Are popular music videos a reflection of a patriarchal Social Structure? By Becca Huggett

Patriarchal social structures have become an extensive problem within the music video industry today. The term refers to men being the decision makers and holding positions of power and prestige. Females are used to create many controversial music videos that contain nudity, voyeurism, racism, feminism and homosexuality. This essay informs the values that music videos promote to mass culture, within its negative representations that are harmful to society. Broadcasting to young females the damage these videos illustrate, to warn them about female artists being constantly sexually expressive in order to be successful. Focusing on Madonna and Shakira’s controversial music videos showing that even in 1990, the music industry was starting to become a venue where music artists could impress the public not only with their vocals but with their appearance. It evaluates several themes within the pieces that highlight evidence of dominant roles and men holding positions of power, examples of these elements are Scopophilia, Androgyny and nudity. Male writers rely on the subordination of women to mass society; offering no other images of success for women. Therefore music videos are a reflection of patriarchal structures.

This essay will critically analyse and compare Madonna’s 1990’s song ‘Justify my love’, with Rhianna and Shakira’s 2014 song ‘Can’t remember to forget you’. It will begin by giving a brief explanation as to what a patriarchal society is, in order to argue throughout the essay as to why music videos, between 1990 to present day are a reflection of a patriarchal society in the music industry. In order to do this theme’s that are portrayed within the two pieces for example, Scopophilia, androgyny and nudity will be explored and the importance of pop videos will be evaluated. It will contextualise Madonna’s and Shakira’s songs, annotating the music, rhythm, structure and what was happening in society when the songs were released. Finally it will conclude with some overview main points as to why music videos are influenced by a patriarchal society, and will bring up new questions as to where this essay could continue.

The patriarchal social structure refers to men being the decision makers and holding positions of power and prestige. “The most dominant roles in most sectors of society are held predominantly by men because of their presumed ability to exert control.” (The gender gap shows no sign of closing: 2010)  Male identification signifies aspects of society and personal attributes that are highly associated with males; while devaluing attributes and social activities that are mainly associated with women.

One area where elements of patriarchal structure are incorporated is in the music industry within music videos. Modern music videos are primarily made and used as a marketing device intended to promote the sale of music recordings. They can help promote a band or artist long after the single or album has been released. The record labels and artists receive an extension of income because the videos help launch the careers of many well-known artists, giving them a platform for branding and establishing a unique and stand out image. However in the music industry today, females are used to create many controversial music videos that contain nudity, voyeurism, racism, feminism and homosexuality etc. “The Music Industry continues to produce a culture of demeaning women via its production of highly sexualised videos.” (Dianne and Paul, 2011:18) Its connection to the porn industry becomes progressively apparent. Young women are routinely exploited by the industry’s patriarchal values and are reduced to sexualised objects that exist as lucrative puppets for their male managers.

Controversial sexual videos in the music industry today, help to create an exciting atmosphere and therefore views increase. This controversially helps wider mainstream media which lead to more exposure for the artist. Female pop stars are a widely accessed resource for young women constructing their identities. “As gender performances go, those enacted by pop stars are critically important and highly influential, because regular people particularly young people are developing their identities.” (The perpetuation of patriarchy in pop: 2014)           Young females are inspired by pop artists and want to copy their characteristics for instance, their behaviour, dress style or appearance. This could lead to even more problems with youth in the near future, increasing the amount of nudity and inappropriate behaviour within music videos. Many female artists started off their career as innocent, wholesome singers and then abruptly transitioned into highly sexualised objects of desire; Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson to name a few.

The videos display the extent of the power patriarchal values held over the music video industry. They highlight the culture of domination surrounding women’s limited choices, by being reduced to sexualised objects. The female artists feel they have to be constantly sexually expressive in order to be successful.

