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Signifier: A sign or symbol that conveys specific cultural meaning. Signifiers connect to larger discourses that work together to construct that meaning.

Another typical character and plot sequence is in the subgenre of romance movies (often called “chick flicks”). The script usually follows the fairy-tale story line: The main character is a young woman who is a selfless caretaker (Me Before You, The Wedding Planner) or ultra career- oriented (27 Dresses, The Proposal, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Boss, The Intern) or she is too involved in her work/school to realize how wonderful she is “inside and out” and doesn’t “fix herself up” or “accept herself for how special she is” (Miss Congeniality, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Holiday, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, La La Land). Perhaps it is she who does not realize that he is really a prince in beast’s clothing, a beast that she will tame with her love or risk her life trying: (Beauty and the Beast, Fifty Shades of Grey, King Kong). She is often encouraged by her friends (or sister or gay best friend) to get out more, try something new, take a chance, and/or fix her hair and makeup. Despite her career success, family commitments, and fulfilling friendships, this state of being without Prince Charming is presented as problematic. She is not as beautiful, desirable, or fulfilled as she could be were she to also have that perfect man in her life. When she meets Prince Charming through a serendipitous encounter, she often does not realize that he is “the one.” He must break her coma in order to complete her life. After Prince Charming breaks her coma, she becomes more beautiful, which is signaled to the audience through improvements in hair, makeup, clothes, and softer lighting.

Mainstream movies, as well as many reality makeover shows, normalize the idea that it is important for women to transcend their race and class status and realign with traditional notions of femininity. Prince Charming facilitates her transformation, as through him, she acquires access to an improved life, self-esteem, and often a better wardrobe. These movies reinforce the ideology that women are fundamentally incomplete without a man. This man brings not only personal fulfillment and definition, but also increased social status through heterosexual marriage and a middle- or upper-class consumer lifestyle.

Just as we might find ourselves laughing at a racist joke, we might find ourselves enjoying a film that reproduces sexism. Indeed, it’s likely that due to how normalized these narratives are, we won’t see them as sexist at


all. Yet the more a narrative appeals to us (especially if we are women), the more important it is for us to be able to think critically about it so that we can resist its effects. Recall the concept of internalized oppression and that minoritized groups often collude with dominant ideology. Thus, no socially constructed text can or should be off-limits to a critical analysis, regardless of how popular or enjoyable it is.

Discourses of Sexism in Music Videos

If we add music videos to this popular-culture landscape, we can see that media is so extraordinarily consistent in its rigid gender divisions that it is virtually impossible to escape sexist messages. Our concerns here are not with sex per se, nor with a return to prudish mores, but with the relentless gender-based narratives of domination and subordination in popular culture. We are also concerned with the increasing sexualization of girls at earlier ages and the near total reduction of female value to their bodies. The messages conveyed to girls are that their value depends solely on how attractive they are to men and how well they can please them.

Although music videos as we know them are relatively recent phenomena (MTV debuted in 1981 and MuchMusic in 1984), they are among the most powerful media for normalizing sexism. What dominant culture may view to be transgressive in music videos are actually very traditional representations of women performing classic porn tropes as defined by men. For example, Fergie’s “M.I.L.F.$” video sexualizing mothers and breastfeeding, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Britney Spears’s “If U Seek Amy” (F-U-C-K me). Or videos by Madonna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj (among countless others) crawling on their hands and knees—sometimes literally with leashes around their necks. Virtually all of these videos are written and directed by men.

Scholars such as Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne (2008), Gail Dines (2010), Sut Jhally (2007, 2009), Chyng Sun and Miguel Picker (2008), and Robert Jensen (2007) have offered compelling evidence that the line has been blurred between popular and porn culture, and this blurring is most evident in music videos. Through music videos the narratives of pornography have merged into the everyday worlds of young people. It is not uncommon for female porn stars to appear in music videos (and in mainstream movies; Academy Award winning director Steven Soderbergh cast porn star Sasha Gray in one of his films), and porn directors such as Gregory Dark direct music videos for artists such as Britney Spears. Pole dancing and lap dancing classes are offered at many sports clubs and bridal


showers. It is now common for young women to remove all of their pubic hair (giving them a prepubescent look) and expect to have and enjoy anal sex. These practices were not mainstream just 20 years ago, but have now been normalized through the widespread circulation of Internet pornography.

Pornography increasingly amplifies the most violent aspects of the rigid gender divisions between men and women. The physical brutalization and emotional degradation of women in porn, particularly in gonzo (one of the biggest moneymaking genres of online porn, which depicts painful penetration, gang rape, and men slapping, choking, and gagging women while they penetrate them orally, anally, and vaginally) has become more normalized as men become desensitized and need ever more intense images to feel stimulated (Dines, 2010; Jensen, 2007; DeKeseredy, 2015).

