It’s the first warm weekend of summer and you’re driving your preteen or teen daughter and a few of her friends to the local water park for a fun afternoon. Ten minutes in, you take some requests to compile a road trip playlist. “Beyonce!” is the first demand. “Katy Perry!” someone shouts from the backseat. You fire up Spotify and are delighted by your daughter’s squeal of laughter and how she confidently belts out every lyric to her favorite songs, joining her friends in singing words that celebrate female independence and following dreams.
The next day, your daughter goes on YouTube and watches some of the music videos made for the songs you listened to in the car. You stop and watch too, and are shocked to actually see the famous singer with the powerhouse voice whose words you were comfortable with hearing your daughter repeat the day before. The singer, whose following is largely made up of girls and young women, is wearing only a lacey bra, a tight black skirt, and menacing-looking stilettos as she stretches out provocatively on a couch and repeats the chorus about not needing a relationship and how she chooses instead to follow her heart and find happiness from within. She then sits in front of a sleek vanity table, arches her back, and flips her hair as she applies bright lipstick to her pouty lips and gazes seductively at the camera from under perfect-looking black eyelashes. She never smiles. Instead, she wails “You are beautiful!” or “You are powerful!” or something to that effect as her image is flashed across the screen in revealing ball gowns and skimpy bikinis, always posed to look flawless and sexy for the camera.
What are you supposed to make of this?! What does your daughter make of it? This was a problem the youth advisory board of MEDIAGIRLS, made up of 14 preteen and teen girls, ran into when selecting songs recently for our #MGSummerPlaylist. Their challenge was to find songs with inspiring, girl-power lyrics, and as you’ll hear, they did a phenomenal job.
When stringing the videos back to back for our YouTube playlist, it is hard to miss how sexualized these videos are. In fact, it was just about impossible to find videos without super provocative images (hats off to singer Dodie Clark, who doesn’t go that route because she built her own reputation and following on YouTube rather than being “packaged” by labels and studios). We even had to nix songs like “Stronger” by Britney Spears and “Girls Like Girls” by Hayley Kiyoko because the images made us so uncomfortable.
This calls into question: Why are these seemingly empowering songs selling the idea that women can only be independent and strong as long as they are upholding traditional standards of beauty and appearing as sexual objects to satisfy the male gaze? And what do we do about it?
Try this: Tell your girl you want to do an experiment with her. Play a music video on the pop charts with the volume muted to see if the message of female empowerment still comes across as strongly when you can’t hear the lyrics. “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys appears to be about a heartbroken woman grieving over some long-lost love based off the first 60 seconds of the music video. That message, combined with her tight clothing and sultry and seductive attitude, is a stark contrast to the song’s lyrics, which raise women up in unison and encourage them to find their inner strength. Ask your daughter in a non-judgy tone:
- Do you think the images you’re seeing match the lyrics?
- If you were making this video, what images would you use to showcase the lyrics?
- If radio and video are about music, why do you think there are so few pop singers that aren’t thin and beautiful?
- What message do you think this video sends to girls? To boys?
Female sexuality is something that should be a part of conversations had with young women, but its portrayal in the media is not always easy to explain. Yes, women should own their sexuality — and that certainly includes the freedom to wear whatever makes them feel beautiful — but we also have to educate young women about being able to decipher when sexuality is being celebrated, and when it is being used as an object to make money or achieve some other, superficial goal.
So for now, until we see some more positive, empowering videos to go along with female artists’ lyrics, perhaps keep listening through your playlist or lyrics-only videos. The songs on our playlist are truly powerful pieces that could liven up any road trip, so let’s stick with the message we hear from them while we have the wind in our hair and our eyes on the road ahead.
Kaitlyn Locke is an undergrad studying journalism and Spanish at Boston University as well as an editorial intern for MEDIAGIRLS. She is the Features Editor of The Daily Free Press, Boston University’s independent weekly student newspaper. Kaitlyn lives in Boston and spends her free time working as a barista, learning to play guitar, and buying too many leather-bound notebooks.
Michelle Cove is the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS®, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to critique the way girls and women are portrayed in pop culture with an emphasis on creating empowering content.