THE WAY YOU ARE

Thanks, but I am More than Eyes, Hair, and Lips

The media are sexist. Pop music in particular is sexist. No news here. And still – I was surprised when I started paying attention to the lyrics of some of the songs on my IPod. I have always avoided music that bluntly degrades women, but assumed that songs that are played on the radio everyday cannot be that bad. Turns out they are. One mainstream artist that specifically struck me for sexist content was Bruno Mars. Bruno Mars is most certainly not the only artist portraying problematic content, and his work needs to be interpreted as a reflection of problematic standards in the industry as a whole. However, his work lends itself particularly well to this discussion as it virtually covers every facet of sexism - from benevolent to patronizing to objectifying, and from hostile to plain violent.

 As a teenager I felt flattered when a boy sent me the song “Just the Way You Are”. On a very superficial level this song conveys a positive message: Bruno is praises the woman he sings about. Throughout the song he appreciates her eyes, her hair, her face, her smile, her lips, and her laugh. And then the song is over. Neither is she interesting, nor clever, nor funny, nor sporty. Her one defining character is beautiful. Despite her beauty though she is portrayed as insecure and in need of reinforcement from a male figure (“when I compliment her she won’t believe me”). This isn’t Bruno’s only problematic song. With “Treasure” Bruno moves from superficial to objectifying. The woman he sings about is described as “treasure” and “mine”. She is described as a passive commodity, rather than an agentic persona. In a very patronizing way he claims to know her better than she does herself (“I gotta tell you a little something about yourself”), dismisses her feelings, and communicates that a girl’s role is to be happy and pleasant to those surrounding her (“a girl like you should never look so blue”).

 

Bruno adequately communicates the common wish for women to be pretty and pleasant, but he doesn’t stop there. He also presents his opinion on women who do not comply with these demands. In “Grenade” he describes a “mad woman, bad woman”, and suggests that she must be an accomplice of the devil for rejecting him. These lines are dripping with a sense of entitlement to a woman’s love, and demonizes women who do not want to give away their love. He justifies these rights with a horrendously old-fashioned idea of manliness: He is ready to endure pain for her.

 

In “Gorilla” he goes even further, describing fantasies of violently “fucking” a woman (“I have got a fistful of your hair”; “the neighbours call the cops”). She remains entirely passive during this encounter (“when I’m done with you”) and apparently enjoys the brutality (“you want it all”).

 

Bruno’s music videos do not redeem the harm done. In “Uptown Funk” a multitude of attractive women parade down a street. These women have legs, they have butts, and they have boobs. None of them has a face, however. There sole purpose of women in this video is to please with their attractive bodies, and to endure the catcalling of the male artists. A similar focus on the female body becomes apparent in the “Gorilla” video.  Whilst Bruno himself remains fully clothed in the background the female character is portrayed to be a stripper presenting her body to the crowd on a pole. Whilst some argue that pole dancing is a form of female liberation, the reluctant look on the woman’s face makes it clear that this is not the case here.

 

Like most, I spent the last years humming along to these songs and never found fault with them. People might argue that these are “just songs”, that most people “don’t even pay attention to the lyrics”, and that “they’re just compliments”. I disagree. Music is one of the most influential types of media these days, there is virtually no way to escape exposure to music. It would be ludicrous to dismiss the influence of such a ubiquitous medium. People might not listen to the lyrics consciously, however, the power of the unconscious is a truism among psychologists. Repeated unconscious exposure to messages during teenage years, arguably the most formative ones of our lives, certainly influence our mind sets. The lyrics and videos communicate that men desire beauty and insecurity in women, that catcalling is acceptable behaviour, and that passion is equivalent to violence and possessiveness. It is easy to imagine how these messages lead young girls to prioritize appearance over skills, and leads young men to express their feelings in harmful ways. Both behaviour patterns pave the way for gender inequality.

 

As for women taking compliments, sure, we would love to receive more of those. How about a compliment on how we kick ass at sports? Or how we master our jobs? How we are creative? How we have interesting thoughts? I wonder what a world would be like where these were the qualities men serenaded women for. 

 

~Please reference: Sudkaemper, A. (2016, June 8) The way you are. Retrieved from www.antoniasudkaemper.com