The Vagenda

On Music Videos: Some ‘Bitches’ Have It Harder Out Here Than Others

 
 
 
Lily Allen is right. It’s Hard Out Here for us ‘bitches’. The pop star-turned vintage shop owner- turned pop star (keep up!) has just released a single that openly mocks the markedly sexualised female figure currently dominating mainstream pop culture. The lyrics and the video are tongue-in-cheek and quite funny, showcasing myriad fun-poking frivolities: girls twerking and jiggling about haphazardly, girls in pubis-skimming leather pants and girls who are poked, prodded and encouraged to suck off phallic fruits. She has made a critical statement and that statement needed to be made the mainstream arena, and because of her established success in the industry, that statement will be seen by millions. Yet I can’t help but feel that Lily has addressed a broad issue that is nearly always addressed too broadly. 
 
I have always admired Lily Allen. When she burst into my eyes and ears back in 2006 with her Nike Airs-meets-prom queen getup and witty lyrical musings, she felt refreshingly real. She has always overtly expressed her opinions within what is a typically monotonous discourse. But when you take a look at the leading women in pop such Gaga, Cyrus, Rihanna, Minaj and Beyonce, it’s not difficult to see an inherent racism in the industry which, tediously, Allen only exacerbates in her new video. As Ellie Mae O’Hagan points out in her recent article for the Guardian, “Allen attempts to mock the way black women are treated as nothing more than sexual objects in music videos – yet she also posits herself as separate from the black women that feature in hers”. On the one hand, she acknowledges a race problem but on the other, she is ultimately detached from the problem, behaving as the voyeur who slaps the black backing dancers’ wiggling bums, paws at their flesh (Miley VMA performance style) and leaves them to it at the end.
 
Perhaps she should have spelt out ‘Lily Allen has a [white] baggy pussy’ with the balloons.
 
Two weeks ago, many of us frittered away part of our Sunday evenings watching – eyes wide – ‘Queen of Monsters’ Lady Gaga throwing herself about the place in a rather bizarre and unclothed fashion. Never one to shy away bashfully, this particular performance showed Gaga wriggling, worm-like, around the stage wearing nothing but nude underwear (Miley’s perhaps?) and some pragmatically placed shells. The performance received over 100 complaints, with parents around Britain flapping in outrage about the terrible example she had set for their pop consuming cherubs. 
 
But what, ultimately, is the difference between Gaga’s almost nude performance and Rihanna’s similar display on the show in 2010? What’s really different about Gaga wailing that we can ‘do what we want’ with her body and Beyoncé once declaring that tonight she is all ours and she’ll be our ‘naughty girl’ (amongst a torrent of similarly indicative lyrics)? It’s time we start looking at why some women get more grief than others in this problematic area. The race issue needs to weightily enter the debate. 
 
I currently yawn at the mere mention of Miley Cyrus. But for all of her controversial (read: increasingly predictable), hammer guzzling mishaps, the unimpeachable Disney star gone awry made a thought-provoking point in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine:
 
“I didn’t really realise it, but people are still racist. It’s kind of insane.”
 
Let me quickly refer you for a moment to Rihanna’s latest video for Pour it Up. Following a stream of flesh-feasting, hyper sexualised music videos, Rihanna’s latest visual endeavour features her, diamond clad, excessively gyrating all over a golden throne (a prop, though not a move, that was borrowed by David Cameron this week). A weighty Chanel trinket hangs resolutely over her nether regions like a cliché – an outrageous indicator of her sexual worth. She is the queen of popular culture, queen of the erogenous female musicians employing their arse cheeks to sell their ‘sound’. 
 
But Rihanna is allowed to do this. Rihanna is entitled, even expected to. Her exposed body parts sprawl Twitter and Instagram feeds all over the world, and whilst we may remark occasionally that her spliff-smoking, nipple-slipping selfies are “a bit much”, global superstars such as Annie Lennox and Sinead O’Connor are hardly falling over each other to lecture her about shoddy representation of female equality or to warn her about the violating industry taking advantage. Is this simply because she’s more experienced and therefore more aware of her choices than ickle Miley? Probably not, seeing as both Cyrus and Rihanna have been in the business of showing for the best part of a decade.
 
Miley recreated an iconic and somewhat risqué Lil’ Kim costume from the 1999 VMAs (complete with nipple sequins) this Halloween and it was instantly hailed by OK magazine as “shocking” and “controversial”. Nicki Minaj’s Halloween attire basically consisted of nipple tape and some decorative leather straps, and was playfully awarded the ‘Most-Naked’ costume by the Huffington Post. It seems that these young, female stars are forever trying desperately to out-outrageous each other. I’d like to think it’s a social experiment in which they are all working together to expose the biased media… I’m hazarding a guess that it isn’t. 
 