On the 6th of November 1990, the American recording artist, ‘Madonna’, released the controversial and voyeuristic single and music video, ‘Justify my love’. The piece was written and produced by ‘Lenny Kravitz’, and was one of two new songs included on Madonna’s first greatest hits album, ‘The immaculate Collection’. The accompanying music video was banned from MTV and subsequently released as the first ever commercially available video single, which was released by Sire Records. “It’s depiction of sadomasochism, homosexuality, cross-dressing, and group sex, generated a media firestorm.” (Madonna’s sexy video: 1999) The debates over the banning of ‘Justify my love’, by the Canadian music video network ‘MuchMusic’, led to the launching of the video single. It eventually sold over 1 million copies generating controversy for Madonna, who already was well-known for pushing the limits of sexual content.  MTV a few months later agreed to play the video after the watershed.

During the video for ‘Justify my love’, partial nudity occurs when a topless dominatrix type woman, played by a model ‘Wallis Franken’, appears wearing suspenders that only partly cover her bare breasts. Her outfit also includes a peaked leather hat and black gloves, which copies the iconic ensemble worn by Charlotte Rampling in the controversial film ‘The Night Porter’. The video reaches high levels of R-rated material when a woman places her hand on a guy’s groin. “Female pop stars are not sexually empowered because they are not in control of their representations.” (Susan, 1991:148) Instead, provocative videos sexually exploit women for the appeasement of a male third party who is profiting from their mistreatment.  On the positive side Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives.

The video portrays Madonna walking down a hotel hallway, looking distressed and tired from work – until she is seduced into having sex with a mysterious man. Even in 1990, the music industry was starting to become a venue where music artists could impress the public not only with their vocals but with their appearance. “Whilst sexual connotation in music video is by no means a recent development, the once flirtatious display of female flesh has progressed into unrestrained spectacles of full on nudity.” (Lucy, 2013:212) The desensitisation of sexual imagery has correspondingly seeped into the mainstream, as what was once considered explicit within Music Videos is now commonplace.

Another theme visible within the video is Scopophilia; this is most obvious when a woman kisses Madonna and her boyfriend sits and watches them behaving like an exhibitionist. Traditionally women in their appearance are molded for a strong visual and erotic impact. Scopophilia refers to the predominantly male gaze that is commonly used in Hollywood cinema. “The men enjoy objectifying women into mere objects to be looked at.” (Scopophilia, the gaze objectification, fetishism: 2013) They are classed as objects instead of women with their own voice and subjectivity. The term is used in many films and TV shows today for instance, ‘James Bond’ films and ‘Big Brother’. The fact that Madonna’s boyfriends’ face – which is gazing at the two women, is highly focused within the video which highlights the patriarchal influence. It is here that Madonna’s inviting gaze provokes the most criticism. Does her play on autoeroticism challenge patriarchy or is she simply capitalising on the allure of screened sexual activity?

The theme of androgyny and patriarchal gender roles alongside symbolization of professional and personal independence in a male-dominated society becomes visualised in the video. This is through images when a woman who closely resembles Madonna’s lover, is seen wearing men’s clothing with a drawn on pencil moustache. “Lesbians are often perceived as engaging in activities for the attention and benefit of men.” (Carol, 2004:236) The lesbian action visible in this piece is perceived as an elaborate display meant to entice the heterosexual men. Involving the topic of homosexuality within the video creates a bigger audience because it shocks the public and grabs their attention.

On the other hand, the needs and issues women face in patriarchal societies are often invisible in the face of more masculine concerns. The needs of men are put at the forefront while women must sulk in the background, awaiting their turn. The lack of concern for women’s issues in a male-dominated society may be responsible for the perceived greater acceptance of lesbians in society. As women’s issues are not considered as important, females can pass under the radar; allowing them more freedom to express themselves.

Later in the same video a man is seen flirting with two other guys that are dressed up as women, but this is only shown for a few seconds and is hardly noticeable to the audience. “Why is it okay for women to sexily touch each other yet if men do it, its classed as a gay thing?” (Elders react: 2014) The gender disparity between how accepted gays and lesbians are within the music video society comes down to an issue of cultural norms and gender expectations. Gay men today are portrayed to society as feminine, weak, fragile and contain traits associated with females. Therefore gay couples are less likely to appear in videos as there are possibilities of arguments occurring amongst the audience.

