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Justify My Love: Music Videos and the Construction of Sexuality

Advertisements and Music Videos: The Presence of the Male Gaze

December 13, 2011 3 comments

There is a line from a Duran Duran tour program that can best describe the idea of the gaze: “I am the eye, you are my victim.” For many years, the widespread theme has been that the male is the eye and the female is the victim.

Since the advent of the MTV film channel, male dominated music videos have essentially become the norm, thus being a staple in pop culture. A typical feature of the male gaze in music videos includes a pornographic quality, objectifying and degrading women while allowing a sexual gratification and stimulation – all of which have expanded in varying forms and evolved over the years in different styles and forms of music. (“Enculturation: Sheri Kathleen Cole.”) Though this trend is morphing as more and more feminists explore ideas and release information about the power of the female gaze, we will most likely continue to see this trend of the male gaze for years to come.

When a viewer fixates his or her attention on a particular object, they tend to see more than that specific object: there is a relationship, direct or indirect, between that said object and themselves. An image is formed and a viewer can look at the objects and how they are depicted. Additionally, they can be purchased and owned, to use for their own wants and needs. For a long time, the idea of the female form has been largely associated with some sex in some way. Women have long experienced discrimination and objectification and this system has unfortunately been widely accepted. Western culture and society is over-saturated with images in all forms of images and visuals that seek to give a sense of pleasure and contentment (“A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose.”)

Advertisements and music videos are an integral component in terms of visual media, as it emphasizes male dominance and power on many occasions. Women are shown to willingly offer their femininity for their male spectators. The male-dominated gaze is also a major feature of many music videos as this paper discusses. Through music videos by in the early 80s to the present, it is evident that media is largely driven by the idea that males hold the power over females and it is their right to be able to gaze and consume females with their eyes.

As there is need to place women in different forms of media, there is a set standard for how they are treated off camera. Unfortunately, there tends to be a variety of derogatory terms for women with fewer responses available for men. The way gender is represented in the media is an important factor in helping one understand the differences between being male and female. Mass advertising has become a very powerful and effective tool in providing the impetus to alter ourselves and our habits into existing “perfectly” in society. For females, this includes having high levels of beauty, elegance and passivity, while, for males, it includes being tough, competitive and business-minded (“Male Gaze”). Nonetheless, these criterion may not be necessarily essential in garnering approval in today’s modern world, but they still might be present in some areas. Today, many women are shown to be independent, focused on their careers and many men feel they have the right to self-expression and self-indulgence. This new outlook might be present in today’s society but to what extent are television advertisements an accurate explanation of this new lifestyle? Nowadays, advertisements on television produce some inaccurate portrayals of men and women, revealed through two types of commercials: household and beauty.

The “male gaze” is the concept that women are portrayed in media in the way men see them. Since the medium is traditionally handled by men in terms of writing, production and marketing, the depiction of women is as how men want them to be: overtly sexy/sexual, submissive, fragile – only few exaggerated fragments of female characteristics that women actually possess. This idea comes mostly from feminist theory but has since been applied to many formats of media. The image of a nude female has traditionally been that of an inactive, reclining female or one that is pictured reveling in her sexuality as she sees her image in the mirror. This nurtures the spectator-owner’s sense of ego and possession. The spectator-owner’s gaze sees not merely the object of the gaze, but sees the relationship between the object and the self. They see her as a creature of their domain, under the gaze of possession. (“The ‘Male Gaze’”) Some feminists say that the male gaze is a true example of the level of power that men have in society. This level of power affects everything in the media, including how women are portrayed. Being that “sex sells” in today’s modern world, advertisements have shown attractive females, pressing the idea that if you acquire the product the company is promoting and/or selling, you will, in some way, get the girl. Females are not alone in that men are also presented in this manner, but in a far more infrequent and varying degree. For instance, in I, Robot (2004) the main character is played by Will Smith, a tall and handsome figure with scenes showing his physique. But this is presented in a manner that the main character is not something just to look at, but to focus on in his scene, his dialogue and his action.

Laura Mulvey, famed professor of film and media studies who also writes a seminal work in feminist film theory, released her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975. This essay explores the idea of the gaze and details her research in how the gaze is specifically male. Mulvey’s perspective was that film (and, we can argue the whole of mass media even today) is produced from a perspective that is almost always male. Additionally, we as an audience of media consumers are trained to see ourselves and the world through this “male gaze”. By Mulvey’s calculation, women who are captured by the male gaze are valued primarily for their ability to be looked at, and to be pleasing to behold according to established modes of heterosexual attractiveness. Furthermore, Mulvey argued there are two ways in which the male gaze sees women: as madonnas or whores. You’ve probably heard this part before. The male gaze, basically, is the idea that nearly all media is produced using this standardized way of looking — even women look using the male gaze, because that is the default (“Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Breaking the Male Gaze: A Close Reading of “Alejandro”)

“The message though was always the same: buy the product, get the girl; or buy the product to get to be like the girl so you can get your man” in other words, “‘Buy’ the image, ‘get’ the woman” (Wykes, p. 41). In this way, the male gaze allows women to be an item that helps the products to get sold (the “sex sells” adage that comes up whenever we talk about modern marketing). Even advertising aimed at women isn’t exempt: many women are encouraged to critique themselves and their bodies as the photographer views the model, therefore buying the product in order to become more like the model advertising it.