To some, it may seem an exaggeration to connect pornography to music videos and popular culture. However, consider that within a few decades, pornography has moved from an underground business with ties to organized crime, to a huge corporate industry (DeKeseredy, 2015). The worldwide porn industry is estimated to be worth 96 billion dollars (Dines, 2010), and as many as 10,000 new sites are added every week (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2013). In the United States and Canada, the sites Pornhub and Livejasmin rank just after the most visited websites such as Google, Facebook, and YouTube; and have more visitors in Canada than CBC, Pinterest, and Craigslist, and more visitors in the United States than the New York Times, Paypal, Zillow, and Yelp (Alexa, 2017). Many of us regularly receive unsolicited pornographic spam in our workplace and other email accounts. In addition, consider that the largest consumers of online pornography are children between the ages of 12 and 17. In fact, many porn websites target children by using the names of popular characters from kid culture, such as Pokémon, on their websites. These techniques trick children into early exposure (Gomez, 2007).

Porn is ubiquitous in popular culture and an increasing presence in young people’s lives. In addition to the misogyny (hatred of women) in gonzo porn, the racist discourses are extreme and unparalleled in their degradation of peoples of Color. Yet pornography is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, as few people talk openly about their porn consumption. It is critical that we set aside whatever discomfort about or attachment to porn we may personally feel, and think deeply about the power of porn to shape our sexuality and normalize misogyny, racism, and classism.

The representation of men as dominant, aggressive, and in control of women’s bodies depends upon the representation of women as submissive,


pleasing, and available for every aspect of men’s desire. If the narratives of pornography were to acknowledge women as human beings with thoughts, feelings, and desires of their own rather than as “suffering sluts” and “stupid whores” (Dines, 2010, pp. xx–xxi), the viewer could not tolerate the pain, physical damage, and humiliation inflicted upon women that are a basic feature of gonzo porn (Dines, 2010; Jensen, 2007; Sun & Picker, 2008). Yet over time, even as we are looking directly at men brutalizing women, the ideology of sexism rationalizes it as a natural outcome of biological roles, personal choice, and mutual desire.

In many music videos, the characters and plots are predictable and include the obligatory cheerleaders, schoolgirls, strippers, and prostitutes. Peep shows, sex clubs, and sex parties are primary settings, and money is often being thrown on women’s seminude bodies. Women of Color fare especially poorly in music videos, as Black women are most likely to be portrayed as whores and reduced to their “booties” and Asian and Latina women are virtually absent unless specifically named by their race, reduced to caricatures, and fetishized.

Told over and over, these clichés construct an ideal female who is always available for and seeking sex with any, every, and multiple partners; who wants to be watched, touched by strangers, and objectified; who enjoys humiliation and abuse; and who has no real power, other than the illusory and temporary power of sexual attractiveness. It is impossible to ignore the parallels between music videos and mainstream pornography. Through repetition, the rigid gender roles presented in movies, videos, pornography, and ads, come to seem normal and natural and make it difficult to conceptualize any other reality. As elements of porn cross over into the mainstream, our sexuality is ever more rigidly defined and we become less free, not more.

STOP: While a few pop superstars such as Beyoncé have been able to push back somewhat against the tropes of racism and sexism in their work, consider that for the bulk of her 20 year career beginning in the 1990s, Beyoncé has had to stay within a narrow script of characters, costumes, and storylines. We might ask, then, under what conditions and to what extent can she truly choose to challenge and critique racism and sexism and remain popular and economically successful on mainstream terms?

We may see these videos as a matter of choice—the women choose to perform in them and we can choose to watch them or not. But if the most popular mainstream pop stars, such as Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Fergie,


Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Katy Perry can choose the storylines of their music videos, why do they all choose the same stories? And at what cost could they make different choices, in an industry dominated by men? As for our choice to watch them or not, we would first have to be able to avoid them, which is difficult given how ubiquitous they are. We may intentionally watch and enjoy them, but insist that we don’t take them seriously. Perhaps we should, for what does it mean to not take seriously (or be unaware of) how corporate culture has co-opted hip-hop, stripped it of its critique of racism and classism, and sold it back to us filled with misogyny and the worst possible stereotypes about Black people and urban life? How might oppressive forces depend on our not taking these dynamics seriously?

But on a deeper level, we are influenced by these images. No one is outside of socialization, and marketers spend billions on research to find ever more effective techniques for infiltrating our subconscious. Money spent on advertising to children alone was estimated at over $15 billion annually in the early 2000s (Linn, 2004) and corporations now spend $17 billion annually marketing to children, a significant increase from what was $100 million in the 1980s (Crane & Kazmi, 2010). The next time you are sitting in a classroom or conference room, look around. How different are the choices that you have made in dress, hairstyle, accessories, and lifestyle from those around you? Where do you shop and what brands do you chose? How different are these locations and brands from those chosen by your peers? The insistence that the women of music videos or porn can just chose not to participate, or that we can just chose not to watch them, or if we do watch them that we can just choose to be unaffected by them, is naïve.

The life and work of Rachel Lloyd (Figure 7.1) illustrates the impact of prostitution on the lives of women and girls, as well as the possibility to challenge it.

Of course sexism doesn’t stand in isolation from other forms of oppression. Women are not just women with one shared experience under sexism. Our race, class, ability status and sexuality profoundly shape how we will experience our gender under patriarchy. Still, the gains women have made thus far have been fought for long and hard and can be revoked at any time. In 2017 men control all major institutions, as they have since the founding of our countries:

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