Minaj was also said to be ‘out-Mileying’ Miley’ by the Mirror online earlier this week, by twerking alongside a troupe of ‘junk’ shimmying pals in a video posted on Instagram. Confidently dominating the hip hop genre that was long said to be governed by men, yet with an Instagram bio of ‘Its Barbie BITCH!!!’ it’s unsurprising that (in terms of feminism) she divides public opinion. Often hailed as a feminist icon and sometimes as a misogynistic lyric-spouting menace, she certainly doesn’t appear to ‘give a F-U-C-K’. But the media’s reaction to her recent video snippet demonstrates that she is far more entitled to twerk than the likes of Miley Cyrus. As MTV.co.uk points out, Miley will now immediately spring to mind if you think of twerking, but here, Minaj is merely showing Miley’ how it’s done’. 
 
MOBO Awards’ founder Kanya King said recently in an interview with the Telegraph’s Laura Peacock that twerking is simply “harmless fun”. This may have once been true, but the booty shaking movement has recently garnered superfluous media attention, worldwide controversy and, most importantly, a legitimate stake in pop culture since Miley claimed it for herself. Before the VMAs it was not the same kind of phenomenon. For decades it has been one of many distinctive facets within one of many forms of urban music, gradually becoming more and more popular outside of its own paradigm.
 
It seems to me that the furore surrounding Miley Cyrus’s twerking bonanza stems just as much from her “whiteness” as her gender. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of lewd sexuality in lyrics or performances from key figures in urban pop culture. In 2002, Missy Elliot requested that an unknown counterpart ‘go downtown and eat it like a vulture’, Lil’ Kim told us all repeatedly to ‘suck [her] dick’ a couple of years earlier and Nicki Minaj is a more recent ‘pro with them balls’ (apparently). These black female artists are portrayed as strong, sexy powerhouses with an independent, ‘give a fuck’ demeanour. Yet Miley is publicly counselled and reprimanded for her actions. 
 
Discussion about pop music’s shining stars clearly needs to be re-focused. Addressing the young, female artist solely from an angle of sexual exploitation discounts and eliminates a wider assembly of issues surrounding the industry. We must start questioning and collectively tackling all of the issues such as race, age, size (etc. etc.) rather than blindly accepting many of the binaries that have been rigidly erected for us in popular culture. 
 
All of these women have unmasked something important. It took Miley foam-fingering herself on stage and shaking her tiny, flesh-coloured underpants to successfully expose popular culture to be racially divisive and the public to be extremely selective partisans. As far as we may have come in society, the notions of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ and their strands within popular culture still stand separate and ‘other’ from one another. “Now that white people are doing it, it seems kind of lame” says Miley of twerking during her Saturday Night Live monologue earlier this month, tactlessly flaunting the division. As Ava Vidal emphasised in her Telegraph piece a couple of days ago: “race matters”, and that includes the way it is portrayed in music videos. It’s time we started investigating its role within gender stereotyping, and, whether you like the Lily Allen video or not, I’m glad that the discussion surrounding it is starting to take steps towards doing that. When an artist is bold enough to blur lines within pop culture, the world sits up and remarks, loudly. I suppose we should be thankful that at least this time, those lines have nothing to do with Robin sodding Thicke.’
 
- LM

 

12 thoughts on “On Music Videos: Some ‘Bitches’ Have It Harder Out Here Than Others

  1. Really interesting that you focused on the race element of it; I hadn’t really considered that and it’s incredibly true that while Azealia Banks can sing about c*nts in 212, if Miley did that there’d be even MORE of a brouhaha than there already is. Thanks for this, really enjoyed.

  2. An interesting articulation of the double-standard by which we judge female pop artists. Regarding the race element, however, and specifically twerking, it seems to be linguistically naive to talk about entitlement as in, the black women mentioned are entitled to a more explicit sexual presence than the white women. The issue is complicated from a historical perspective in that black women’s bodies have long been portrayed as objects and in sharp contrast to the more deliate, more proper white women. And twerking is controversial on the grounds that it is clearly cultural appropriation, demonstrating the process whereby a practice is divorced from its original, cultural meaning and geography, and given new legitimicy by being “claimed” by the dominant white culture. But it is positive that race is part of the discussion following Allen’s video.

