today, J-Lo’s gender-flipped video seems almost quaint, with its Sexual Politics 101, in comparison to some of the more boundary-pushing work we’re seeing stretch our mainstream ideas of bodies and gender in pop music now, at the end of the decade. But, in order to really appreciate what a turning point this was at the midpoint of the decade, it’s worth casting your mind back to remember just how much the male gaze had a role to play in 00s pop culture.

Like a lot of things in the 00s, the male gaze in music videos was super literal: it often took the form of a man who pulled up a chair and watched the female star perform. The beginning of that decade was marked by the emergence of Disney starlets Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. If you watch Christina's 1999 video “What a Girl Wants”, you'll see her tell a guy, “I have a surprise for you!” before dancing for him. At the start of Britney's “Oops...” video in 2000, she's declared "cute!" by a couple of nerdy male space explorers who discover her on Mars; and the entire premise of Rihanna’s debut video “Pon De Replay” (2005) is that the sexier she dances, the louder the DJ who is watching her will turn up the music. 

From the vantage point of 2019, it’s funny to remember this era of men approvingly nodding in music videos. The final death rattle of the “horny man watches woman dance” pop visual template can perhaps be traced to the “Blurred Lines” clusterfuck of 2013. Robin Thicke’s tepid, pervy R&B visual was hardly the first time that barely clothed women had danced next to fully clothed men in a music video, but it was the first time that the whole world got properly angry about it. 

It’s worth noting that the “Blurred Lines” video was directed by Diane Martel, a legendary music video director who told Grantland at the time, “I directed the girls to look into the camera. This is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position.” The vehement reaction to the video was perhaps less about the contents of the video itself, and more about an untapped undercurrent of rage among women watching, who were tired of seeing the same gendered dynamic represented in music videos over and over again. In a Guardian feature about the backlash against Thicke, Lia Latchford – founder of Rewind&Reframe, a platform for young women to challenge racism and sexism in videos – said, “Young women are tired of messages that depict women as highly sexualised passive sex objects… They want to see a change.”

It’s no accident, then, that the most definitive pop visuals of the 2010s have subverted and twisted the cookie cutter template of the decade that came before. While Rihanna may have begun her career with a video that showed her dancing to get a man's attention, the videos she's starred in as she's grown up – and grown more powerful – have become progressively more radical, and helped shape the visual culture of the 2010s. At the beginning of this decade, her sound was taking a turn for the darker, the ruder, and the more directly confrontational with her album Rated R. In her 2009 video for “Hard” she grabs her crotch, and commands a troop of men; in 2010's “Rude Boy”, she undresses her male dancers; in “S&M” (2011), she gags the men and women of the press who watch her while she performs. The self-directed “Pour It Up” (2013) is the ultimate example of Rihanna having camp fun with her sexuality, without a man anywhere to be seen.

Then, of course, there's 2015's “Bitch Better Have My Money”: a Tarantino-worthy revenge fantasy in which the male gaze is not only subverted, but strapped to a chair and murdered. RiRi herself becomes the objectifier, and the perpetrator, as she tortures a white female hostage before confronting her male nemesis, played by Mads Mikkelsen, in a bloodbath. The star bares more of her flesh in the six-minute clip (which, again, she co-directed) than in any of her other music videos, and she practically dares you to interpret it as anything other than intimidating: lighting her blunt as she lies covered in nothing but blood and money, she's cool as hell, and fucking terrifying. 

“Lighting her blunt as she lies covered in nothing but blood and money, (Rihanna is) cool as hell, and fucking terrifying”

Alongside Rihanna, another woman who visually defined our decade in pop was Lady Gaga: a woman who never really entertained the male gaze in her music videos, save a glance or two in her debut “Just Dance” (2008). Gaga pushed pop into a more surreal, absurdist space with music videos that felt like events, whether she was breaking out of jail with Beyoncé in the leather-clad epic “Telephone” (2010), giving birth to a new race of aliens in “Born This Way” (2011), or playing a male version of herself in “You And I” (2011). Sometimes masc, sometimes femme, sometimes incorporating her bisexuality, her videos blazed a new trail for chart-topping women: though sexual, they were unconcerned with anything as basic as sexiness.

