Promo Survey: Feminism & Music Videos part 2 - sexuality and opportunity

Promo Survey: Feminism & Music Videos part 2 - sexuality and opportunity

We 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 they thought that feminism was having on the way music videos are being made now, post-Blurred Lines.

In the second half of the survey we quizzed the panel further about the depiction of female sexuality in videos. And we also get the panel's opinions on the crucial question of opportunities for women in an industry which historically seen notably few female directors rise to the top of the tree. 

• Powerful female artists are still making raunchy music videos. So is something like Nicki Minaj's Anaconda an expression of the artist, a cynical exercise to use sex to boost YouTube views/sell music - or somewhere in between?

Liz Kessler, head of music video at Academy/A+: I don’t think it’s cynical at all.  I think it’s quite upfront. I personally love/hate that video, it makes me smile even though technically it’s pretty grim. I think you’ve created a spurious line, Nicki Minaj is in your face and doesn’t give a fuck and I for one love that.

Danielle Hinde, executive producer at Doomsday Entertainment: Anaconda isn’t exactly my jam but Nicki is an undeniably unique artist. She’s flipping the script a bit and taking ownership of her sexuality in a very aggressive way, and she is a grown ass woman and making all those decisions by herself.  I’d guess she sees her work as empowering women and dominant in a very male-driven hip-hop world.  Beyoncé is more my type of a strong female artist…her videos are insanely sexual but in a powerfully provocative yet subtle way.  Even women get inspired in their own sexuality watching her perform.

"I’m not going into the gnarly details of what I had to put up with as a young woman in this industry but it’s made me stronger and hopefully helped make it easier on women coming up now." Danielle Hinde

Caroline Clayton, freelance video commissioner: Whilst videos from artists like Nicki, Iggy, Rihanna and other female hip hop / pop artists might be considered damaging to women I lean towards the stance that actually all of these women are empowered and in control of their own lives, creativity and sexuality. Whilst they are overtly using their sexuality they are using it on their own terms which, love it or hate it, is a strong form of feminism. 

Natalia Maus, video commissioner at Island Records UK: Both I think. Audiences are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. They can sniff out artists that are simply operating in the 'sex sells' agenda - and call them out on it. However, using sex to boost views or sales was there from the very dawn of music videos. This is probably part of the reason they exist in the first place. Madonna is a good example of an artist that was around right at the start of music videos and understood this. Her sexuality was a major part of her artistic expression, on TV and on stage. She cleverly used that to her advantage.

Shadeh Smith, video commissioner at Atlantic Records UK: A video like Anaconda, which is overtly sexual, is an extension of her artists ‘character’ and culture. Undoubtedly this particular video was supposed to rally up views and sell music through its raunchy nature but I wouldn’t call it a cynical exercise but more one of expression that is consistent with the rest of her campaign and creative vision.

• Is it actually desirable to curtail dance and pop music videos featuring women in bikinis, or skimpy clothing, acting as eye candy for the (male) viewer?

Fran Broadhurst, from directing duo Mathy & Fran: I think the answer is less about trying to censor, and more about presenting an alternative. It strikes me that the only real way to bring change is to create difference - let’s redress the balance with something new.  Censorship will often make things more appealing and more illicit, which could be a slippery slope.  I think we’d naturally curtail the amount of skimpy bikini videos just by offering people something else.

Kim Jarrett, directors' representative, OB Management: Over the past two decades that type of video has become a genre in itself so something must be working and still be appealing to the masses! But from a personal perspective I am getting increasingly bored of that visual and don’t particularly find it very innovative. These types of videos (and by that I mean your generic 'fun in the sun' videos or club party videos) aren’t profiling ‘women’ on the whole, they genuinely only profile one type of woman. Skinny, Caucasian women, skimpily clothed. Or conversely you have a stereotypical American urban video and the women featured are generally Black / Latino. These videos appeal and relate to a very narrow demographic of audience and that’s a bigger conversation to be had.

Juliette Larthe, executive producer Prettybird UK: NO!!

