The music industry, misogyny and the male gaze

By Darcy Nathan

Growing up as a young, female music fan in the 00s and 10s was a mixed bag. Whilst we had the progressive changes towards the ‘body positivity’ movement we see today (think Destiny’s Child – Bootylicious, the rise of Kim K, and Sir Mix-a-lot), I also have lasting memories of watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show as a young teen and feeling wholly inadequate.

Messages surrounding women’s bodies have always been pertinent in the media and music industry, but as I have entered my twenties and begun to reflect on the content I consumed as a child, I’ve noticed the same patterns of internalised misogyny occur time and time again. 

Take, for example, Britney’s breakdown circa 2008. I remember watching reports of this, and perhaps it was due to my age, but there was not a hint of consideration for the seriousness of a woman’s mental health crisis. More so was the ridicule of a pop caricature who had shaved her head and been sent to rehab. The Victorian trope of women suffering from ‘hysteria’ remains, and the media didn’t take kindly to this radical act. But perhaps Britney’s trim was symbolic – in shedding her femininity, Britney had finally rid herself of the male gaze she had been subject to since entering the music industry as a minor. Did the media descend on Spears as she no longer fit their beauty standards as a sex symbol?

Another scandal that came out of the music industry I remember is the debacle surrounding Lady Gaga’s gender. Gaga is widely acknowledged as an LGBTQ+ icon, but numerous articles from the 00s titled focusing on her own gender identity, titled Is Lady Gaga a Hermaphrodite?and the likes (really, does anyone actually care) speculate on the rumour that Gaga possesses a penis (again, who cares). I can only imagine how utterly insulting it must’ve been as an artist to be subject to such insignificant drivel as opposed to legitimate career queries, and can only hope we’ve surpassed such nonsense in the industry and as a society today. Again, the media turned the sensitive and personal topic of gender identity into gossip as Gaga refused to conform to the sexualised ideal of femininity. Her donning of the meat dress at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards was a direct rebellion against patriarchal control; the political statement through her ‘unique’ clothing did not earn the sexualised approval of the male gaze.

Perhaps the woman who has resonated with me most since my childhood is Lily Allen. I remember as a child watching her documentary ‘Riches to Rags’ and reading reviews berating her use of swearing (I vividly remember my first exposure to the ‘C’ word coming from her response to being hounded by paparazzi) and her unreservedly favourable view of nakedness, as this damning review laments on the inclusion of, god forbid, a nipple. My lasting impression of Allen was that of a crude, unhinged woman; that is until I grew up and thankfully managed to identify my own internalised misogyny. Why did I actually disapprove? It wasn’t until I recently read her autobiography that I realised this portrayal of Allen is as a result of her rebellion in fitting with society’s ideals. In her book she discusses insisting on wearing trainers with a prom dress in her album shoots and writing lyrics about punching cat-callers. She has recently launched a new range of sex toys with a focus on female pleasure – it is this refusal to adhere to ‘traditional’ feminine notions of passivity, the embracing of her sexuality and her rejection of the male gaze, that earns Lily her incessant media onslaught.

Over and over, these lasting impressions I had of these women in the music industry arose from damnation as a result of failing to conform to patriarchal ideals. Ten years on, and now in my twenties, the media still hasn’t relented in the antagonism of women who do not fit society’s idealised version of femininity. The release of WAP this year brought on backlash like no other. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion outraged the mainstream media for their unapologetic discussion of female sexual pleasure, as if the same hasn’t been the story in male rap for decades. Why is it the case that men can explicitly reference sex, yet as soon as a woman refers to her own pleasure all hell breaks loose? Ah yes, our good friend, the sexual double standard.

My point is that, despite moving past the commodification of celeb crises in the Britney days, the media still routinely vilifies women in the music industry for not pandering to patriarchal ideals. As soon as women do not fit the physical standard which appeases the male gaze, like Gaga’s mythical penis, they are berated and portrayed as ‘other’. If we retaliate against unwanted male attention, we are depicted as ‘aggressive’. On the other hand, when we embrace our sexuality, showing our bodies and discussing our pleasure, we are condemned and branded as ‘immoral’ and ‘promiscuous’. The only hope we have is to educate and liberate ourselves and our daughters not to internalise this blatant misogyny, so that at the very least, in a feminist utopia, women in the music industry may be able to simply exist without the patriarchy scrutinising their every move.

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