Challenging sexist and racist music videos


18 November 2013

On Monday 11 November, a new campaign called Rewind & Reframe was launched. The campaign sees women denouncing sexism and racism in many music videos and urging the media, music industry and the Government to address it.

A debate was hosted in the Houses of Parliament, set up by End Violence Against Women, Imkaan and Object  with funding from Rosa. The debate panel included MP Claire Perry, Sharon Hodgson, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities and Ikamara Larasi of Imkaan.

28 Too Many volunteer Atiyah Wazir attended the event and reports on some timely topics.

The harmful impact of racism and sexualisation

Ikamara Larasi began by saying that the debate was not about policing sexiness but about the harmful impact of racism and sexualisation. "Each video is a symptom of what exists in society," she added. Larasi went on to point out that the issue is not limited to genre and shared some of the thoughts from women in her focus group. One woman felt ‘marginalised and not represented in pop culture’ while another woman announced, 'how can we achieve equality when the entertainment we consume on a daily basis is so sexist?’

These comments highlight the fact that we are bombarded with imagery and language that disrespects and objectifies women. The media influences how women feel about themselves and in the case of sexualisation in music videos, it can also bring up flashbacks and concerns for survivors or rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Is nakedness new?

Many videos have women dressed in hardly any clothing while men are fully clothed. In his controversial video for Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke walks around with an air of authority giving the message of being powerful in a suit whilst surrounded by topless women. 

We’ve seen scantily clad women sprawled over men, cars, poles and animals - even power tools, in the case of Benny Benassi’s sexualised video for his song Satisfaction. This is not a new trend and is by no means limited to hip hop artists or the stereotype of ‘black music’. A lot of music videos in the 1990s featured controversial content - we’ve raised eyebrows at Madonna in the same way as we have at Lil’ Kim.

Freedom of expression and freedom from harm

This is a very complex issue. On one hand we see the impacts associated with racism and sexism in music videos but on the other hand are we being too quick to decide what is appropriate and what is too controversial? 

Earlier this year the sports brand Reebok ended their endorsement deal with rapper Rick Ross over concerns that a song of his contained lyrics about drugging and raping a woman. 

A lot of teenagers relate to the angst of Eminem, the views of Lady Gaga or the boldness of Beyoncé. Although some of Beyoncé’s videos may be daring and perhaps she’s dressed ‘too sexily’ for television, she is a woman who celebrates her fuller figure and is a role model for the curvy girls who quite often society wrongly says are overweight.

Should we as women be damned for shaking our hips and enjoying the rhythms of a song?

35 year old Cultural Historian, Charlotte Hopkins says, "When I was younger I loved watching Madonna and was excited by her confident performances which in turn gave me the confidence to express myself through dance. I think we forget that videos can be inspirational for the right reasons. Music should come first and sex should not be seen as the only way to sell it."

The impact on young people

The concerning issue is the sheer mass availability of such content, the rapid rise in the risqué and the impact on women and children in particular.

We shouldn’t generalise and say that all young people are easily influenced by pop culture and will smoke, swear, take drugs or have sex because of what their favourite singer does. Of course many young people listen to different types of music and while they may enjoy explicit content, they might remain unaffected and able to think for themselves. 

However, in many cases, what young people are exposed to has an impact on their lives. In a ChildLine survey of 13-18 year olds, 60% said they had been asked for a sexual image or video of themselves. Furthermore, research carried out for the NSPCC into sexting among young people (Ringrose et al, 2012) found that the widespread use of sexual language and images among children and young people had influenced their behaviour.

Regulation and education

MP Claire Perry speaks of her ‘wake up’ moment whilst in a gym when she saw a highly sexualised video and realised that ‘this is the wallpaper that our children are growing up with’. Perry is calling for regulation and education to tackle some of these issues. She admits that it is difficult to regulate a global industry, particularly in an online world, but believes that self-rated imagery and lyrics could be a step forward.

Sharon Hodgson echoes Perry’s view on having more open discussions with parents and driving education in schools. She would also like to see more discussed in school’s curricula.

The topic of ‘twerking’

While much has been said of Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’ (a hip thrusting dance), we must take into account that ‘twerking’ has existed long before she came on the music scene. ‘Dancehall Queens’ in Jamaica and the West Indies have been dancing this way for a very long time and earlier dance crazes such as the Dutty Wine which have been even more explicit, have not drawn as much criticism. Rihanna and Nicki Minaj have danced in provocative ways yet they too have drawn much less attention than Miley Cyrus. Did her being white have something to do with this becoming a big story? 

Lily Allen’s latest video for her new single ‘Hard Out Here’ is meant as a satirical stab at sexism in the music industry yet has drawn further controversy and mixed reviews. The racism element needs to be addressed in the right context.

Political correctness

We need to be braver when tackling racism issues and not let cultural values stop us from saying what is wrong and right. We seem to be living in a world where there is such a fear of being politically correct, that people refuse to challenge issues. 

Campaigner Leyla Hussein recently conducted an experiment on shoppers to see how people react to Female Genital Mutilation. She asked people to sign a fake petition in its favour and was shocked and saddened to see that 19 people had signed it within less than an hour. “FGM is not culture, it is violence. Stop using the culture word. This is happening to children. We are human beings, we can’t watch children being cut, I don’t care what culture you belong to," expressed Hussein.

When looking at racism and sexism, in music videos and in other media we must remember that these concerns don’t only affect one race or one age group – it is a global issue which encompasses a range of ethnic backgrounds, different generations, various cultures and beliefs.

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