As we flitter on into 2017, we have bore witness to mass changes in contemporary culture, largely amassed directly from seismic shifts in music. Tweaked here and there, but seemingly ever-present is the forlorn figure of that eternal woman in music – and all of the gaudy and provocative accompaniments that follow.

Beyoncé's Instagram photo, receiving almost 10 million likes and "breaking the internet" this February demonstrates the display of skin in a demure way that exudes power and grace.
Beyoncé’s Instagram photo, receiving over 10 million likes and “breaking the internet” this February demonstrates the display of skin in a demure way that exudes power and grace.

The Year of our Lord, 2017: the ravage and often circus-like representation of female artists has taken a (temporary) backseat. Prominent musical women such as Beyoncé now draw huge plaudits (2017 translation: Instagram likes) for artsy pictures, posing with her baby bump, demonstrating a huge divergence from the more commonly acclaimed baring of all for social media. It seems more and more young women are buying into the ‘Queen B’ brand nowadays, perhaps moreso than into her music itself. This of course is not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of examples of bad byproducts of women’s music that fans have eagerly lapped up over their professional output. We have only recently come out (fairly) unscathed from a few turbulent years of unabashed female “ostentatiousness”, wherein reckless teen abandon and the systematic decimation of the young and innocent child star image seemed to be the in-thing.

Paige Hawk (2014), in her paper on the sexualisation of females in the music industry, notes the trend of scantily-clad female performers that grabbed the headlines at the advent of this current decade. This mode has sustained for a number of years, seemingly culminating in the carnivalesque crescendo of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Here, Robin Thicke has a good go at portraying the ultimate epitome of male chauvinistic, misogynistic privilege, asserting himself physically above his female counterpart and showboating his sleazy sexualism with smug passivity (image at top of page). Cyrus’ performance, whilst admittedly being the most blatant, was not necessarily an anomaly, so argues Hawk, who places the young singer’s antics alongside (not moreso) those of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (2014). She cites Perry’s use of barely-dressed backing dancers and Gaga’s thong/less-than-canopying seashell bra combo as testament to the leering hands of female sexualisation that shook not only the entire event but the music scene and popular culture surrounding it in a storm of celebrity. It is important to note here that sexualisation covers a myriad possible definitions that can result in such claims being made, as labelled in the American Psychological Association’s report.

Lady Gaga's infamous meat dress at the 2010 MTV VMAs was a fiery, shocking protest against the military's stance on gay soldiers.
Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress at the 2010 MTV VMAs was a fiery, shocking protest against the military’s stance on gay soldiers.

This network of ways in which we, as a society or individual, can sexualise becomes startling, in that all of the APA’s definitions seem to hold proximity to ourselves. The ‘value of […] sex appeal‘ (APA, 1, 2007) and the ‘standard that equates physical attractiveness […] with being sexy‘ (APA, 1, 2007) are all easily identifiable, and the objectification and imposition of sexuality upon women can be traced throughout our culture (APA, 2007). This creates unease, as we realise what we are witness to, which to a large extent is without us even realising. Our perceptions become warped. Lady Gaga goes from being an outspoken activist to another pawn in the phallocentric world of music; presented as commodity and merely more meat for hungry men.

 

gaga-vmas
Three years later at the 2013 VMAs, Gaga skipped around baring almost all, highlighting everybody’s vulnerability to sexualisation, no matter how stern-minded we perceive them.

Our contentions that these women dress or act this way as a display of defiance and empowerment are loftily idyllic, but ultimately when it comes to their reception by a male audience, it is one of consumption: ‘For women, a sexy woman is equated with power; for men, a sexy woman is merely a tease‘ (Vorderer & Zillman, 2014, 181). This notion is disheartening. It brings echoes of futility for women who are forced into becoming a sexual being due to the undeniable old adage that sex sells. For many female performers, they can try and embrace their own sexuality, but this instigates discourse around whether they are truly owning and flaunting their own body with natural pride and unfaltering female bravado, or if they are falling into the laps of their aching male viewers. It seems an inescapable paradox, with women being scrutinised at every move that appears to go virtually unchallenged in our enjoyment of music.

So, whilst it is easy to jump down Miley’s throat for gallivanting around grabbing her crotch, we must realise that she is somewhat coerced into this by the skewed climate of the industry. Equally, this could be her own free prerogative choice – and one that can be financially very rewarding.

Don’t hate the player.

Miley Cyrus

Bibliography:

American Psychological Association. Report on the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls: Executive Summary. Washington: American Psychological Association, 2007.

Cyrus, Miley. ‘We Can’t Stop (VMA 2013 MTV).’ Youtube. 8 December 2015. Web. Accessed 6 February 2017.

Deguire, Gregg. ‘Lady Gaga at 2010 VMAs.’ 2013. Image. Accessed 7 February 2017.
http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/09/03/lady-gaga-vma-meat-dress-now_n_8083482.html

Hawk, Paige. ‘Sexualization of Women in the Music Industry.’ Moravian. 2014. Web. Accessed 6 February 2017.
http://home.moravian.edu/public/eng/writingCenter/prize/2014_FYS_Hawk.pdf

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé. ‘We would like to share our love and happiness…’ 2017. Image. Accessed 5 February 2017.
https://www.instagram.com/beyonce

Mazur, Kevin. ‘Lady Gaga performs at the 2013 MTV VMAs in Brooklyn, NY.’ 2013. Image. Accessed 7 February 2017.
http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/5869567/this-week-in-billboard-chart-history-lady-gaga-lands-her-first

Reuters. ‘Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke perform “Blurred Lines”.’ 2013. Image. Accessed 29 January 2017.
Miley Cyrus defends twerk-filled MTV VMAs performance: I got more tweets than Superbowl

Richardson, Terry. ‘Miley Cyrus.’ 2013. Image. Accessed 7 February 2017.
http://www.mtv.com/artists/miley-cyrus/photos/8437707/

Vorderer, Peter and Dolf Zillman. Media Entertainment: The Psychology of its Appeal. London: Routledge, 2000.

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2 thoughts on “Stripped Down: A Look at the Over-Sexualisation of Women in Music

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