The Sexualisation of Women and Girls
It is not a coincidence that this comes directly after my post on The X Factor. As I wrote in that piece, I love the X Factor. It is a longstanding source of comfort to me. But as I watched Grace Davies' final performance last night, I gave a sigh of disappointment. Not in Grace herself; she is a talented songwriter and performer. But because during her performance of 'Nothing But Words', she did one of those close-your-eyes-and-slide-seductively-down-the-wall moves.
Before I go any further, let me say this: I STRONGLY want to emphasise that this is not to do with Grace herself. At all. It's actually not to do with any person or even any group of people in particular. It's to do with the patriarchy, obvs. (When is it not?)
FYI, sometimes people think 'the patriarchy' means men, which is understandable since it has a lot to do with them. What it means a system of society in which men hold the power. It does not simply mean 'men'.
The reason I gave a sigh of disappointment was because this stank of the sexualisation and objectification of women to me. Earlier on the programme we'd watched a performance by Little Mix who sang with boy band CNCO and while Little Mix started the performance wearing trouser suits, by the end they had stripped off to pretty much glorified underwear. Needless to say, CNCO did not do the same. Again, this is not about Little Mix. It's about the fact that most female artists in the music industry seem to, at some point, end up exploiting their sexuality.
I don't have a problem with performers of any gender being overtly sexual in and of itself. If Little Mix are doing sexier dances in raunchier outfits nowadays because of genuine freedom and empowerment and sexual expression, fabulous. Some people are generally more overtly sexual than others and it follows that some performers will be more overtly sexual than others. Also, some performers who are quite reserved in their personal lives might use the performance space as a chance to show a more sexual side. I am also aware that some artists may start out feeling under-confident with regards to expressing their sexuality and as they grow in confidence they feel like expressing it is something they'd like to do. Great. I am all for all those things.
What I am NOT for is the expectation of overt sexuality being put on all young, female performers. There are few young women in the pop music scene who have not done performances or made music videos with sexual overtones. And yet the same cannot be said for young, male performers.
When I was researching this topic, I found that there was a Wikipedia page dedicated to 'Sexuality in music videos'. Among other statistics, it tells us that after an analysis of 123 music videos released in 1995, it was found that 0.74% of males danced suggestively in their videos compared to 26.80% of females (Wallis, C., 2011).
I found a study conducted by Jacob S. Turner in 2005 for his thesis 'An Examination of Sexual Content in Music Videos' which found that in the music videos he studied, 17.8% of males wore 'sexy or skimpy clothing' compared to 57.1% of females. His hypothesis 'Female characters will be more likely than male characters to be seen as sexual objects by being more likely than male characters to be the object of another’s gaze' was also supported, as were hypotheses regarding the differences between the male and female bodies shown in music videos (the women's bodies that were shown were found to be fitter and more attractive than male bodies).
I could spout studies at you all day but the truth is, you can turn on MTV or go on YouTube and see it for yourself. I'm sure nobody will be surprised. Women are sexualised more than men.
So why is this a problem? There are many people who will say, 'It's their choice!' or 'It's empowering!' and in some cases, I agree. Again, it's not sexuality I have a problem with. It's the reasons behind why people express it when they do.
Women have historically been, and presently are, primarily valued for their looks and for their sex appeal. This is obviously incredibly reductive. It ignores everything else women can bring to the table. Not to mention it implicitly ignores that we're humans. But... it feels good to be valued. So as women, we look for value where we can. Because we're certainly not as valued as men are in the workplace ('Men are just better at numbers/engineering/science!') or at home ('He's so good for looking after the kids by himself tonight'). So we may as well look pretty and be sexy, right?
Most music industry bosses, most music video directors, most photographers are men. We are seeing music artists largely through the male gaze and this 'empowerment' is largely driven and directed by men. What about what women want to see? We can't even answer that question fully, because god knows as a society we haven't had an opportunity to work it out.
So, there. That is the reason that I heaved a sigh of disappointment last night when Grace Davies slid down her backdrop with her eyes closed during her final X Factor performance. Who's to say whether she herself wanted to bring a bit more sexiness to her performances? If it was her choice, made solely by her and not because some choreographer or producer was telling her to or because she felt she 'should' be sexier because that's how to appeal to an audience, then great.
But it seems unlikely, given that throughout the show she's not been one to showcase her sexuality. What she has showcased are her songwriting skills, personal lyrics, her unique voice, and a passionate performance style. If, as I suspect, the slide-down-the-wall move came from some expression of the male gaze or the patriarchy, then I truly hope this isn't the beginning of Grace Davies being subsumed into a career where more focus is placed on her sexuality than her musical talent.
I don't want to be valued for my looks and sexuality more than for anything else. I don't want my female friends to feel insecure because they're not 'attractive enough'. I don't want the older women I know to feel 'worthless' because they're not young anymore. I don't want my teenage cousins to grow up in a world that's telling them that their worth lies in what they can offer to men.
We are more than what you think of our bodies.