The same could be said about much of the 2010s output of Beyoncé, the definitive pop visionary of the decade, with two visual albums and two full-length documentaries under her belt in the last ten years. Bey has made small rebellions against the staid gender dynamics of pop music videos throughout most of her career – see her 2006 classic “Upgrade U”, in which she played Jay-Z, and of course, “If I Were a Boy” (2008). She's always had a strong hand in her own visual identity. “Directing has, in a way, always been a part of my creative process,” she recently told ELLE. “I’ve always had a passion for writing treatments for videos since Destiny’s Child.” 

But 2010s Beyoncé elevated her visuals to new heights. Her self-titled 2013 album was a feat of self-authorship, and she built on it even further with the 2016 film Lemonade, intertwining complex narratives of motherhood, marriage, (in)fidelity, race, gender, and power. Throughout it all, Beyoncé deepened and complicated her sexuality, creating a three-dimensional pop world in which it was possible for something as brazenly horny as “Partition” or “6 Inch” to sit alongside social commentary like “Pretty Hurts” or “Freedom”.

The connecting thread between Rihanna, Gaga, and Beyoncé is Melina Matsoukas: one of the most influential music video directors of the 2010s, who has shot with all three. Matsoukas – who also recently released her debut feature film, Queen & Slim – once told website The Alice Initiative, “I have an undying need to diversify the stories and imagery we’ve seen on screen historically. This has value to me. Also, I would love to work on projects that have something profound or provocative to say or show and that challenge what we are comfortable calling ‘normal’ in film and television”.

“The connecting thread between Rihanna, Gaga, and Beyoncé is Melina Matsoukas: one of the most influential music video directors of the 2010s, who has shot with all three”

Provocation and subversion has slowly become the new normal in pop music videos. This decade, we’ve seen Charli XCX direct a video full of male musicians dancing and eating sexily (“I thought it would be a good opportunity to have men be the objects for once,” she told EW). We've seen Carly Rae Jepsen lust after a topless man from her bedroom window. We’ve seen Sia achieve international stardom without feeling the need to visually focus on herself at all, instead using the avatar of a dancer, while she remains a disembodied voice. After all, you can’t objectify someone you can’t even see.

In our post-“Blurred Lines”, post-“I Luh Ya Papi” world, we’ve long evolved past videos that cater to the male gaze, and even past videos that directly call out the male gaze. This decade has given us a wealth of new stars who push the boundaries of what a female pop star can be, asking: can she be a vogueing, pole-dancing master who interrogates the power to be found in pain and submission? Can she be a sci-fi princess who builds dystopian fantasies about climate change? Can she be a teenager who dresses like a Soundcloud rapper but sings like an AutoTune angel, and who bleeds from her eyes and puts out cigarettes on her face?

As we move into the 2020s, there’s a sense that the old template has been ripped up. The next frontier is being led by queer women – if the 2010s explicitly resisted and subverted the male-on-female gaze, the 2020s is poised to ask, why so heteronormative? While queer sexuality in pop music videos in the 00s was generally played for men's approval (think TATU, or Britney and Madonna), the 2010s has, very gradually, moved towards a more inclusive vision of female sexuality thanks to the likes of Hayley Kiyoko, Halsey, Shura, and Christine and the Queens (who unquestionably made the sexiest video of 2019 with Charli XCX in “Gone”). 

By 2010, it was passé to make a video that catered to a man who sat and watched a woman dancing. By 2020, it feels like it's also become pretty passé to make a video that subverts or comments on that old trope. In the 2020s, the stage is set for women to make pop ever more adventurous and ever weirder, hopefully leaving the male gaze ever further behind like the dusty, ancient relic it should be.