  3. All very good thoughts. There are non-black women in Allen’s video, but only a couple. (There is for example a black woman spanking a white woman with pink hair – I thought of it particularly since you mentioned Lily spanking a black woman. That doesn’t make it OK, of course, but it’s still relevant to your point.) I’m curious as to the dancers’ thoughts on the whole issue as well. I haven’t read Allen’s thoughts, if she’s discussed it publicly. Having too many white dancers would have heightened the discussion on appropriation so there’s a bit of balancing one would have to do.

    I do think it’s relevant to consider Miley’s past industry experience when looking at the public’s reaction to her. She was a Disney star and marketed largely to tweens. Rihanna and Minaj haven’t just stepped out of Mickey’s Clubhouse, and Miley’s 10 year old fans will still be following what she’s doing. That’s a big part of the Miley outrage. That and, to be frank, people have watched her grow up actually actively anticipating what would happen once she turned 18, was “legal”, and got out of Disney’s clutches. No matter WHAT she did, people would have managed to make a massive issue of it.

    Lesedi brought up black women’s bodies portrayed as objects in contrast to white women, but I’d counter white women’s bodies were portrayed as objects too; objects that were hidden. Objects that were owned by husbands and fathers and were not permitted to be viewed by men. Both objects, but viewed very differently.

    Anyway, good post, lots of good thoughts.

  4. Interesting article… obviously in music videos women’s bodies have become a commodity and I do believe there is more than a little racism in the music industry and the way black women’s bodies are portrayed.

    However, I’m not sure that the public’s reaction to Miley Cyrus is all to do with her race – yes we’re less shocked when Azaelia Banks sewars than Miley Cyrus because Miley Cyrus was a tween, Disney-eque starlet. Also because she is a whole lot less convincing. I believe Christina Aguilera sang the lyruics “if you don’t like it, f*ck you”, and didn’t Lady Sovreign also mention “sucking d*ck” in one (or two) of her songs. In this case, it’s really more about the genre of the music than the race of the singer.

    • I agree, when Miley Cyrus does something risqué people react strongly because she’s been in the public eye since she was effectively still a child. It’s like a (heavily watered down) version of how I imagine parents feel when they find out their little baby has gone on the Pill or something.
      For me, I didn’t see an issue with the race of the women portrayed in this video as I don’t really tend to watch things and count the black people (I’m not saying there isn’t an issue with racism in the music industry, I was just raised in a lovely environment where skin colour was as irrelevant as hair colour, and as such, like Miley, I find the continued existence of racism confusing and alien). I watched it and thought how it was a great that a mainstream artist has come out with a lead single so unabashedly pro-feminist in a society that often shies away from accepting that sexism even still exists in the developed world; it saddens me that what people are writing about is the complexion of the backing dancers.

  5. This was really interesting. I’ve been fascinated by all this and what’s come up since the Lily video. I’m trying to think of more examples of white females twerking – Iggy Azalea also has a very sexually explicit live show, and no-one really seems to be outraged by her. i do think a lot of the Miley stuff is because of her Disney background, but it’s also interesting to explore the racial thread.

  6. I feel the author has forgotten the condemnation heaped on Rihanna around her relationship with Chris Brown, much of it phrased along the lines of “she shouldn’t go back to him because it doesn’t set a good example for her fans”. Also the flack for S&M. Any woman who is non-conformist or outspoken about her sexuality is targeted, however the element which may account for a percieved lack of criticism of black female artists could be journalists being afraid of being labelled racist?

  7. Whilst I think this article raises some good points, I remember a huge amount of backlash after Rihanna’s X Factor performance a few years back, and I’ve heard/read/seen just as much condemnation of artists like Rihanna and Beyonce being ‘bad role models’ as I have for Miley or Gaga, for example.

    I also think it’s unfair to say that Lily separating herself from the dancers (by covering up more and spanking them) is a racial statement, as is implied in the article. 1) it’s hardly a racial segregation when you consider that there are actually two white dancers twerking just as hard as the rest, and as Sanna says above, a black woman spanks a white woman with pink hair, and 2) Lily is the singer and the others are her backing dancers – I do agree that unity and equality should be encouraged, but it’s quite normal that the singer would distinguish herself by wearing a different outfit and being positioned front and centre.

  8. An interesting point of view. The amount of media coverage on the topic of ‘sexy music videos’ must be increasing download sales, just what the industry intended. It was ever thus. Are they following or leading a trend in society to greater sexuality in marketing. Blame the ‘Mad Men’ who started media advertising all those years ago.

  9. I love seeing these discussions which highlight nuances in the ways that women are represented, all wins for intersectionality. With regards to the video, I can understand the point Allen was trying to make but her ‘satire’ isn’t sophisticated enough to be meaningful, the images look exactly the same as in ‘actually’ misogynist videos which use black women as props.

Leave a Reply to Siouxsie Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>