Lyrically the song is primarily about sex, relationships and romance. The piece is very unique because Madonna’s vocals are primarily spoken and whispered, but never sung. When Madonna speaks the lyrics “I don’t want to be your sister either, I just want to be your lover.”  (Randy, 2008:326) The director reveals to the audience that the man that was lying on Madonna while they made out is now in fact a woman. Most of the lyrics seem to contradict what is being shown in the video.

Although ‘Justify my love’ has received a collection of negative criticism from females, many male viewers encourage the nudity incorporated within the piece. “The video is HOT! I loved it, the women are really sexy” (We took the music seriously: 2014) A considerable large amount of the audience in particular males, enjoy watching music videos that contain elements of female nudity.  Nowadays young men prefer to watch famous females strip for free on YouTube, instead of paying for porn. Women may be portrayed as objects in this video; but teenage girls however do not see nudity as an issue. “I can’t believe people were offended by the video when it was release, it’s obviously sexual, but it’s not vulgar or explicit” (Teens love music: 2014) Young females refer the video to be a symbol of socialization and entertainment. Many girls don’t recognize the damage these videos illustrate because they have grown up in this generation were controversial videos have always been around.

Madonna reinvented her persona through many of her videos. In the song ‘Like a virgin’, she played a reincarnated Marilyn Monroe. In ‘Like a prayer’ Madonna played a rebellious Catholic. In ‘Justify my love’; she provoked the combination of Catholicism and a sexually provocative dominatrix. The lyrics “Poor is the man, whose pleasures depend on the permission of another”, (Madonna, 1994:56) could indicate Madonna going against the Catholic idea of saving sex till after marriage, as when she sings this line an image of Jesus Christ appears. This idea is emphasised with the use of crosses worn by the male protagonist, and the fact that Madonna crosses her arms above her head representing Jesus on the cross.

This line also appears on the screen at the end of the video as a quote, after Madonna has walked away leaving a man that had been longing for her behind. This could indicate a change of role patterns towards the patriarchal gender roles, instead of men ‘using’ women for their bodies; Madonna takes advantage of the man. Another interpretation of these lyrics is that the man in the video is dependent on Madonna for getting what he wants. By walking away, Madonna doesn’t give him ‘permission’.

Musically, the bass note played throughout the entire track is F#. In the opening to the song Madonna speaks the lyrics with a very breathy tone that is organised rhythmically through the repetitive mid-tempo (98bpm) pattern. Her vocals are overlaid with the strings which centers around the chord F# minor.



Ex.1. Part of transcription for ‘Justify my love’. Found in ‘Women and Popular music’ (2000) P.143. In terms of traditional harmony, the piece uses two voices which contain the following chords. F#m, F#m7, B Add 9/F# and Bm Add 9/F#.

Both voices are given a distinctive and continuous timbre. “In conjunction with the unvarying tempo, dynamic and rhythmic levels and a stabbing drum line enhances the disco feel.” (Shakers, 1990:112) The strings however move against the rhythm, and the low pitch of the sustained F# creates a hole in the musical texture to suggest a feeling of emptiness. The structure of the piece is layout as followed (Verse A, Chorus 1, Verse B, Chorus 2, Bridge, Chorus 1) which has a length of five minutes and one second.

Controversy surrounding Madonna’s marketing of her sexuality began with the video ‘Lucky Star’ and amplified over time due to clips such as ‘Like a Prayer’. In 1989 ‘Like a prayer’ courted heavy criticism due to its religious, sexual, and racially-oriented imagery. Madonna introduced liturgical words in the lyrics inspired by her Catholic upbringing, but she changes the context in which they were used. When the lyrics “When you call my name it’s like a little prayer.” (Carol, 2013:128) are sung, there are many interpretations of what this line might mean. One possibility is that Madonna is praying to God for sexual pleasure from a man featured in the video. However in the 2014 song ‘Can’t remember to forget you’ which we will explore later, within the lyrics it is clear the female singers don’t need a man to feel powerful. Women today want to show they are just as strong and independent as the men, Madonna’s action of asking God for male attention in the music video, makes females look desperate and gullible towards men controlling them.

