Two years ago Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's controversial performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, and their respective music videos for Wrecking Ball and Blurred Lines, was the focus of a backlash against the sexualized portrayal of women in music videos. Since then, feminist values have gained popular currency to an extent not matched in decades - arguably since the first wave of Feminism in the 1970s.
So Promo News has recruited an all-female panel of leading music video professionals to take part in a survey looking at the effect of the resurgence of feminism on music videos. In the first half of our survey, we asked our panel what impact - if any - they thought that feminism was having on the way music videos are being made now, post-Blurred Lines.
• Considering the backlash against the Blurred Lines video, and videos by Miley Cyrus in 2013, do you think that artists, labels and music video creators have become more aware of feminist issues?
Caroline Clayton, freelance video commissioner: I'd like to think so. I feel like electronic music videos have changed massively from the mid 2000s up until now. If you look at the current big dance acts like Rudimental, Duke Dumont, Disclosure, Chase & Status, against the Benny Benassi, Eric Prydz videos of back in the day they are chalk and cheese. Dance videos nowadays are much more clever and funny vs just lots of tits and ass. I do feel like a large portion of the female pop arena and a lot of hiphop and rap videos still have a long way to go.
Kim Jarrett, directors' rep at OB Management: I definitely think people are a lot more wary of the context of videos these days. Personally I think people have always been conscious of their approach, but the reason the backlash of those videos were so prevalent were because we had Miley Cyrus, a Disney star who turned her image on it’s head. Robin Thicke had a lot of personal allegations surrounding him at the time, which didn’t help the videos output or the lyrics of the song. If he didn’t have those allegations would we be reacting to the video in the same way? I’m not so sure we would. People have filmed and sang far worse in music videos and yet have not been in the spotlight for it. Society has made it as such that sex sells and therefore videos of this nature have been made for years. I don’t think that’s a valid excuse in the slightest or something that we should lazily go with, but reconfiguring the populations hard-wiring into how they consume these videos is going to take a long time to change.
Liz Kessler, head of music video at Academy/A+: But the backlash wasn’t about feminism, but about the sexism that was on display. While naked bodies make money, they will be continued to be used to sell things.
Kim Jarrett: "Reconfiguring the population's hard-wiring into how they consume these videos will take a long time to change."
Juliette Larthe, executive producer at Prettybird UK: I think the two artists present two different views: Obviously Miley whoever directs her music videos and however she is portrayed in them and whatever she may say to the contrary is first and foremost a feminist since she defines equal social, economic, cultural rights for women however we want to look at it.
Natalia Maus, video commissioner at Island Records UK: I don’t think the backlash or the age ratings have really made any difference. I think this is because we have a bit of a narrow-minded view on what is misogynistic – a bare bum or exposed boobs don’t necessarily demean women - the way they are portrayed with regards to the male/female dynamic within a video needs at least the same amount of debate as the amount of flesh exposed and I don’t think we are fully there yet.
• Do we now have a climate that makes those kinds of videos are more unacceptable? And if so, is it for cultural reasons, or due to government pressure?
Fran Broadhurst, half of directing team Mathy & Fran: Sadly, I don’t think videos like Wrecking Ball and Blurred Lines have changed the climate very much. Although we may take issue with them, I think there’ll always be a small number of videos made for the sake of controversy. But what seems more dangerous, are the everyday examples of casual and constant over-sexualization of female artists that slip under the radar - silently reinforcing an expectation for how women should present themselves, in a way that remains unchallenged.
Fran Broadhurst: "What seems more dangerous are the everyday examples of over-sexualization of female artists that slip under the radar"
Danielle Hinde, executive producer at Doomsday Entertainment: Sex for the sake of sex in music videos is something that's as old as the medium, not a unique phenomenon of today. It's just the lines of acceptability that have changed. I think each generation is appalled by the next. Everyone was so offended by Janet Jackson and Madonna videos in the 90’s and they look like Sesame Street compared to some of the videos that are out now. The difference is those videos had a reason for the sexuality, whether to tell a narrative or for political/cultural commentary through controversy. Some of the over-sexualized videos today don’t seem to have any other agenda other than gratuitously showing a lot of skin and helping drive their view counts up. I think artists like Nicki and Miley are actually very smart and progressive with their sexual politics, similar in some ways to how Madonna and Janet were in their heyday.
Liz Kessler: Definitely NOTHING to do with government. There is a lovely re-birth of feminism, the fourth wave and this generation is making it their own.
Caroline Clayton: The internet and social media has helped a lot. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media means that everyone can get their voice heard. I don't feel like the government warnings make a huge amount of difference - slapping a warning on something often makes it seem 'cool' or 'edgy'. It's more the tastemakers’ voices on the internet that teenagers and young adults are going to listen to. It does feel like there is a cultural shift away from derogatory music videos within most musical genres.
Natalia Maus: From reading YouTube comments I do feel like the audience is less accepting of videos that portray women in a demeaning way (or at least people are piping up about it more). I would say that any progress made in this area would come purely from culture, because the medium itself is one of the most quintessential forms of popular culture, in its content and the way it is consumed - mostly online. Trying to police online content like the government have attempted to do, by sticking age ratings on videos, seems completely futile!
• What signs of ‘progress’ in the way women are portrayed in music videos, if any, have you noticed in the past year or so on this issue?
Alexa Haywood, directors' rep at Free Agent: I can't imagine Nicki or Rihanna being told what to do as much as I can't see Florence doing anything she doesn't want to, so I feel that it has come down to personal choice more so than industry choice. BUT saying that, is the industry making them feel they have to bare themselves?