In 1981, MTV was developed to deliver the audience to its advertisers and vice versa. Although it can be argued that music videos are essentially miniature commercials for bands and their music, in the hands of devoted fans, they are vivid glimpses into a world created for the fans and sanctioned by the band (“Looking and the Gaze”). Once the fan has enough interviews, videos, and articles, they can piece together an entire “world” wherein a woman becomes the woman in the leading role: the woman in the video.

The hip-hop genre is a mostly male-dominated section of popular music that emphasizes vanity, aggression and machismo. The lyrics of the artists are boundless, using metaphors to outshine others in a competitive battle to prove that one is better than the other.  Some current artists represent the revered masculine persona in the hip-hop community that embodies all that is masculine – from sex appeal to enormous wealth. There is a visual that is attached to the music supporting this idea, therefore giving listeners and viewers a clear picture of what a male is supposed to look like and what females are to be attracted to. Oftentimes, these projects are produced, directed and written by males and does much to add to the gratification of a male audience – beautiful women in scantily clad clothing, expensive and exotic cars and a lavish lifestyle. These women who are featured in these scenes are placed merely as a prop, mostly to be seen and never to have their feelings and point of view heard. The best example of this is the video for rapper Jay-Z’s 2000 summer hit “Big Pimpin'”. Though at the time of the release of the track and it’s accompanying video, he was seemingly reveling in the “pimp” culture while glorifying it. During an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2010, he revealed his now conflicting feelings about the song: “It was like, I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing? Reading it is really harsh.”

As illustrated through numerous examples, the “male gaze” term has been applied outside of the framework that Mulvey initially documented. The creator and/or the audience does not necessarily have to be male, nor does the subject of the gaze have to be unhappy with the result. In the end, the simplest way to describe the male gaze is to return it to its roots of the female model/actress/character being looked at by the male viewer.

Bibliography

Maggie Wykes and Barrie Gunter (The Media and Body Image, 2005): “Ways of seeing women”, pp. 38-47.

“The ‘Male-Gaze’”. St. Lawrence University. St. Lawrence University, n.d. Web. 1 Dec 2011. <http://it.stlawu.edu/~global/glossary/gaze1.html&gt;.

Sullivan, Andrew. “Male Gaze” « Abagond.” Abagond. 28 Feb. 2008. Web. 2 Dec. 2011. <http://abagond.wordpress.com/2008/02/27/male-gaze/&gt;.

Streeter, Thomas, Nicole Hintlian, and Samantha Chipetz. “A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose.” The University of Vermont. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <http://www.uvm.edu/~tstreete/powerpose/&gt;.

Kinzel, Lesley. “Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Breaking the Male Gaze: A Close Reading of “Alejandro” « Two Whole Cakes.” Two Whole Cakes. 9 July 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <http://blog.twowholecakes.com/2010/06/madonna-lady-gaga-and-breaking-the-male-gaze-a-close-reading-of-alejandro/&gt;.

Lloyd, Rachel. “Jay Z’s ‘Big Pimpin” regret “provides” blue print for hip hop.” The Grio. MSNBC, 2010. Web. 13 Dec 2011. <http://www.thegrio.com/entertainment/jay-zs-big-pimpin-regret-a-blueprint-for-hip-hop-culture.php&gt;.

“Looking and the Gaze.” SUNY Oneonta | Home. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/ARTH_220/looking.htm&gt;.

Cole, Sheri K. “Enculturation: Sheri Kathleen Cole.” 11: Master Hands, A Video Mashup Round Table | Enculturation. 1999. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <http://enculturation.gmu.edu/2_2/cole/&gt;.

Putting One Foot Ahead of the Other

December 3, 2011 Leave a comment

How does one come to grips with his HIV+ status with himself and his family? “It feels like coming out all over again.”

After meeting Joseph Johnson III through a mutual friend almost five years ago, I have come to refer to him as a very close friend. We are very much alike: love for astrology (he’s a Virgo, I’m a Libra), a deep affinity for Asian cuisine and a common excitement over the newest phones and technology. An aspiring designer with dreams to be successful within the fashion industry, his down-south drawl added color to his inviting, charming personality. It was made funnier when coupled with his quick one-liners and uncanny delivery. To others, we seemed like polar opposites. Despite some similarities, he is the more outgoing and brash type, while I tended to be the more reserved and easy-going. Being fierce romantics that we have always been, our experiences in dating and relationships, both good and bad, always gave us much to talk about.

Within the gay community, the city of Atlanta, among other major cities, has grown an unfavorable reputation for having an increasing amount of HIV cases in gay and bi-sexual men of color. Men are considered unsuspecting and highly promiscuous, participating in gross amounts of unprotected sexual activities with both men and women. After moving from Southern California to Alabama before settling in Atlanta, Georgia, I had my reservations about Joe moving into his new surroundings. Before every date that Joe was telling me that he was about to go out on with some interesting dude of the moment, I would always say “wear a condom” mid-conversation, reminding him to be prepared just in case something were to happen.

