By Amanda Mozea, Education Outreach Manager MEDIAGIRLS
Girls and young women are inundated more than ever with messages that contradict each other about female power. We see the unquestionable might of Emma Gonzalez from Parkland, FL, who has used the tools of social media to become a poster child for gun control, with 1.6 million Twitter followers cheering her on. We have watched a sea of women speak up with #metoo and #timesup, and watched box office sales blow up for movies featuring stellar amounts of girl power like “Black Panther” and “Moana.” And yet, the vast majority of media that women and girls consume still insists that to truly matter, women need to be “hot,” “thin,” and sexy as hell. Nowhere do we see these dueling messages – the sexy woman versus the vocal and self-loving woman – play out more than in today’s music videos.
Every spring, MEDIAGIRLS’ Youth Advisory Board puts together its annual Girl Power Playlist, just in time for summer vacation. At MEDIAGIRLS, we teach girls to think critically about media, and harness its power to make positive change so in order to make it onto our annual Girl-Power Playlist, songs must be sung by a woman and have empowering lyrics. The playlist has been graced by such artists as Dua Lipa and Bomba Estéreo and Alessia Cara, singing lyrics that exude strength and confidence and power. Girl power, female power, femme power, womxn power, unapologetic, raw power.
But, something happens when you watch the music videos of these empowering songs. Lyrics tell the listener that they are perfect and worthy as they are, that they are queens and empresses and goddesses; however, these lyrics are accompanied by music videos that are fronted by made-up, stripped-down singers. Selena Gomez in “Who Says” steps out of a photoshoot, pulls off her chandelier earrings, kicks off her heels, and walks barefoot around the city in a display of freedom and self-reliance. “Who says, who says you’re not perfect?” she sings. Meanwhile, she is still in the gown she wore in the abandoned photoshoot, still in the smoky eye curated for her by the unacknowledged makeup artist, her perfection and beauty unquestionable.So, is Selena Gomez telling her audience that they are perfect just the way they are, as her lyrics suggest? Or, is she telling them that they should look like her, need to look like her, to be and feel empowered enough to talk about perfection, as the video suggests? The age-old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” applies here as well. Her video says more about her message than her lyrics.
The girls in our afterschool programming notice the discrepancy between the lyrics they hear and the visuals they see. In the minutes after watching, they rave about how amazing the words of the song are. They sing a stanza and smile. But, invariably, someone says with awe and admiration: “She’s so pretty.” And, just like that, the empowering effect of the words is diminished by the picture-perfect visuals.
And, just like that, a step forward and a half-step back.
The paradox of the beautiful and sexy celebrity telling people that they don’t need to worry about being beautiful and sexy has evolved since Selena Gomez’s 2011 release “Who Says.” The paradox has become more progressive, diverse, and – seemingly – more genuine. As a result, the contradictions are more difficult to spot, more insidious.
This spring, Jessie J released the music video for her song “Queen.” The lyrics bid its audience to know their worth and the music video features a diverse and powerful array of women – Muslim, Black, brown, rocking their stretch marks and cellulite, media and society’s marginalized “undesirables” – to back up its words. It is, simply put, beautiful. But, at the front of it all, is Jessie J. White. Size 2. Cisgender. Heterosexual. Jessie J. The camera flits between the societal “others” and lingers on Jessie J. And, in the end, it is not the “others” who tell the audience they “love their body” and “love their skin” and are “goddess[es]”: it is Jessie J. White. Size 2. Cisgender. Heterosexual. Jessie J.
And, just like that a step forward and a half-step back.
What do we tell our girls? They sense, consciously or not, the lie at the heart of each of these videos. They hear the message of the lyrics. But, they also see the perfectly toned body of Beyoncé in “Pretty Hurts” and the surgically-altered face of Christina Aguilera in “Fall in Line.” And it is the images, not the lyrics, that stick. “I wish I looked like her,” or “I wish I had her body,” they say. “But, why does it matter what talented female vocalist looks like?” we here at MEDIAGIRLS ask. “Do you think the visuals in the video go with the lyrics?” By hitting pause and asking the girls in our programming to think critically about media messages, we help them challenge the contractions between what they see and what they hear and, as a result, better determine for themselves the true meaning of empowerment. We help our girls understand that there are billions of dollars at stake in making girls and women feel that they are not enough, that there is a right way to look.
What does one step forward without a half-step back look like?
We invite you to check out “Freedom” by Beyoncé, “Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara and “Soy Yo” by Bomba Estéreo. “Soy Yo” is the embodiment of young, female empowerment featuring a confident, young Latina rocking braids and blowing away her haters with her recorder, and includes lyrics like these:
“Y no te preocupes si no te aprueban / And don’t worry if you’re not approved
Cuando te critiquen tú solo di / When they criticize you just say
Soy yo” / It’s me
– Spanish lyrics and English translation from the “Soy Yo.”
These music videos, not just their lyrics, tell girls you don’t need to be sexy, made up, or even 18 to claim your power and know your worth. When the girls in MEDIAGIRLS grade videos with our music-video report cards, they give a unanimous A+ to these videos; and, they want more. There doesn’t always need to be a step forward accompanied by a half-step back.
Imagine how different the world will be when girls come to expect, even insist on, media content where the empowering words match the visuals, and they see themselves reflected back.