"Many cultural critics have lauded Anaconda as a feminist anthem, and its detractors fall into the tired racist trope of fearing black female sexuality." Juliette Larthe

Danielle Hinde: I came up by the way of the music video dancer world, so it’d be hypocritical of me to say we need to 100% get rid of those types of visuals.  I aspired and trained to be one of those dancers.  I’m not exactly a fan of the strip club fantasy music video where it’s a little too turnt up and the artist is always flanked by writhing naked chicks, but I’m sure that’s a dying fad with a limited audience.  From the beginning of time, women have been sexualized and will continue to be so, I imagine.  Women are beautiful and should be celebrated, but how we celebrate women is more the issue than anything.  There have been some changes to be more respectful to women like we’re not allowed to shoot a truncated body (for broadcast) but other than that, no limitations have been set.  I’m not one for censorship, but I do feel strongly that women should be in control of their own bodies and decisions without feeling like the only way they’ll have worth is if they turn dudes on.  That’s when it’s not sexy anymore.

Liz Kessler: Why only the male viewer?  Women love to look at women too, even heteronormative women.

Shadeh Smith: Talking about this in relation to the ‘male’ viewer I think is a problem in itself . As we are talking about women in music videos (and as women make up a large part of the viewing audience) I think it’s important to think about how females and especially young girls are affected by the same videos. Within this topic there’s a whole other conversation that should be had that focuses on the females as viewers and how they are affected. Their self-esteem, self worth and what the projection of socially defined ‘hot’ women (as decided by a portion of society) does for them.

Natalie Maus: I don't really see the biggest problem being how much flesh is on show. I have relaxed my opinions a little, I've probably become immune to it and now I don't mind tits and arse (within reason!) as long as women are not portrayed as giggly, vacuous idiots that are simply present to make the men look more powerful. I think people find it harder to identify anti-feminist material if it's not bare flesh though - the other stuff is much more subtle and I guess mirrors day to day life more and so we just accept it.

• Do you think, for example, the Lily Allen video for Hard Out Here had an impact on awareness of feminist issues?

Kim Jarrett: ‘Hard Out Here’ was clever as it poked fun at previous videos that were seen to exploit certain music video devices, so it definitely raised a few questions cleverly.

Liz Kessler: It’s part of the bigger picture. It’s great that she expressed herself and it felt as if she didn’t hold back anything.

Juliette Larthe: (In response to this question as well as the question relating to Nicki Minaj and the question below regarding white male dominance of the industry…) The racially coded content of this questionnaire is illustrative of how the music industry has misinterpreted the main facets of feminism, in particular the need for radical intersectionality of race and class. For example white women using black women’s bodies as silent props in videos is not feminist, and Lily Allen’s video is an example of anti-black feminism and racism. In this video Lily Allen pathologises and fetishizes black women’s bodies and uses varied racist motifs in her quest to draw attention to the struggles of women in the industry. Any basic feminist message is completely eroded by the racist content and Allen discredited herself further when she dismissed the objections of a myriad of black voices and refused to address the problematic content of her video. It is clear from the way she is positioned above the women of colour in her video and how they are reduced to hyper sexualized mute bodies that the only women Allen includes in her feminism is privileged white women.

It is surprising that Lily Allen and Nicki Minaj are mentioned on the opposite sides of the feminist debate, when a quick google search of “Lily Allen feminism’ and ‘Nicki Minaj feminism’ would show you that most informed cultural critics are celebrating Nicki’s feminism and criticizing Lily’s anti-black video. It is particularly troubling and indicative of the racism of the music industry that Hard Out Here is used to illustrate feminism, when the backlash against it from Black feminists and intersectional feminists was loud and widespread. It shows the continued marginalization of women of colour from both the music industry and mainstream cultural critique.

Nicki Minaj, on the other hand, can be seen as defiantly feminist, and intersectional. Many cultural critics have lauded Anaconda as a feminist anthem, and its detractors fall into the tired racist trope of fearing black female sexuality. In Anaconda, Nicki Minaj flips the Sir Mix-a-Lot standard of women’s body parts only being valuable when they please men on its head, and the lyrics are a battle cry for women to reclaim the power endowed on their bodies by the male gaze of a patriarchal society. In the video she builds on this and, shocker, does it without the racist oppression of women of colour. That lapdance is not about Drake’s pleasure, as seen by his ‘hover’ hand. He is not allowed to touch Nicki, this is about her pleasure and her reclamation of the black female body as a site of self-pleasure and self-desire.  

