I've been watching music videos practically since their birth, or at least their MTV incarnation. They are one of the more absurd art forms around, a roughly three-minute "film" about something that may or may not have anything at all to do with the song, a medium that was once a crucial driver in album/singles sales, then a purely artistic statement, then irrelevant, and now a return amusement. But they've always had a lot of sex in them, because pop songs are usually about love or sex.
But from a feminist viewpoint, sexy videos can be deeply problematic — they were, at their height, the easiest go-to for representations of women as nothing but sex objects/ornamentation. But recently I have been hooked on the new Charli XCX song for "SuperLove," and because the single isn't out until Dec. 8, I've been stuck watching the video (above) over and over again, released in September, to get my fix.
It's a perfect launch pad for a discussion about modern sexiness in videos because it nods to a lot of the Sexy Video Girl cues, short of a scene involving water and a clingy see-through shirt. It's set in Japan and features Charli and friends traipsing, sashaying, dancing around a trashy, blinged-out, multicolored carnival. They ape around with robots, strike poses, act goofy and sexy, often at the same time, and traffic in that perfect pop-star blend of overt sexiness + coy innocence. We're sexy! We're just girls! But we're sexy women! Now we're being sexy on purpose! Wait, that time we were just sexy and didn't know it. And so on.
Make no mistake: The song is baller. It is beyond catchy — it throbs with a kind of buoyant giddiness that, even after having played it endlessly for months (not my usual three-week pop-song burnout), I still crave hearing it. This is from the same blitzo talented young woman who wrote "I Love It" and gave it to Icona Pop, and keeps churning out relentlessly catchy gem after gem and saying smart, fun things about it all.
Here's the thing, tho: Is the video ironic? Does Charli XCX, a smart, talented woman who's been writing songs since she was 14, has a worldwide hit under her belt, a major label deal, and an unusual degree of artistic control, mean to make fun of the typical sexy music video by gyrating, posing, flipping her hair and playing up sex-kitten style long looks at the camera? Or is it so in the water to be overtly, even pornographically sexy that it's just what you do, because videos must be sexy? Can such antics be feminist simply because the woman in them chooses to traffic in the standard sexy video trope?
Riddle me this: What does a sexy video look like that isn't sexist? Who gets to make that call? Can a woman make a video that looks designed to titillate men and still be a feminist or still have a message of agency? Isn't "All the Single Ladies" sexy as fuck? Does that render it less feminist by virtue of its appeal to standard notions of what sexy looks like?
I don't think so.
Regardless, we seem to expect our pop ladies to ride a very fine, dubious line with their sexiness. We accept that they must be sexy on some level, and yet, we ask them to somehow signal to us that they know this, that they hate it, too, that they don't really think it's right, or fair, or that somehow, their version of the sexiness being presented/sold to us is authentic, or about their own pleasure, or, that if it's about attracting men, that it's done so with agency or choice and not to just pander.
This seems like a lot to ask in three minutes for a pop song about an infatuation so intense that you equate the feeling with whiskey and druggy-high-soaked blood, but OK.
Admittedly, I kinda hated the Charli XCX video at first because the sexiness seemed so forced. But after having watched it dozens of times (ok, maybe even a hundred), I began to see that vamping as total artifice, a complete pose, a self-consciousness that belied the usual tit-jiggle/vag-grab of sex appeal we so often see just for the sake of it.
But even if that's just wishful thinking, I'm not sure I care. Or that the medium can be saved anyway — or that it should be. I've been watching music videos since the mid-80s, and they're mostly terrible, by-the-numbers sexual objectification that is barely worth even parsing, it's so obvious and dumb. And I say that even when the video is fun. Were I to eliminate every form of art that it is rooted in misogyny, I'd probably have a mere weekend's worth of entertainment to get me through the rest of my life. As a friend put in a great essay, and I'm paraphrasing: Sometimes you love pop culture, even when it doesn't love you back.
Take Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" video (1987) where Tawny Kitaen foreshadows catfish vaginas over a coupla Jaguars.
Full disclosure: I love this song/video in a way because of how obviously pandering it is. I loved it then, and I love it now. I also love Jaguars. I also love that David Coverdale said this dumb-true thing about the vid:
"I knew I wanted to have a sexy woman in it," Callner told a reporter. "Sex is a part of rock 'n' roll and the song was about sex."
Lulzlzolzozloolol, but also, yeah. Sex is largely inextricable from videos, because it's largely inextricable from pop music, which is lousy with love, heartbreak, lust, pining. Also, by design, pop stars tend to be attractive, whether by genetic blessing or insane resources. Third, sex sells, and we know that. And overwhelmingly, we see that the tidal wave of pornified culture has reached every corner, and persists in spite of our collective groans (of disgust).
So I ask: How do women ever reclaim an authentic notion of their own sexuality in the midst of all this? What does it look like? What risks do they take by perpetuating it and what do they risk by abandoning it? Can any old pop star make a nonsexy video and still get a paycheck anyway? And how do we reconcile our love for things that ignore or outright reject our deepest held ideas about representation?
Furthermore, is it, in fact, disingenuous when we argue that women clearly have agency about how they present their bodies, that they are free to present them sexually, and then express disappointment when the thing they turn around and do with their bodies is this textbook striptease straight out of the cheapest softcore, clearly designed to titillate men in completely stale ways?
Is there even a way for a woman to make a "sexy video" without nodding to centuries of messages about her ultimate value as a sexual being? This roundup of videos from 2013 that pushed feminism forward includes Janelle Monae's "Q.U.E.E.N." which I think is sexy while also being badass. But I also think Monae is unique among performers, and that what feels different about her presentation is also about the greater complexity in the material. Because as soon as we move back toward a narrowing down of the options for how women can present themselves, we are back in the sticky trap. A better solution, of course, would be a more diverse range of pop star, which would allow us to see a wider range of depictions that would ostensibly expand our notion of the girl in the video and what she does/is there for/up to/should be doing. But then again, we are talking about an art form that, by design, has to cut through in no time, and often does so by appealing to our most basic, universal feelings as humans. Perhaps the limitation is intrinsic to both the medium and the message.
Ultimately, I think Gloria Steinem said it best, when asked if she thought Miley Cyrus had set feminism back with her gyrating antics:
I wish we didn't have to be nude to be noticed ... But given the game as it exists, women make decisions. For instance, the Miss America contest is in all of its states ... the single greatest source of scholarship money for women in the United States. If a contest based only on appearance was the single greatest source of scholarship money for men, we would be saying, "This is why China wins." You know? It's ridiculous. But that's the way the culture is. I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.