Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Deal with the Devil: Be Sexy or Shut Up

This photo is from an article in The New York Times about former Disney stars who have moved into presenting themselves as sexual objects. I wrote about this in the post Disney Star to Temptress. Yesterday I shared this article from the Guardian that had several successful females sharing their thoughts on feminism. One of my readers, Matt, had this response, which made me think of this New York Times article and its implications. The first part below is his direct quote from Beverley Knight:

“…I come from a music industry where if you dare to stick your head above the parapet and say actually I don’t really want to be defined as a musician in terms of the size of my breasts, instantly marketing managers will put you in the box marked as ‘trouble’. ‘She’s going to be difficult.’” …and there you have it: the dirty little (not-so) secret of the entertainment industry. If you want to “make it” as a female artist, you must be willing to make a Faustian bargain. Sad. (Matt)

Matt is pointing out a fact that is evident not only from our own observations but in the research literature as well. Female singers are clearly sexualized to a very high degree. Not only are music videos notorious for generally presenting women as sex objects (Turner, 2011), but even female singers themselves don’t escape this type of depiction. In a study conducted by Wallis (2011), it was found that female singers engaged in significantly more sexual behaviors than male singers, such as sexual self-touch and suggestive dancing, as well as wearing provocative clothing. These are not the back-up singers or girls dancing in the background that we’re talking about here. These are the female artists themselves!

This finding is consistent with what Beverley Knight says in the quote above; there is pressure for female artists to use their sexuality to promote themselves. In the study discussed above (pg.168), Wallis says, “The message given by and about women in these videos seems to be that sexually suggestive behavior is normal and appropriate for women….Images of female lead performers dancing suggestively or touching themselves in a sexual manner drive home the point that women are sexual objects, ready to be consumed by men.”

What is going on in an industry that tells the women who want to succeed in it to be sexy or shut-up? The prevailing thought seems to be that this is what the public wants. I’m not buying that. In fact, I think that the majority of people who are music lovers are very happy to see a female perform without treating herself as a sexualized object. Agreeing to this kind of self-objectification diminishes an artist, making it seem that all she has to rely on is her sexuality rather than any talent.

So who stands up and makes a difference? The female singer herself can refuse to be sexualized, but then she’s likely left behind. The only way that the sexualization of females in the entertainment industry is likely to change is when fans start putting pressure on the industry itself to treat women as equal talents and not eye candy. Perhaps powerful women who are themselves involved in the industry can join in this effort. Any takers?

Turner, Jacob, S. (2011). Sex and the Spectacle of Music Videos: An Examination of the Portrayal of Race and Sexuality in Music Videos. Sex Roles (64),173–191 DOI 10.1007/s11199-010-9766-6

Wallis, C. (2011). Performing Gender: A Content Analysis of Gender Display in Music Videos. Sex Roles (2011) 64:160–172 DOI 10.1007/s11199-010-9814-2

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One comment on “Deal with the Devil: Be Sexy or Shut Up

  1. Andrew
    March 15, 2011

    Yes even those stars such as Miley Cyrus that once delivered uplifting messages, now feel the need to do whatever they can to display their sexuality as shockingly as they can

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