Caroline Clayton: I'm torn here. I feel like a lot of female pop stars and girl bands still have a long way to go, particularly in the US. But equally artists like Lorde, Laura Mvula, MØ, Florence and Janelle Monae have all had success as powerful independent women who don't need to flaunt their sexual desirability in order to have commercial success. Faux-feminism from artists like Megan Trainor troubles me. It’s great that she is telling people you don't have to be a size zero. However, she's also saying it's not cool to be skinny which is unfair to women who are naturally born that way. She also then follows up with something which to me feels very unprogressive in Dear Future Husband. It's actually quite dangerous seeing as she has been positioned as a powerful female feminist voice to young girls to then be saying you have to get married. It's also unfair to men - why should they be expected to live up to their traditional chivalric roles if we are wanting women’s roles in society to be progressive?
Caroline Clayton: "A lot of female pop stars have a way to go... But artists like Lorde, Florence and Janelle Monae don't need to flaunt their sexual desirability to have success."
Liz Kessler: There have always been great women in music and if you go backwards, you’ll see that while you have Addicted To Love on one side, and you’ve got Annie Lennox on the other. Cool chicks are crucial in music and we’ve got more of them than ever. Sexually provocative women are not necessarily anti-feminist at all, far from it. Progress is never a straight line, it weaves…
Natalia Maus: I don't see any real evidence, that I could back up, of any progress in the way women are portrayed in music videos. I think the issue itself has been a hot topic which in turn has created a better platform for conversation and debate, but no tangible evidence of change.
• Can you give examples of more rounded female characters less dependent on their sexual desirablilty in recent music videos?
Fran Broadhurst: I don’t think it’s hard when you look outside the pop world to find great examples - in recent videos from both new and established artists such as Bjork; St Vincent; Laura Marling; Ibeyi; Courtney Barnett - the list feels plentiful. But in mainstream pop, it becomes frighteningly hard to find - Lorde perhaps, seems to have avoided the typical pop treatment, or groups like Haim whose super-cool look comes without it being particularly flesh-related. But there’s also an issue in suggesting women shouldn’t be sexually desirable in their videos, which is wrong. Beauty and desire are always going to be mesmeric on screen, I’d just love to see more imaginative ways to capture it. It's quite possible for women to be sexy without being objectified - take the confidence in the Warpaint - Disco video for example - it’s totally primal, but also fully clothed. Which isn’t to say women should ‘cover up’ either - artists like FKA Twigs are doing endlessly inventive things - someone mentioned to me recently how she celebrates her physicality over her sexuality. There's something powerful in that - encouraging women to present their bodies as objects of strength, not just soft play things.
Caroline Clayton: This video for Colbie Caillat from last year was great.
Danielle Hinde: Sia completely stopped appearing in her videos and in the media in general. I don’t want to speak on her behalf, but I’m sure she was sick of being picked apart and judged for her looks more than her music or just didn’t want to be in the spotlight. Her videos now are more memorable than ever and she’s completely absent. She’s created a new visual way to represent her music and it’s inspiring. We’re now only focused on her talent. I’m not saying women need to be invisible, but this is just an example of someone trying a different approach, and that’s progressive to me.
Danielle Hinde: "Women don't need to be invisible, but [Sia] is an example of someone trying a different approach, and that’s progressive to me."
Kim Jarrett: I think the new videos that Florence + The Machine has done with Vincent Haycock and Eliot Sumner’s new videos prove this well. Decca’s signing Aurora, and particularly Domino’s new signing Georgia.
Juliette Larthe: Why is someone more ‘rounded’ if they hide their sexuality?
Liz Kessler: I could give you examples from every single year that videos have been made.
Natalia Maus: The MIA Bad Girls video is a good example of how both the artist and supporting female characters can look sexy and badass. MIA is great at showcasing the sexiness of women in other cultures who, although often suffer from the mysogynistic attitudes of the countries they're from, effectively challenge the western world's idea of what is sexy.
• Would you say that more female artists are more in control of their videos content than they might have been in the past?
Liz Kessler: Not particularly. Artists in general seem to be much more enthralled to the needs of the marketing machinery…and sex sells. So when the label says pout…
Kim Jarrett: I think it really depends on the artist and which label they’re signed to. Some artists who are signed to certain labels have zero control on their video content, how they’re styled and their outputted image. It can be quite a sad state of affairs because it starts to become labels literally packaging people as products. I think the marketing departments have a hard time finding that line where they’re trying to sell their artists’ music but consistently weighing up at what cost and how far they go with trying to ‘sell’ them. It’s definitely worth mentioning however, that this is the case with some male artists as well.
Danielle Hinde: Depends on the artist. Some more established artists like Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj have a strong voice in their videos while some of the newer artists may have more guidance from their labels since they’re trying to establish their brand. That applies to all artists though, regardless of their sex.
Natalia Maus: There are just so many more videos being made nowadays it's tricky to compare music video trends of the past and present. I should think it's probably quite similar, as it would all depend on the artist in question. The more 'cookie cutter' artists that have less involvement in the making of the music and take a back seat in the way they are portrayed visually would and will have less interest in controlling their video content.
Natalia Maus: "Any progress made in this area would come purely from culture, because the medium itself is one of the most quintessential forms of popular culture."
Fran Broadhurst: From my experience labels are very respectful of what artists want, and I’d like to think that women always have a say in how they look - so the power for change lies with artists choosing how they want to be represented. Sia’s an interesting example - managing huge pop success whilst refusing to be the ‘body’ behind the voice. She feels like a great example of an artist in control - brave enough to shift the focus away from her personal physicality. But we can’t deny that we’re in an aesthetically obsessed industry, and people working in film and moving image are collectively trying to make something that looks as beautiful as it possibly can. We probably just need to redefine what that idea of beauty actually is.
Juliette Larthe: YES
• Check out Part Two of Promo Survey: Feminism & Music Videos here.