There’s more than meets the eye

By Eden Szymura

In light of the numerous sexual abuse scandals that dominate our newsfeeds, the over-
sexualised presentation of women in the music industry is more relevant than ever.
However, whilst giving the scantily-clad pop brigade a cardigan may stop them getting
hypothermia, it won’t solve the more nuanced discussion surrounding music, society and
female sexuality.

the fair representation of women in the music industry can only
be described as a dichotomy, where female musicians should not be forced into
sexualisation but also reserve the right to sexualise themselves

Whilst I love to put the world to rights, I can only do it 1000 words at a time. Therefore, I
will be turning my attention towards the sexualised image of female musicians rather
than the troubling allegations of sexual abuse within the music industry as a workplace.
This article should be seen as merely a strand in a diverse and interconnected web of
issues surrounding representation in music.

Personally, I find reading articles arguing that sexualised women in the music industry
are oppressed, or worse, immoral, rather frustrating. This is because to some extent it is
true, but also because all too often we fail to recognise it is equally untrue. The
assumption that women are sexualised by men for the pleasure of men is a multifaceted
dilemma and whilst Britney Spears may fit this stereotype, appearing in sexy air hostess
outfits, her use of minimal latex is a bit more complicated than it first appears (who
knew).

Whilst it is problematic that sexualised images of women saturate our society,
suggesting that they are no more than sexual vessels, it is equally as problematic and
naive to assume that all female musicians are coerced into this behaviour. Indeed, I
wouldn’t go labelling Beyoncé as ‘oppressed’ anytime soon. In fact, I would argue she
confidently uses her sexual identity to empower herself as a woman. All too often,
female sensuality is shrouded in taboo, making the honesty of music such as ‘Finders
Keepers’ by Mabel rather liberating. Simplistically, music such as this may be assumed to
be objectifying. However, the nuance of the singer choosing to objectify herself and
owning her identity transforms the message into one of empowerment. This is because
the singer is reclaiming her sexual identity and its abilities to make her feel good, rather
than constructing it for the male gaze. The assumption that self-sexualisation equates to
‘immoral’ promiscuity is a severe misunderstanding of self-confidence and the
individuality of female identity.

whilst giving the scantily-clad pop brigade a cardigan may stop them getting
hypothermia, it won’t solve the more nuanced discussion surrounding music, society and
female sexuality

Nevertheless, although self-expression is key to fair representation, it is concerning that
there is often little choice for women but to be sexualised. Not everyone can or wants to
be Nicki Minaj; therefore, it is fundamental to female empowerment that women have
the choice to sexualise themselves rather than this action being thrust upon
them. Therefore, whilst I strongly advocate women ‘owning’ their own bodies, sadly the
positive societal effects of self-sexualisation are undermined by it often also being the
only economically successful option. Women have the right to fair representation,
including the right to top the charts without over-sexualisation. Fundamentally, the
representation of women in the music industry and further afield should be one that is determined by females themselves.

Whilst it is problematic that sexualised images of women saturate our society,
suggesting that they are no more than sexual vessels, it is equally as problematic and
naive to assume that all female musicians are coerced into this behaviour

The consensus is that, in such a digitalised world, image quite possibly overtakes voice.
However, why this does not apply to men to the same extent? The eye-wateringly
successful and unfashionable Ed Sheeran is testament to the music industry getting
it ‘right’ for, as consumers, we have managed to look beyond his average looks to find his personality and, more importantly, his talent fascinating. Whilst this also applies to Adele, her more universal target market is different to that of the primarily younger demographic of Ed Sheeran who have grown up in a digital society where image is everything. This suggests a positive correlation between female sexualisation and younger generations, perhaps due to the newly placed importance of visual social media.

However, it is worth noting that men, too, are being increasingly sexualised by the music industry, again perhaps due to the importance of visual marketing compared to the past. Whilst this is yet to reach the levels faced by women, the growing saturation of chiselled men is a concern that should be addressed considering the toxic influence of distorted body images on mental health. Indeed, with the Office for National Statistics reporting suicide as the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49, this should not be underestimated.

It is also worth addressing the insulting representation of non-heterosexual women as a double minority within the music industry. All too often lyrics appear to fetishise lesbian/female bisexual relationships purely for the sexual gratification of men, such as Katy Perry’s lyric ‘it’s not what good girls do, not how I should behave’ in I Kissed a Girl. Not only is this music harmful in misrepresenting and belittling multiple sexual identities as an 'experimental game’, but it also highlights the sheer lack of platforms given to non-heterosexual females to write their own narratives.

We all know the bottom line is sex sells and this isn’t going to change. Therefore, it is important to stress sex as a theme isn’t the issue; instead, it is its unrealistic portrayal. Most music, particularly pop and rap, does not champion healthy and diverse sexual relationships based on consent and respect. In its place, a glorification of slightly perverted, sadistic and outdated relationship models often normalise abusive behaviour towards both men and women. As someone who loves the expressive qualities of rap, it is incredibly upsetting as a woman to hear repeated casual misogynistic slurs tainting most songs. Whilst derogatory terms towards women may be called part of a cultural identity and dialect, this simply isn’t good enough and it is the normalising of objectification in songs such F**kin’ Problems that perpetuate two-dimensional stereotypes regarding women. One has to ask how women can be fairly represented within the music industry when they are often, albeit at times subconsciously, undermined by the dialogue used by men; indeed, fair representation is impossible to achieve until both sexes start changing their language surrounding sex and that means men have an important role to play in female empowerment.

I’ll end where I began: the fair representation of women in the music industry can only be described as a dichotomy, where female musicians should not be forced into sexualisation but also reserve the right to sexualise themselves. It is only through recognising this that we can begin to recognise the double-standards faced by women in all walks of life and the need for a more open dialogue surrounding female sexuality in general.

Special thanks go to Natascha Blesing and Hannah Brown for sharing their very enlightening opinions on music and sexuality.

Photograph: Ben Houdijk via Flickr

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