People have been flipping gender roles and sexual scripts for longer back than I care to research. It’s as simple as a sitcom depicting a wife coming back from a long day’s work and her husband meeting her with a pair of slippers and the evening paper. “This doesn’t match up with life as we know it to be!” the audience thinks. They shake their heads, they laugh, they go on with their lives.
Since then we’ve arguably become more open-minded, largely due to pop culture that communicates that women can in fact have professional careers, men can be sentimental and form embarrassingly close relationships with one another, et cetera. That obviously doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain areas that overall continue to be stuck in trends others are making moves to abandon. Take for example, an art form I’ve barely if ever discussed: music videos.
Ingrid Michaelson is one of my all-time favourite musicians, though if I want to be honest just falling under “female singer-songwriter” already catapulted her high on my list. In February of this year she released the music video for her new track “Girls Chase Boys”. It’s a clear remake of what Robert Palmer et al. filmed for his 1998 single “Simply Irresistible”, so I’ve decided to present his first:
Right off the bat, it’s not hard to see what they were going for here. We have these dolled up women, hips swaying, come-hither looks, and a scene that goes beyond gratuitous starting roughly 56 seconds in. Palmer does next to nothing, holding the mic he’s singing into and stepping from side to side every now and then.
Here’s Michaelson’s video:
I shouldn’t have to spell it out, and it’s right up there in the YouTube window even before you press play: the sexy dolled up women are now sexy dolled up men. They wear the same outfits, do the same dances, sway in the same uncomfortable fashion, and even do their best to mimic the come hither eyes. Where the camera pans across multiple breasts in the former [the gratuitous scene I was referring to] there is instead a quick shot of a jean-clad crotch thrusting at us.
At about a minute and a half in the sexy men are joined by sexy women, and it matches what the singer shared on her Facebook page concerning the video:
“The video takes that idea [no matter who or how we love, we are all the same] one step further, and attempts to turn stereotypical gender roles on their head. Girls don’t exclusively chase boys. We all know this! We all chase each other and in the end we are all chasing after the same thing: love. I hope you enjoy it! AHHH!”
That’s all great. I think it’s important to know that we’re not only all the same, but that we can all be sexy regardless of gender. The Huffington Post’s article on it came to the conclusion that while it drew attention to gender stereotypes by exaggerating and inverting them it “instead of reifying a gender divide [. . .] blurs it, presenting both men and women as overtly sexualized beings.” I agree with that, but only after the minute and a half mark that I mentioned above.
See, when I started watching the music video for the first time I immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was an inversion of gender roles, apparent by the ridiculously clad men. Focusing on that as the main idea behind the whole thing, I was continually thrown off by this:
I know that I wrote this whole piece on staring at people, but let me just say with complete and total honesty and hopefully in the most objective way possible, her boobs look amazing. She’s dressed up in that outfit for a reason and it’s not to bring out her eyes. That being said, I just couldn’t get past the fact that this was ostensibly supposed to flip gender roles and was somehow managing to enforce facets of them. In addition to that, barring a shirtless scene two minutes in and a few others, overall the men aren’t portrayed in a way that I’d call sexy.
Now I realize that sexiness is completely subjective, and that I’m neither a straight woman nor a bisexual or gay man, but when I saw these guys with their overdone makeup and gaudy attire I didn’t once think that this was on par with the women in Palmer’s video. If anything the effect here is to amuse as opposed to titillate.
Still, as Michaelson and the people over at The Huffington Post pointed out, that wasn’t exactly the point. The video moves on and women join the men and it doesn’t so much change directions as much as it reveals its original intentions. Considering that it no longer matches the gripe, if we want to call it that, that I had it was practically a godsend that I was able to catch Jennifer Lopez’s “I Luh Ya Papi” on MuchMusic:
They don’t really beat around the bush. JLo and her two friends are talking to the director, and after shooting down several of his suggestions on where to set the music video the other two girls tell him:
“If she was a guy, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.”
“No seriously, because if she was a dude, they would seriously have her up in a mansion with all these half-naked girls. Or maybe even in a yacht, you know how they stay doin’ a yacht scene: champagne, drinking gin, like that’s so-”
“See though, like why do men always objectify the women every single video. Like why can’t we, for once, objectify the men?”
Like I said, no beating around the bush. Hunky briefs-clad dudes are draped over furniture, washing cars, dancing, and generally shaking what their . . . fathers gave them, I guess. It’s a pretty direct inversion of what we usually see in a lot of rap videos; the men vastly outnumber the women, which makes them seem more like a commodity than actual characters. It’s a life of opulence with mansions and yachts and all that, the whipped cream on top being pecs and abs like you would not believe.
It’s not perfect, though. Even more so than Michaelson, Lopez draws attention her own body, particularly in the shot on the right where she sings the lyrics “Got that hourglass for you, baby, look at these legs.” Later on in the video when Moroccan-American rapper French Montana appears two women [who as far as I can tell are JLo’s friends, who say at the video’s end that they should “be the entourage that does nothing!”] dance around him just like they would were this a stereotypical music video for a straight male rapper.
“With the entrance of a powerful male character, the scripts are immediately flipped back to normal, as J.Lo’s backup dancers stop calling the shots, and are instead put into bikini tops and used as furniture. “
Watching these two music videos within a fairly short time period made me long to see one where the sexual scripts are flipped flawlessly. Robert Palmer’s humdrum black suit doesn’t call attention to his body, and neither do French’s jeans and long-sleeved shirt. Why is it that the women who sing both songs and are the stars of their own videos do otherwise? It’s fair to let Michaelson off the hook seeing as her goal was more or less equality, but seeing as how explicit the message appeared to be in Lopez’s it’s confusing as to her motivations.
The pop star revealed in an interview that she “just wanted [men] to see what [being objectified] feels like. I wasn’t trying to have some big political conversation about it, but I am trying to say think about what you do.” I think it’s fair to say that she accomplished that much, but can’t help feeling like it’s weakened by her own performance.
This isn’t to shame either Ingrid Michaelson [who as I have mentioned I really like] or Jennifer Lopez [whose song borders on insufferable for yours truly] for the way they appear in “Boys Chase Girls” or “I Luh Ya Papi”. They’re performers who can make their own decisions and aren’t beholden to anyone, least of all myself. The issue that I think deserves attention is the idea that even in a music video which seeks to overturn conventions some things stay the same. There are shots of men moving and dressing laughably, but they’re undercut by women dressed exactly the way we expect from the medium. Attention to their bodies is normalized, and as a whole the music videos could actually be enforcing the gender roles we’re so accustomed to.
In other words: Sexy men are kind of weird and uncomfortable, but sexy women makes sense.
I’m not even saying that either performer was being dishonest or even necessarily misguided with their work, only that by taking a particular approach to their respective music videos they created an expectation. That the flip, the inversion, the upending was incomplete has me, at least, asking why.