Sex and the Music Video

This morning I sat, sweat pouring down my face, as a woman lap-danced for me, gyrated her thonged-posterior towards my face. Angling her own face towards mine she leered suggestively, tongue flicking over her teeth, before arching her back and sliding her fingers between her – barely clad – vaginal lips. Then the camera panned backwards, tilting up to show the true object of her display – a baggy-trousered young man, his own lips pursed downwards as he nodded appraisingly, evaluating her performance. Other semi-naked women writhed and pulled at his sleeves, begging that he consider them for a moment too. I gaze back at these glassy-eyed women as a blonde enters, tying her boyfriend to a chair and rubbing her thonged rear against him, as I take in the curve of her thigh, the flush of his excitement.

But now look, she is showing him photos of other women he is supposed to have slept with, deceiving her and them. Each of these women now appears, one black; one brunette; another blonde; a red-head, strips almost naked and lap-dances for the imprisoned man, bringing her breasts, her lips, her thighs, close to his mouth before pushing him away: look at what you’re missing they are saying to him, parodying lesbian contact with one another before sashaying half-naked down the street, leaving him naked, panting, and smeared in lipstick.

I swing down from my seat, clammy and tired. If the twenty-minute ‘alpine pass’ cycle ride hadn’t made my limbs feel heavy and my insides churn, then these videos would have. Each time I got to the gym, put on my headphones and try to zone out the world for the space of a workout, I am unable to avoid being barraged by soft-core pornography.

I am unable to avoid being barraged by soft-core pornography

It seems that most women in the music industry collude with the basest masculinist fantasies: Britney Spears; Pussycat dolls; Girls Aloud; Nelly Furtado, each writhing and gyrating as they promise to fulfil their (male) viewers’ needs. Interestingly, Nelly Furtado was once famous for being ‘like a bird’, able to fly away from oppression, only to return on her knees as a sexed-up ‘Maneater’. These ‘soft-core’ images of female passivity play alongside more explicit, near hard-core versions, as women squat down to the ground, opening and closing their legs on command. In the words of Nelly, ‘flap your wings’, girl.

In real life, I am surrounded during my workout not by lycra-clad women from an Eric Prydz video, but by ‘normal’ women, some fit, some fat, all struggling to achieve some indefinable level of satisfaction with themselves. Like me, they are confronted with an array of women’s body parts. Close-ups of breasts, bottoms, thighs, ever-rising bikini-lines assault the senses as the camera pans in for a gynaecologically-inquisitive shot of those disembodied parts humping and pumping like a ’70s porn video.

Yet these videos are not just restricted to the gym, but on MTV 24-hours a day. They are the ‘acceptable’ face of the modern music industry, peddling the visions of womanhood that my 8-year-old daughter comes home from school emulating. As her reed-thin voice sings along unquestioningly to the Pussy-Cat dolls, – ‘Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?’ – I am stuck for a response. Do I take away her deserved innocence by explaining to her how offensive the lyrics are? Or do I let her sing away in blissful ignorance, and allow modern society’s disturbing trend towards the sexualisation of children to go unchecked?

And what of the men to whom these songs are targeted? Are they so unwilling to grow up that they, too, want to continue as adolescents? Social researchers tell us that men are growing up later and later, living at home for longer, enjoying extended childhoods through computer games and magazines like Nuts and Loaded. And music videos seem to reflect this.

there is no space for me to object, to wonder what we are saying to young girls about their bodies

The images of sex fed to viewers in the gym – where row after row of treadmills, exercise bikes and rowers are lined up in front of the television monitors like sofas – are akin to the Deepthroat fantasies that dominated pubescent boys in my high school. Only now it is not spotty, testosterone- driven youths who stare transfixed at the screen, unable to imagine contact with a flesh and blood woman, but row after row of adults, each of whom participates in a real adult world of sex and human relationships. And now I am expected to watch too, to stare (lustfully? Enviously? Detachedly?) at the larger-than-life pudendas being poked provocatively in my direction.

Just what is my response supposed to be, I wonder? Am I supposed not to notice that these women are being objectified and vilified, packaged and presented as pieces of meat under the specimen-gaze? Am I supposed to participate in the process, to enjoy watching displays of female liberation (really?) and to stop taking the whole thing so seriously? Because there is no space for me to object, to wonder what we are saying to young girls about their bodies, to young boys about the role of women, without taking up the mantle of the prude, the Feminist-with-a-capital-F, the kill-joy. When women have bought into this culture of objectification so effectively – as Ariel Levy has argued in Female Chauvinist Pigs – what spaces do we have left in which to protest?

What is most worrying for me about the invasion of the music video is not the objectification of bodily perfection. After all, gyms have long been a (real or fantasy) place of ‘lycra-clad lovelies’. No, what I find alarming is the increasingly explicit nature of the music video. With its perineal close-ups and gyrating flesh, this is not the supposedly harmless tradition of ‘Benny Hill’ and page three, but something altogether more sinister. What is being sold is something that is at base both objectifying and dehumanising. The women who dominate them are not ‘real’ women (contextualised with lives, thoughts or feelings beyond humping), but pornographic parodies of eroticised bodies. And it’s not their silicone breasts or taut thighs and abdomens that make them unreal, it’s their puppetry, as they stride, simper, writhe or gyrate for their audience.

what is being sold is something that is at base both objectifying and dehumanising

Given that visual and popular culture does not merely reproduce but also produces the world around us, how far does the mainstream growth and acceptance of such imagery help to promote healthy emotional and sexual responses? Are we bringing up a generation who will be unable to appreciate sex as an important aspect of adult human relationships because they are so used to seeing it devalued and disembodied on the television screen? In such a world, objectified, airbrushed bodies will be fetishised and real emotions and experiences (messy, imperfect, human) will not. Respectful sex, directed at individuals with personalities rather than at their bits, will cease to exist.

But who would want to live in such a world? Not I. Go flap your own wings, Nelly.

Fay Bound Alberti lectures in history at the University of Lancaster. With two young children and a passion for creative writing, she is interested in the politics of gender at home, and in the workplace.