It is also distressing that Beyonce is not mentioned in the correspondence, despite her performance against a banner with ‘FEMINIST’ emblazoned on it. Are we as an industry still perpetuating anti-blackness, even in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter campaign?

"There’s a whole conversation to be had [about] females as viewers and how they are affected - their self-esteem, self worth and what the projection of socially-defined ‘hot’ women...does for them." Shadeh Smith

• The figures suggest that the music and music video industry is still the preserve of men (white middle class ones mainly). Do you feel that’s an important issue? Are things changing for the better in terms of the composition of the music industry?

Kim Jarrett: This is definitely something that needs to be addressed. There’s not enough outreach to people from different backgrounds, cultures and classes. Unfortunately I don’t think things are changing anytime soon, but I really hope it does!

Danielle Hinde: I think it’s a very important issue but one that is being addressed more as women are speaking up and calling people out.  Rose McGowan speaking out recently about a sexist casting notice is a perfect example.   At least the conversation is being had but it will take women like that to keep it going.  It was an incredible challenge coming up in this game as a woman and especially running a production company.  Female producers/directors get to hear things on set from male crew like “Smile!”. Would you tell a male producer/director to smile?  We also get called “sweetie” and other condescending pet names.  That’s all the laughable stuff though, I’m not even going to go into the gnarly details of what I had to put up with as a young woman in this industry but it’s made me stronger and hopefully helped make it a bit easier on the women coming up now.

Fran Broadhurst: I feel encouraged by the current climate and the way things are going.  From my experience, there is support out there for women in the industry, and on a day-to-day level, I don’t feel outnumbered by my male counterparts - there’s almost always a good balance of men to women on any project I’m involved in.  Perhaps the only surprising battle for me, is feeling the same entitlement to be creative - there’s often an assumption when I meet new people that I’m a producer, not director, which is something deep rooted I think in the perception of women first and foremost as ‘organisers’ over ‘creatives’ - that’s something I’d like to see change.

Liz Kessler: Its up to us to take over, men won’t give it up, why would/should they?

• Do you feel that more female music video makers have emerged in the past two years – or that there are signs that more female directors, etc will emerge in the future?

Caroline Clayton: I feel hugely positive about women's roles within music video - it's come a long way in recent years. There are loads of excellent female directors coming through at the moment. Historically I feel like female directors were only asked to make girl band videos, but directors like Lucy Luscombe, Kate Moross, Georgia Hudson, Lucy Therniak, Natalia Stuyk, De La Muerte all make great non-derogatory, often non-female led videos. Also, props to Carly Cussen who made it starting out in the hugely male-dominated grime music genre - I don't think that would have happened a few years ago! 

One of the other really heartening things is seeing female DOP's, camera AC's, lighting dept and DIT's. There are more and more females coming through in these massively male dominated areas - a recent very positive shift. 

Kim Jarrett: There are definitely more female directors making a name for themselves, but still only a select few at the very top of their game as house hold names. From my line of work however, I don’t see the music vid industry being particularly selective and only choosing just men for the job. If you’re a talented director regardless of your sex, that will shine through and take precedence. In a few instances I have been asked for female directors to pitch only as they would get along better with their artists rather than a male director, a slight discrimination against men! There are a lot of music video directors and a high percentage of them are men, but they are just as talented and creative as female directors; female directors are unfortunately by statistic outnumbered.

Danielle Hinde: I definitely feel like there is a massive influx of music video directors in general these days, more than ever actually.  Men still dominate the industry but women are finding their place and will catch up soon once provided more opportunities.  There are a lot of very strong female directors paving the way for the next generation like Emily Kai Bock, Mimi Cave and Claire Carre. When I started in this industry watching Diane Martel and Sanaa Hamri make million dollar videos for massive artists like Jay Z and Timberlake, there were barely any women directing at the time, so I respect what they did for the rest of us.  Do I wish there were more female directors?  Every day. I am constantly seeking out female directors so my roster can be a bit more balanced.  The truth is there just aren't as many female directors out there, something I might argue is the result of the way we are often raised and encouraged differently than boys.  Women need to have the confidence that they can do this gig too, despite the fact that they have a disproportionately high volume of people telling them that they can’t. It’s harder for us, for sure, but the fear of failure shouldn’t stop anyone from trying.  

