It’s official, the music video is back on the agenda. Beyoncé’s decision to launch her self-titled album as a “visual album”, complete with 17 music videos speaks volumes about their significance. The single Pretty Hurts is a powerful comment on the pressure that beauty standards create for women and girls and she samples Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s call to feminism on another track, Flawless.
The release comes hours after Thursday’s episode of ITV’s Tonight programme, Pop, Sex and Videotape, debating the issue of “sexed-up” music videos – back on the agenda following controversial videos from Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna. Singer Annie Lennox described the pornographic nature of many music videos. Music journalist Jacqueline Springer said: “Hollywood, recreational media, gossip media, the way the paparazzi have normalised the idea that you can shoot up a woman’s skirt, or down a woman’s top, and that it will be published and how women should or shouldn’t dress … all of these colliding negative toxic images fall in and there’s a real sense that if you reclaim it and you promote it, you are not a victim – and some people see that as empowering, and although others do not, they do.”
However, the programme focused on women and girls (mothers, stars, teens) and in so doing almost entirely overlooked the male-dominated industry and the impact on boys’ attitudes and role in reinforcing patriarchy. It was yet another discussion on sexualisation, and to talk about sexualisation without talking about sexism and racism, or the impact of sexualisation, excludes vital parts of problems we are talking about.
Rewind & Reframe is a Rosa-funded partnership project between women’s groups EVAW, Imkaan and Object. It aims to create a platform for young women to challenge racism and sexism in music videos. The campaign has received wide interest from young women and more than 15,000 people have signed our petition to age-rate music videos online, in just over a month. This is an acknowledgement that the content of these videos, and particularly sexist and racist images, have a very real impact, in the same way that films and video games do.
We found that people signed for a range of reasons. Concerned parents or grandparents, yes, but many young people are fed up with being bombarded with harmful content in the name of selling music. Perhaps when “Elvis twitched his hips, and Madonna strapped on her conical bra” you could have just switched off, but today, music videos permeate everything, everywhere. They are not just on the TV, they’re on the computer, in your pocket, on screens at gyms, cafes and bars, and re-imagined for adverts and live performances. In fact, they are adverts, and advertised.
The head of music videos at Black Dog Films, Svana Gisla, said: “I don’t think music videos create trends … we tend to take what’s on the periphery around the edge and bring it to the mainstream.” And that is the issue. Music videos powerfully contribute to the mainstreaming of pornography and inequality. They influence attitudes. There’s plenty of evidence about the impact of sexualised and pornographic images on young men’s attitudes, why didn’t the programme bring this in?
Annie Lennox talked brilliantly about challenging the media and the medium. And good quality sex and relationships education and media literacy are crucial steps in curbing the impact of the almost inescapable harmful messages children and young people are faced with.
It is not just so that girls stop thinking that they have to be “hot and sexy”. It is so that people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and sexualities, are not consuming content that trivialises consent, frames men as predatory and women as prey, sexualises youth, reduces women’s same-sex relationships or sexual activity to just something that happens when women get a bit freaky/drunk/wild and want to entertain men. It’s about challenging content that presents black women as “asses” to shake and slap and erases other ethnic minorities, but has (largely white) celebrities parading around in the very same attire that mark “other” communities as foreign and “refusing to integrate“. It’s not all bad though. Campaigns such as Rewind & Reframe give an opportunity for young women to take the lead on challenging these issues – inspired by someone with such influence as Beyoncé who dares to challenges the norm.
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