During the second chorus a crime scene is shown in detail, and identification is established between Madonna and the victim. When the woman being attacked cries out for help, Madonna sings the line ‘When you call my name’ again, Madonna does nothing about it, this portrays failure of divinity to save, which highlights to the audience the characteristics (Worshipping to God, and being a solid believer) that Madonna was illustrating a hidden meaning within the context of the video, later including themes such as rape, racism and murder.


Fig.1 Madonna’s ‘Like a prayer’, CD album cover.  Found online ‘The 20 sexiest album covers’ (1989) Featuring a woman presumed to be Madonna, wearing juxtaposition of jewellery and high wasted pale denim jeans, with no t-shirt showing her bare stomach. This image represents controversial themes to the audience such as sex and nudity, which portrays no religious iconography, that are shown in the video.

Overall in the early 1990’s, most music videos that contained nudity or controversial imagery were banned from TV channels because it was not acceptable within the society. Madonna over powered these boundaries by using her ability to turn controversy into publicity, and used negative exposure to her advantage. Madonna knew she would gain attention to the audience whether music channels agreed to air the video or not.

Today, the singer-songwriter ‘Shakira’ is another artist that has released accompanying controversial music videos. On the 13th January 2014 Shakira released the song ‘Can’t remember to forget you’, which featured Barbarian recording artist ‘Rhianna’.  The piece was directed by Joseph Kahn and is the lead single of her tenth studio album ‘Shakira’. The single became very successful in the US reaching number twenty eight within the Billboard hot 100 tracks. However when the video was uploaded on Shakira’s YouTube channel ‘Shakira VEVO’, 10% of the 170 million views included dislike ratings, which is considerably higher disapproval than any of her previous videos. The song’s depiction of homosexuality and androgyny generated a media firestorm. “This reminds me of bad porn, I used to be a fan of Shakira, it’s a shame they make money by selling their bodies instead of their voices.” (Ikamara, Sexed-up music videos are everyone’s problem: 2013) This is a similar response to Madonna’s 1990 song and in 2014 there are still arguments amongst the public as to whether female artists should be allowed to be displayed in this manner.


Fig. 2 The two stars posing in their new video. Online ‘Scopecube -WordPress’ (2014) The accompanying video features both stars in a series of skimpy outfits. The singers share a naked embrace during their raunchy new video, with nothing but tattoos covering their skin. Rihanna drapes herself around Shakira and the pair gyrate against a wall. “What is shocking to begin with in music videos becomes acceptable and so new ways of shocking the audience have to be found.” (Mick, University of Chichester lecture: 2014) As female pop stars continue to bare more flesh in order to maintain their popularity, the extent to which they are sexualised in music videos has become so pervasive within mainstream music that it is now more unusual for a female performer to not use this imagery.

The female artist ‘Rihanna’, in February 2014 revealed in an interview with E-News about her own body image issues. “I do pick on my body, but I think every woman does. They walk in front of a mirror and look at their butts. They think is it bigger today.” (Relationship Gender and Gender Related Traits: 2013) Rihanna and other female artists today show off their bodies in music videos to increase their confidence, popularity and financial income. However these chosen actions are damaging young girl’s appearances and life style. Today, the message our society is portraying within the media is a powerful influence for females. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, about two thirds of girls in the 5th to 12th grades said that magazines and female music videos influence their vision of an ideal body. About half of the girls said the images made them want to lose weight.

As more female individuals are exposed to the media, they will believe that it reflects the real world. It may become a setup for self-hatred within young women as eating disorder behaviour passes down to each generation. On the other hand, today there are only a handful of music videos that contain male nudity. Although young boys care about their appearance, young girls are brought up in today’s society being taught their power lies in their beauty. Therefore the identity of the music industry revolves around the structural subordination of women. As young guys grow up they are told their strength and masculinity must overpower women. This results in displaying clear parallels in terms of how women are reduced to objects and controlled by men today.

