Hyper-Sexualization of Women in the Music Industry

11 Dec

The hyper-sexualization of women in the entertainment industry is something that has been in existence for as long as recorded history. Everyone knows the adage “sex sells,” and this is often taken literally when marketing females in the industry through performances, music videos, and the general selling of a woman’s body and persona over their musical talents and abilities. This rampant hyper-sexualization poses a problem to the authentic study of female artists because it takes attention away from their talents and performances, placing more attention on females’ bodies, clothes, and looks than the actual music they create. Female artists are either seen as too sexual or not sexual enough, leading to them being immediately defined and rated by their bodies and both their implicit and explicit sexuality rather than their merits as an artist, distracting from the study of the artist for their music and the contributions to greater society that are achieved through their music.

The Virgin-Whore Dichotomy

Hyper-sexualization has presented itself in various forms throughout history, but one theme that has remained a relative constant across centuries is the virgin-whore dichotomy. The idea and the effects of the virgin-whore dichotomy are well articulated in Susan McClary’s Feminine Endings, where she explains a classic example of the virgin whore-dichotomy as seen through the nineteenth century opera Carmen. In the story of Carmen, the character Micaela is portrayed as the “virgin” of the story, as she is sexless, submissive, and acts as the ideal of woman of the bourgeoisie of the time.1McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. University of Minnesota Press, 1991. On the opposite end of the spectrum and completing the dichotomy, the character Carmen is portrayed as the “whore” of the story. The entire plot of the opera is motivated and sustained on the portrayal of these two women’s sexualities and the idea of Carmen acting erratically and playing a victimizer to invoke her sexuality as part of the plot of the story. The existence of the dichotomy in the opera and in media more generally totally strips the possibility of diversity for female characters, only allowing them an identity tangent to and based on their sexuality rather than any other aspect of their personality or identity.

Carmen’s music throughout the opera incorporates elements of her sexuality by invoking a type of embodied sound, implicitly drawing attention to her body and tying the plotlines embedded in this music to her inherent sexuality. The rhythm of her songs encourages the movement of her body, which can be seen in her performance of “Habañera.” The integration of her body and its movement within Carmen’s songs signifies an age-old stigma of the inferiority of music that engages the body rather than the intellect of the mind.2Sara Haefeli. “How Musicology Became That Town in Footloose.” The Avid Listener (blog), July 24, 2020. https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/how-musicology-became-that-town-in-footloose/. The dance elements of her music, as opposed to the simpler music of Micaela, implies the inferiority as Carmen as a character, due to her hyper-sexual portrayal of the “whore” in the virgin-whore dichotomized structure of the opera Carmen. Various directs who have put on productions of Carmen even report having trouble finding women to fill the role because the character is cast as immoral, and women were hesitant to allow themselves to be cast as the whore of the opera.3McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

This historical example of the hyper-sexualization of female artists and characters in the entertainment industry and incorporated through music leads into the existence of a similar hyper-sexualization in the form of the virgin-whore dichotomy in media today. Female artists are still primarily defined by sexuality, whether it be through their performances or performance costumes, an invasion of their privacy into their personal relationships, or through their everyday outfits and the bodies beneath them. A well-known example of a modern female artist who fits the into the stereotypical mold of the “virgin” in today’s virgin-whore dichotomy is Billie Eilish. Eilish, the first artist born in the twenty-first century to hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart, is known for dressing in baggy clothes so that her fans and the media will focus on her music rather than her body and sexuality. She wants to avoid the body-shaming and judgement that comes with the hyper-sexualization and objectification of famous women in the music industry, so she consistently wears baggy clothes so that people cannot make assumptions based on something they have never seen.4Elizabeth, De. “Billie Eilish Reveals the Reason for Her Baggy Clothes in New Calvin Klein Ad.” Teen Vogue, May 11, 2019. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/billie-eilish-baggy-clothes-calvin-klein. Despite her explicit efforts to avoid the hyper-sexualization so typical in the music industry today, the very fact that her baggy clothes are such a buzzing topic of discussion in the media is further proof of the difficulty for females trying to have an identity in music that does not evolve around their sexuality.

On the opposite side of the dichotomy, well-known female artists that are hyper-sexualized in today’s society in the music industry and labeled as “whores” are Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Shakira and Jennifer Lopez both have had long and successful careers as female artists and performers, yet among their most notorious performances is the 2020 Superbowl Halftime Show, a performance that garnered a lot of publicity and created a lot of controversy around the two artists for being considered “too sexual.” Critics of the performance immediately complained about the artists for being too racy and seductive, and setting bad examples for young girls or families watching the halftime show at what is supposed to be a family-friendly event.5Elassar, Alaa. “Over 1,300 Complaints Were Sent to the FCC about Shakira and J.Lo’s Super Bowl Halftime Show.” CNN, February 26, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/25/us/shakira-jlo-super-bowl-halftime-show-fcc-complaints-trnd/index.html. Despite the extreme talent and merits needed, both as performers and singers, to put on such an event, the reputation of the show and the performers was immediately stripped down and hyper-sexualized as a condemnation of Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, casting them as “whores” in the modern day virgin-whore dichotomy.

Whether it be for being too sexual or not sexual enough, female artists cannot escape the hyper-sexualization and objectification by the media in the music industry today. As evidenced in the case of Billie Eilish and Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, the media either shames women as weird or strange for being nonsexual or not sexual enough, or shames women as whores by exploring or using their sexuality in their performances. No matter what side of the debate these female artists end up on, the music industry consistently hyper-sexualizes them by immediately defining them based on their sexuality rather than the merits of their musical talent, performances, personality, or any other aspect of their identity.