BUT, a pet peeve of mine is female filmmakers complaining they don’t ever get a chance purely because they’re women without actually doing the work.  I studied, practiced, learned from mentors and practically killed myself to have a career in this business. You still have to be a good director/producer, doesn’t matter what sex you are.  It doesn’t always mean immediate success for women, but no one can ever stay we didn’t try!

Fran Broadhurst: I’m not sure if there are more of us now, or if we’re just getting the spotlight a bit more, but the imbalance of women in the industry is definitely giving the issue a voice and allowing more female directors to come forwards and be promoted. The music video directors I was inspired by growing up - the people interviewed and written about - were largely all men. That’s hopefully no longer the case for young female directors starting out who are seeking role models to aspire to, and it can only encourage more of the same.  The future feels optimistic to me.

Juliette Larthe: YES like female artists.

Liz Kessler: Yes, I think there are.  What always amazes me is how many deeply average male video directors there are out there compared to average women. The male ego seems to be more robust somehow, the chicks I know who are directing are all fucking REALLY talented…

Shadeh Smith: Change isn’t immediate but there have been some really positive moves made in terms of the composition of the music industry, both in front of the camera and behind. Women are increasingly creating their own conversations and moving successfully in their own lanes and this is what we should focus on as opposed to the negatives.

Natalia Maus: I’m quite disappointed with the % of female directors. I don’t reckon there are more that have emerged, if so then it is probably quite marginal. There are simply not enough!

"The most important issue in feminism is equal pay... It would be fascinating to know the numbers comparing the boys wages to the girls wages." Liz Kessler

• If you regard the situation as in need of change, what suggestions do you have to make that change happen?

Shadeh Smith: If it’s a change that needs to happen it is more the role of society to change. If a woman wants to empower herself with her sexuality and femininity we should applaud that – but just be mindful of what empowerment really means. We shouldn’t have to curtail creative expression but perhaps think a little more about what we are really saying, who is effected and how.

Danielle Hinde: It’s not going to be something that changes overnight, but the perception needs to change that women are these delicate little flowers who only make films about a woman running down the beach in flowing clothes with sun flares and a soft filter.  We can get dirty, funny and dark like the boys can.  Female comedians like Amy Schumer and Broad City are helping forge the present zeitgeist in that regard. Just because we have a vagina doesn’t mean we can’t tell a joke or get weird.

Fran Broadhurst: I think we are all trying to change it – the kind of sexism I encounter in the industry is never radical or intended, but something more deeply ingrained - too subtle sometimes to put your finger on.  That’s the most dangerous part - the tiny things we’re all guilty of, that perhaps stop women shouting that bit louder, or being that bit more stubborn.  I feel sure things are changing though, and the richer the alternatives are, the better off we’ll be.  Eventually, there will be a better balance, we just need to keep creating.

• Any other comments you wish to make on the issue of feminism and female roles in music videos?

Kim Jarrett: I think it’s very important to note that we live in a very privileged first world country - majority speaking I would say women featuring in music videos have the right to say yes or no on their involvement. Some women love their bodies and want to showcase them. Those models in ‘Blurred Lines’ for example all had a choice on whether to partake or not. I recently read that, the models in fact did say no first off and then had some meetings in which they all changed their minds! If enough people begin to say ‘no’ on mass, then perhaps we can collectively start to change the pre-conceptions and sexualization of women in videos.

Juliette Larthe: 1. Feminism is a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment within the music video industry.

Shadeh Smith: Sex and female sexuality within music is not a new phenomenon nor is it one that we should be fighting to eradicate.I think we are now at a place where women have options. It doesn’t have to be a choice between female empowerment and sexuality – women can both be sexual and empowered its just important that we understand the social context we are feeding these videos into and that the framework is there to back this up in a positive way.

Liz Kessler: Yes, my comment is that this survey doesn’t touch on the most important issue in feminism and that is equal pay. In the 1970s in the USA, the laws were passed that means that men and women must be paid the same and yet we’re still only earning 77c to the dollar. (Sorry it's in dollars, I don’t have the UK stats to hand….)  With crew, at least there are union rules to ensure that gender is irrelevant to pay, but would be fascinating to me to know the numbers comparing the boys wages to the girls wages. 

  • Check out Part One of Promo Survey: Feminism & Music Videos here.

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