On August 17th 2011, Joe went to a local Atlanta clinic to be tested for HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, his first test in almost 18 months. Though he had not been tested since late 2009, he felt confident that his status would remain negative. When he came back for his test results five days later, Joe was taken into a separate office room before his results were revealed that he was, in fact, HIV+. “In my head, I felt like this couldn’t have been real. I was confused. I was lost. I was scared. I didn’t want to believe the clinician who told me. I wanted to see the paperwork. I needed to see the results with my name on it in order for it to transfer and register in my head.” Remembering the clinician, “she was very sweet. She held my hand, offered me a box of tissues before writing down some information for me about a HIV counseling center nearby. I didn’t call because I was getting ready to move back to California a few weeks from that time.” When asked about whether or not a visit to the counseling center would have helped the matter, Joe replied, “Probably. It would have helped to some degree being around people who know where my head was. But I couldn’t make sense of things at all. You never imagine that this could actually happen to you, so when it does, it’s…shocking. That’s really it. I just wanted to go home, stay home and deal.”

According to Joe, he believes he knows who transmitted the disease to him. “I have a pretty good idea who it is. I’m about 90% sure. He was the only one I had unprotected sex with in years. I don’t know why it happened that way, but I can’t take it back. I addressed him about it but, naturally, he didn’t want to talk about it. I felt that was disrespectful. He felt like I was looking for someone to blame.”

Joe’s mother recently relocated back to Los Angeles, California and his grandparents, retired, remained in Mobile, Alabama. Coming from a religious and close-knit family (who still affectionately call him by his childhood nickname “Lil’ Joe”), he knew that breaking the devastating news to his family would be very hard, but equally necessary. His mother, Monique Edwards, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, was the first to find out. “She just cried. She cried like it was happening to her, like she was in my shoes. She was upset that I was in Atlanta by myself. She prayed and cried and went on and on. But I couldn’t stay on the phone for too long. No one ever wants to hear their mother suffer like that. I had just stopped crying that morning and I didn’t have it in me to start crying again because I was afraid that I wouldn’t stop.” He went on to explain, “I didn’t want to feel alone. I felt like my family needed to know so that I could get the support I needed. I had to get it off my chest because it came to me as such a shock. But I knew in doing that would be an even bigger shock to them. I couldn’t keep this secret bottled up inside of me. My family needed to be aware because it was a lesson learned for me. I know most people in my family didn’t know anyone close to them who had HIV. Some of them don’t even know what HIV really is. But I needed them to know that it wasn’t just a colossal myth going around in the world. This affects real lives on a large scale and it is now affecting me.”

One would imagine the first few days would be the hardest, even unbearable. “I felt like Carrie when she was supposed to go on her honeymoon”, referring to a pivotal scene in 2008’s Sex and the City film. “That part when she was all alone and slept through what was supposed to be her honeymoon – that was how I felt. I was planning a backyard cookout for my birthday and getting ready to move back to California the week after. Your birthday is supposed to be a happy time for you. But I was numb. I was empty. All I wanted to do was smoke some blunts, drink liquor and listen to Anita Baker ballads in the dark,” he says after taking a deep and arduous breath. “I was so miserable. I felt like a part of me died that day. I couldn’t sew. I couldn’t draw. I didn’t want to do move. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I couldn’t sleep. Since then, I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. I’ve been so drained and tired because it was so much for me to take on at once.”

Upon returning to work as a waiter at Red Lobster (he had called in sick for the first few days), his co-workers noticed a significant change in his demeanor. The usually upbeat and personable Joe was more reserved and almost devoid of any personality. His eyes had seemed to be puffy from crying. “Everyone was asking me if I was alright. They were so used to me joking and fooling around that they didn’t know how to take me being so stiff. I literally had a wall up. They knew something was wrong but I didn’t want my problems to be their problems.”

“It feels like coming out all over again”, he says, correlating his current situation to his experience as a sophomore in high school. “When I came out in back then, a lot of people looked at me in a different light. It was hard to deal with. You know who’s meant to be around you after something life-changing like that happens. Being gay is one thing and I’ve done pretty well with that. I’m comfortable with it now being that I’m on the other side. But now it’s being black and experiencing racism, being gay and experiencing homophobia and now finding out that I’m HIV+. It’s just another hurdle that’ll making things that much more difficult.”

When asked how he currently approaches the issue of sex, he responds “The way I see it, I can’t see myself at this point doing something that put my health at risk. HIV is sexually transmitted, meaning sex that brought it on. Once you equate that, you totally lose interest and you want that aspect out of your life. What was supposed to be pleasurable is now petrifying. I can’t imagine having sex with anyone right now. It’ll come up one day but I’m not comfortable yet. It’s all still fresh.”

Joe recently completed his transition of moving from Atlanta to Los Angeles in September 2011. He currently lives in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles with his mother and his two younger siblings. He plans on taking fashion marketing courses at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College for the upcoming Spring 2012 semester as well as building and strengthening his clothing portfolio.