The Problem with Hyper-Sexualization of Female Artists

As already discussed, the hyper-sexualization of female artists perpetuates sexist ideals of women in society by ignoring their musical talents and their contributions to the music industry and broader society and stripping their identities down to their sexuality. However, there are more specific risks associated with pervasive hyper-sexualization in society. Statistics show that the rates of hyper-sexualized content coming from the music and entertainment industry are increasing, with women being 3.5x as likely to be hyper-sexualized by the media than non-sexualized in the 2000s.6Dolan, Eric. “Female Artists Increasingly Portrayed with Sexually Suggestive Movements in Popular Music Videos.” PsyPost, April 14, 2019. https://www.psypost.org/2019/04/female-artists-increasingly-portrayed-with-sexually-suggestive-movements-in-popular-music-videos-53478. Studies on the effects of this hyper-sexualization have made connections between increases in exposure to hyper-sexualized content and increases in mental health issues and negative impacts on development of gender and sexual identity in young people.7Boland, Lori. “We Gave Sexist Music Videos Warning Labels to Alert Young People.” YWCA, August 25, 2017. https://ywcavan.org/blog/2017/08/we-gave-sexist-music-videos-warning-labels-alert-young-people. It can additionally lead to an increase in positive attitudes towards sexual assault, and encourage sexually risky behavior in both young male and females. Specifically for females, the hyper-sexualization of women and the objectification of women’s bodies that goes along with it has been linked to higher rates of self-objectification in young females. The increase in consumption of sexual content also contributes to a society that is more permissive of sexual assault and violence towards women, which can be seen as a result of the hyper-sexualization of female artists in the music industry. Overall, the effects of hyper-sexuality in the music industry can be seen beyond just damaging the reputations and authenticity of female artists and their work, and can create dangerous attitudes in society for youths so heavily exposed.

An explicit example of the dangers of the hyper-sexualization of women in the music industry can be seen through the music video and general message of Robin Thicke’s 2013 single “Blurred Lines.” Thicke’s song, often referred to as a “rape anthem,” “equates a female’s flirting, or manner of dress, with sexual consent”.8Feministing. “There Are No Blurred Lines,” 2015. http://feministing.com/2015/07/10/there-are-no-blurred-lines/. The lyrics of the song openly promote that a female’s mere existence in the presence of men suggests that she wants to have sexual contact with them, and further suggest that the man should be entitled to do as he pleases with the female. The phrase “I know you want it,” implying that the hyper-sexuality of women implies automatic and assumed consent for sexual activity, is mentioned eighteen time throughout the single.9Feministing. “There Are No Blurred Lines,” 2015. http://feministing.com/2015/07/10/there-are-no-blurred-lines/. The song goes on to refer to women as “animals” and “bitches,” both of which are used to imply that women are hyper-sexual beings who cannot control their sextual instincts. In the two music videos released for “Blurred Lines,” one version features three models who are topless, and the other, censored for nudity, features three models scantily clad, dancing around three men who remain fully clothed throughout the video.

“Blurred Lines” was the longest running number one single of 2013, getting hundreds of millions of views and producing millions of dollars in sales. The song, despite its well-known problematic sexual implications, is still widely played at social events among teenagers and young adults, and the message is not lost on those who hear it. Seven years after its release, the song is still being listened to by more people every day, and younger and younger audiences are hearing the messages that this song advocates. The prevalence of this song pushes the idea that women are hypersexual beings who walk around craving male attention into the minds of young listeners, emphasizing the dangers of women being hyper-sexualized so widely and to such broad audiences. The clear disregard for the serious nature of sexual assault displayed in this song is further proof that hyper-sexualization of women in the music industry is a widespread issue that not only puts women and female artists in danger and threatens their authenticity as artists, but corrupts the mind of youth and threatens a society that distorts images of sexuality and consent in sexual relationships.

The hyper-sexualization of women in the entertainment and music industries has been prevalent for centuries, but has only gotten worse with the spread of social media and the ability to display images and videos and share them with wide audiences with ease. This hyper-sexualization threatens many different aspects of society, including the young and impressionable minds who are exposed to such imagery as well as the female artists being exploited themselves. In order to progress past this hyper-sexualization, we, as a society, must recognize women for their accomplishments, both in the music industry and otherwise, and look to them beyond the sexualization and objectification of their bodies. Despite the centuries of sexism that women have endured, in the twenty-first century it appears that there is still much work to be done.

References   [ + ]

1, 3. McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
2. Sara Haefeli. “How Musicology Became That Town in Footloose.” The Avid Listener (blog), July 24, 2020. https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/how-musicology-became-that-town-in-footloose/.
4. Elizabeth, De. “Billie Eilish Reveals the Reason for Her Baggy Clothes in New Calvin Klein Ad.” Teen Vogue, May 11, 2019. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/billie-eilish-baggy-clothes-calvin-klein.
5. Elassar, Alaa. “Over 1,300 Complaints Were Sent to the FCC about Shakira and J.Lo’s Super Bowl Halftime Show.” CNN, February 26, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/25/us/shakira-jlo-super-bowl-halftime-show-fcc-complaints-trnd/index.html.
6. Dolan, Eric. “Female Artists Increasingly Portrayed with Sexually Suggestive Movements in Popular Music Videos.” PsyPost, April 14, 2019. https://www.psypost.org/2019/04/female-artists-increasingly-portrayed-with-sexually-suggestive-movements-in-popular-music-videos-53478.
7. Boland, Lori. “We Gave Sexist Music Videos Warning Labels to Alert Young People.” YWCA, August 25, 2017. https://ywcavan.org/blog/2017/08/we-gave-sexist-music-videos-warning-labels-alert-young-people.
8, 9. Feministing. “There Are No Blurred Lines,” 2015. http://feministing.com/2015/07/10/there-are-no-blurred-lines/.

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