The theme of androgyny is incorporated into the video when the two female singers are shown smoking cigars. Cigars in the past were mainly bought by middle-aged men on high incomes, but most new cigar users today are teens and young adults. “According to the 2012 research reports, about 17% of male and 8% of female high school students had smoked a cigar within the last month.” (Kelly, Cigars and young people: 2012) As cigars are smoked more commonly by men, the writers of ‘Can’t remember to forget you’ incorporated the action of smoking because it helps the females look sophisticated. Women are viewed as physically weak, sensitive, loyal and family orientated. However if females like these singers smoke cigars they start to portray typical male qualities such as power and confidence. Other characteristics that are illustrated are aggressive and sexy. Some men also find women smoking very attractive, which engages the male audience to watch the video.

Another interpretation as to why cigars are in the video could be the old cliché of smoking a cigarette after having sex. This suggests sexual ties between the two women. The thick long cigars with Rihanna’s blood-red lipstick coating one end, implies the colour of erotic love.

Lyrically the song refers to what you would expect from the lengthy title. A woman knows she should leave her troubling man but continues to fall back into his arms after forgetting to forget him. Questions were raised across the audience as to why the lyrics speak about the topic of a guy when no male is shown within the video, only the two women. When the lyrics, “I’ll do anything for that boy”, (Where are there LGBT rights: 2014) are sung the two women are intimately touching each other. The director’s aim is to show Shakira and Rihanna pining for someone who first makes them feel worthy and then takes advantage of them. This is to remind his audience that women love deceitful men. He depicts them caressing each other while singing to the male viewers, to reaffirm that they have what the viewers want (The two pop stars bodies). While all they have between each other is their flesh at your disposal. Possession and control are fundamental pillars of power a man can possess two women, yet a woman with two men is not acceptable. This suggests the patriarchal culture. The lyrics explain throughout the piece psychotic thoughts the women think about when the guy is supposed to be gone.

Musically, the song ‘Can’t remember to forget you’ is written in the key of B minor and set in common time signature with a moderately fast tempo of 138 beats per minute. It follows a chord progression of Bm-Em-A-D. Shakira and Rihanna’s vocals lowest note they sing is B3, to the highest note of D5. The song incorporates elements of SKA (a music genre originally from Jamaica) and has a length of three minutes and twenty eight seconds. The song opens with a low slung reggae tinged verse where the two pop stars sing very lightly, floating above the clunky trumpets and trombones. This is followed by a guitar heavy chorus which contains SKA guitars and horns and a chunky rock arrangement. Shakira’s Latin pop style blends together with Rihanna’s signature reggae induced R&B sound.

Controversial Music videos today have become commonplace in the music industry, although this wasn’t the case in the early 1990’s. Music videos that contained too much flesh were banned from TV channels. Nowadays the audience can actively watch music videos online and can promote them on social networking sites. This type of promoting is unprecedented to the music industry. Programs on the internet for example, ITunes and YouTube have been created to help increases sell figures. Artists like Shakira and Rihanna, now have a complete ecosystem for music creation, distribution and playback exists, without anything actually being physically manufactured, costing them nothing.

In conclusion this essay has analysed two popular music videos in order to argue how the videos from 1990 to the present day are a reflection of a patriarchal social structure. It has evaluated several themes within the pieces that highlight evidence of dominant roles and men holding positions of power. Examples of these elements consist of Scopophilia, Androgyny and nudity. The male writers are relying on the subordination of women to mass society; offering no other images of success for women. Patriarchal problems within the music industry have strong potential to influence sexual socialisation, due to its ease of accessibility and popularity. Therefore music videos are a reflection of a patriarchal social structure. It is necessary to assess the values that music videos promote to mass culture, as negative representations that are harmful to society. In 20 years’ time is the meaning of being called a ‘singer’ going to lose its value altogether?  If this essay could continue it would investigate into why the singer ‘Whitney Houston’ became famous and how the audience still brought her albums without her advertising her body or nudity.

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