Ruth Houghton and Ben Warwick are Graduate Teaching Assistants and PhD candidates at Durham Law School. This post coincides with the Rewind/Reframe campaign launched today by EVAW, Imkaan, and Object to challenge the racist and sexist content and impact of music videos.
With songs like ‘Blurred Lines’, ‘sexualisation’ is not the problem. Despite long running and vocal campaigns on behalf of children and young adults who are said to be ‘sexualised’ by popular music, the issue of misogyny in the music industry carries on. By looking through the ‘sexualisation lens’, the picture has been blurred and the misogyny question has been left unasked and unanswered. Given the failure of sexualisation languages to adequately identify and deal with misogyny in music, it is necessary to change the lens through which we see popular music, its problems, and the solutions.
The current, and in our view, failing approach to explicit songs and music videos has been to recognise the potential damage of music videos to children and young adults through ‘sexualisation’. The response which arises from this approach is manifested in age restrictions on videos and albums, radio edits, and ‘explicit’ labels. These kinds of measures were endorsed by the recent Bailey Review, which looked at the pressures experienced by young people to ‘grow up too quickly’.
YouTube, as the biggest video hosting website, provides a prime example of regulation concerned with ‘sexualisation’. Its system allows any user to ‘flag’ videos that they deem inappropriate, and videos can then be taken down if considered to violate the YouTube Community Guidance. In theory, these guidelines set minimal boundaries, but because the trigger relies on a subjective assessment of what a ‘sexually explicit’ video entails, in practice, videos are readily flagged just for containing nudity, regardless of context. This example of the practical reality arises because of a user community that is hypersensitive to the so-called dangers of ‘sexualisation’. Looking through a ‘sexualisation lens’ causes this user community, and others, to adversely react to nudity leaving underlying misogyny unaddressed. The result can be seen in Flo Rida’s ‘Turn Around (5,4,3,2,1)’; it was not the demeaning of women that resulted in the video’s modification, rather it was the frequent appearance of women’s bottoms. The resulting changes for the ‘radio-edit’ of the video was a crude cropping of part of the women – the objectification remains untouched in the new version.
There are, therefore, two problems with the ‘sexualisation’ approach to regulating music. The first is that it is under inclusive – it leaves lyrics and images that demean women freely viewable by children and adults alike. The second problem with this approach is that it is over inclusive- nudity is the currency of the regulations, and unlike the OFCOM guidance, there is very little (if any) assessment made about the appropriateness, context, or extent to which the nudity is damaging. There is certainly no recognition of why it is harmful. This misses the real issues, producing an unwarranted over-focus on the dress-sensibilities of women in videos, and it overlooks the undertones of violence, possessiveness, and misogyny. Nudity is only a symptom of the problem; it is the power balances and the messages about the value of women portrayed in some scenes of nudity that are harmful.
Rather than focussing on sexualisation, music videos should be viewed through a different lens; cultural harm. Previously, it has been argued that violently pornographic material is culturally harmful due to its availability, and its contribution to an atmosphere in society that is tolerant of the objectification of women or discussion of cultural harm in context regulation of p*rn (see McGlynn & Rackley here). Likewise, the cultural harm framework can be applied to music videos, providing a necessary assessment of the real problem within popular culture. In particular, it is objectification in, and the ubiquity of, this material that signals cultural harm and necessitates action.
Recent manifestations of the objectification of women in music videos and song lyrics are not limited to Thicke’s ‘Blurred lines’. Other songs fail to demarcate the lines between drinking, violence and rape, as is seen clearly in Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Something Really Bad’, where the song verse includes the line; ‘I hit her from the back’. The problems go beyond violence, ‘Drinking from the Bottle’ includes scenes of women sexually thrusting against a car, whilst the lead male stands with them performing around him, and, disturbingly, the video closes with an image of a woman running from a man after a sexual encounter. In Thicke’s most recent song, ‘Give It 2 U’, the artist is surrounded by female dancers who at one point look up to him for approval. These depictions of women are clearly problematic, but what makes these videos worthy of serious debate is their accompanying pervasiveness in society.
The argument is often made that age restrictions for the young, and consumer choice for individuals, mitigate against the harmful effects of these videos; however, the sheer ubiquity of the music shows that this is not the case. These images and lyrics are unavoidable; they appear on the TV, radio, in shops, at work, bars and gyms, on the news, on social media, and on YouTube. To argue that individuals can avoid music they ‘dislike’ is to argue that individuals should or can avoid these, and more, public spaces. The broadcasting of this sort of music in everyday places means that the content, and the messages within, also become ‘everyday’; this is known as the ‘normalisation’ effect. Such normalisation creates a culture that tolerates misogyny; a culture that people cannot, practically speaking, be asked to avoid.
Cultural harm differs from sexualisation in its emphasis on the group of people who are harmed, and how they are harmed. As stated above, sexualisation arguments focus on children and young adults, yet this ignores the effects of misogynistic material on the whole of society. The second point of divergence between sexualisation and cultural harm regards the nature of the harm. Whereas sexualisation claims are focused on traditionalist arguments concerned with the loss of childhood innocence, cultural harm perspectives look more holistically at the range of effects upon society that flow from the preservation of misogynistic popular culture.
By looking at the issue of popular music through a cultural harm lens rather than a sexualisation lens, a more convincing argument can be made for increased or improved regulation of music videos and lyrics. The nature of the problem is different according to cultural harm theories, insofar as it is not just about children ‘growing up too quickly’ but about children growing up in a climate of misogyny. What is more, the problem is greater than sexualisation writers believe, as the effects of the music are not only upon children, but rather the results fall across society, ages, races and genders. Stronger arguments for action are constructed on these two bases, the difference of the harm and the greater size of the harm.
While shifting the focus from ‘sexualisation’ to ‘harm’ benefits argumentation, it also improves the quality of any resultant regulation. While ‘sexualisation’ is policed by the highly subjective assessments of the YouTube community, a cultural harm approach allows us to more rigorously define and incorporate normative standards on what exactly constitutes ‘harm’, and who exactly is affected. With the problem better identified, the solution can be better defined.
Rather than simply using age restrictions which are an ineffective solution for those in the population who fall beyond them (or who have the savvy to circumvent them), solutions based on cultural harm would target society more broadly, and assess correctly the problematic music. Moreover, in using these assessments, debates on what constitutes harm, and who is affected by it, are encouraged. In place of conversation-stopping labels such as ‘explicit’, ‘parental guidance’, and ‘nudity’, the process of dialogue as well as any resultant regulation can serve to combat misogyny in music.
Debaters on ‘the problem’ of music videos and lyrics need to look beyond the sexualisation argument, and should instead take a glance through the cultural harm lens. Through that lens they will see the issues around the music industry with greater clarity, but they should be warned, they will also see a much larger problem than their ‘sexualisation’ glasses allowed them to see. Only when the problem is seen through the right lens will it be possible to efficiently and effectively deal with it. Until then, we fumble around, only half seeing, and only half dealing with, what is in front of us.