Pop stardom is no excuse for sexism

A few months ago, I found myself jamming to some Nick Jonas videos, as one does. But behind the catchy beat and soulful vocals, something stopped me in my tracks.

My groove was thrown off by the presence of ladies in stockings and bras writhing around on tires as Jonas crooned his heart out. The flashes of thighs and mouths and bodies, accompanied by lyrics about getting to the next “level,” set off alarms in my brain.

Objectification of women has been so historically prevalent in music we often shrug our shoulders and accept it as a norm, if we even notice it at all. Hip-hop often gets unfairly blamed as an area of extreme sexism, but examples of female objectification can also be found in another, more general arena: the work of young male pop stars who may feel the need to put the spotlight on their budding sexualities. 

Looking at the ways young stars regard the opposite sex in their work can tell us a lot about gender dynamics in adolescence and the way we show maturity as we grow up. Pop culture can be a powerful reflection of societal values. 

But here’s the thing: Being a man is not synonymous with degrading women. 

For example, Nick Jonas was very vocal about wanting to separate himself from his wholesome Disney image, solidified for almost ten years by the success of pop trio the Jonas Brothers (who, for the sake of full disclosure, I will proudly admit I love). 

It is not a coincidence that several of his solo music videos feature women as objects and aggressive sexual imagery, while most Jonas Brothers videos would have never even hinted at such a thing. (Remember “Year 3000”? OK stop, I’m getting emotional.) 

Think of how many music videos follow this basic script: men crooning their innuendos while scantily clad ladies hang onto their sturdy bodies and gyrate around some ironic setting — a parking garage, a jungle, a rooftop, anything.

It is easy to brush off images and lyrics as harmless, but problematic media has real-life ramifications.

When women are depicted as accessories to men, they are dehumanized. When individuals learn to see themselves as objects, it can lead to a plethora of issues such as eating disorders, substance abuse and depression.   

I want to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with the women themselves depicted in the media, and there is nothing inherently sexist about imagery centered on women’s bodies. Images of sexuality are not inherently harmful.

The problem is when these make up a vast majority of roles available to women in media, said Rachel Reinke, ASU Women and Sexuality professor. 

“They might be totally happy to participate in all those things,” Reinke said. “But the structures that are in place that make it so the only options available to women, particular kinds of women, make it so that it’s no longer a choice.” 

Think about how it would look if all of the conventionally attractive, scantily clad women in music videos were actually fully-clothed women of all sizes, shapes and skin tones making decisions, taking charge, and trying to “score” the silent gyrating man in the background. Sound silly? Exactly. We are so used to men being the confident, active “pursuer” and women being the silent, passive “pursued” it is difficult to picture anything else. That’s how ingrained female objectification is into our culture. 

Indeed, female pop stars also create sexualized images of men. Britney Spears' most recent video “Make Me” shows Spears and her female friends swooning over buff men in minimal dress. Because objectification by definition simply refers to viewing someone as an object, women can absolutely objectify men as well. Male objectification has also become a fad in advertising in recent years.  

The difference is that women have been objectified for hundreds of years, and their oppression is rooted in historical structures that have consistently treated women as property and used rape of women as a weapon of war. In addition, women are victims of sexual violence at disproportionally higher rates than men

“Men have so much more culture power over women in so many aspects,” Reinke said. “There’s also backlash against feminism that immediately someone would point to (objectification of males) and say, this is why feminism is horrible! You kind of have to think about that context when you think about why they’re treating the men in their videos the same way.”

I am not saying pop stars are forbidden to grow up and that they have to wear their Disney "mouse ears" forever. Sexuality can be a powerful tool in an artist’s mission to show maturity.

But it’s all about the way it’s done. Many pop stars use their sexuality to distance themselves from their squeaky clean pasts. For example, we can see this being played out in the case of former One Direction member Zayn, who has talked about the sexual tones of his March 2016 album "Mind of Mine" and expletives that would never have flown during his 1D days. 

Zayn's video for "Pillowtalk" contains sexual imagery, but the women's bodies are being displayed in an artistic way on their own, not necessarily for his direct pleasure. In addition, the diverse women shown are expressive with their emotions, their faces showing frustration, joy and sadness, implying a more active role in the story than simply dancing in the background. 

While Zayn is not a perfect role model in how to appropriately express sexuality, this demonstrates that women can be shown in ways that appear more consensual and humanized while still maintaining the edginess of a video. 

Many female pop stars do this as well. For example, Miley Cyrus has harnessed her sexuality in a way that is basically a giant middle finger to gender norms. Her pixie cut itself is a rebellion against beauty standards (women deemed attractive by society overwhelmingly have long hair) while her revealing and eccentric fashion choices (nipple pasties, unitards, etc.) express her sexuality in a way that clearly is not meant to appeal to the male gaze

See something else important? She’s the one making the decisions — playing an active role in the narrative as opposed to merely the passive accessory of a man. 

Objectification happens for many reasons, including the fact that it is prominent in society and because it may be a more comfortable way to talk about women in a society that treats emotional vulnerability as an un-masculine trait. 

Research also shows that objectification of women — and celebrating the images of male sexual dominance seen in movies — is a way for young boys to maintain status within their friend groups. 

This isn’t the way it should be. Playing into a system of sexism and degradation of other human beings is not the way to be cool, despite what it may seem like in pop culture.   

“You don’t have to be super (politically) correct about everything all the time,” Reinke said. “That’s not the point. The point is to think about how to respect people and recognize that not everybody has the same choices that you do.”


Reach the columnist at lallnatt@asu.edu or follow @LibbyAllnattASU  on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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