Super Bowl XLVII: Why Beyoncé’s Appeal Crosses Gender Lines

By Rachel Grate. Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on February 1, 2013. 

Beyoncé is the Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show performer this Sunday, and it’s a fascinating choice. The Super Bowl is one of the most traditionally masculine events of the year, with its encouragement ofmanly soda or beer drinking, bro talk about cheerleaders, and a slew of sexist commercials andtactics to get your girlfriend to stop distracting you with questions (because girls couldn’t possibly understand sports).

Beyoncé, on the other hand, is an (admittedly controversialfeminist icon. In a recent interview inGQ magazine, she said,

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

Why are spaces as hypermasculinized as the Super Bowl and GQ willing to feature Beyoncé’s promotion of female empowerment?

 

 

One answer could be Beyoncé’s sexuality and seeming openness to the male gaze. Many pointed out the contradiction of Beyoncé calling out this sexualization while appearing in her a tiny cotton jersey and underwear on the cover of a magazine run by men that in fact declared her the sexiest woman of the century. However, I resist the notion that any show of sexuality is inherently disempowering – in fact, one of the consistent qualities of Beyoncé’s music is her ownership of her own sexuality.

Back in her Destiny’s Child days (rumored to be reappearing together during her half time show), “Bootylicious” was about owning her own body and being proud of her sexuality even if men don’t appreciate it (“can’t handle that”). More recently, in “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé asserts that she “don’t need no permission” to express her sexuality, with “gloss on my lips, a man on my hips” – the man no more integral to her expression of her sexuality than an accessory like lip gloss. However, with her repeated challenge to “put a ring on it,” Beyoncé would be happier with a specific man by her side, just like many of us who crave companionship.

Whether she wanted to express herself sexually in this particular spread we don’t know, but this self-promotion is a necessary part of a job in the music industry, and it took guts for Beyoncé to speak out against men defining sexuality in a magazine reliant on the male gaze. Beyoncé took advantage of the photo shoot to promote her Super Bowl appearance, appearing in (sexual) jerseys and posing with footballs and helmets.

Her combination of feminine apparel with sports items in the spread signifies a second reason for male acceptance of Beyoncé’s feminist persona: Beyoncé makes it clear that being pro-women is not being anti-men.

While Beyoncé’s songs assert women as independent beings who are empowered by earning their own money and owning their own sexuality, the presence of important men in these women’s lives in no way threatens their empowerment. Individual men are shown as a threat to this empowerment (see: “Survivor”), but never men in general.

Beyoncé urges both men and women to be financially independent and self-reliant. ”Bills, Bills, Bills” is about rejecting a relationship with an unequal financial balance – in this case, the man relying on the woman to pay his bills. One line in particular stands out – “a scrub like you don’t know what a man’s about.” While this language seems to reinforce a stereotype as a man as a supporter, it’s clear that Beyoncé wouldn’t want a man paying her bills either – advising in “Independent Woman” to “make sure it’s your money you flaunt / depend on no one else to give you what you want.”

Relationships built on equality are clearly Beyoncé’s ideal. “Independent Woman” (“try to control me boy you get dismissed / pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills / Always 50/50 in relationships”) reflects the same sentiment as Destiny’s Child’s newest single, “Nuclear,” which opens with “You had your dreams and I had mine” and continues to assert that “you had your half and I had mine.”

Because the relations between men and women in real life aren’t typically as equal as Beyoncé’s ideal, she encourages women to stand up for themselves – but once again, not at the expense of men.

Beyoncé values the lived experiences of women, emphasizing in both “If I Were a Boy” and “Schoolin’ Life” that gender inherently influences standpoint. Beyoncé speaks for seemingly all women in “Schoolin’ Life” when she declares, “I’m not a teacher, babe, but I can teach you something.” With women in generally lower-ranking positions than men, this belief in lived experience (“Who needs a degree when you’re schoolin’ life?”) values the voices of many women.

“Girls (Run the World)” is one song about female empowerment that is more idyllic than true – saying boys “disrespect us no they won’t” and that “my persuasion can build a nation.” In reality, women are disrespected on a daily basis, and the fact that persuasion is her method of rule implies that there is someone, most likely a man, who she needs to persuade – after all, women are still underrepresented in politics.

The reason these masculine spheres still accept Beyoncé with her self-proclaimed feminism is because she doesn’t shun men to make her point about women’s power. Even in “Girls (Run the World),” Beyoncé disclaimers her song with the lines, “Boy I’m just playing / Come here baby / Hope you still like me,” indicating that she welcomes them in this idyllic world (as long as they “pay” her what she’s worth – wage gap shout-out).

Some songs – such as “Cater 2 U” and “Naughty Girl”- go so far in welcoming boys that some feminists have critiqued them. Like “Dance For You,” these songs depict her doing things for the man she loves. In “Cater 2 U” she sings, “I’m here to serve you / If it’s love you need / To give it is my joy / All I want to do is cater 2 U boy.” The important consideration for this song is that it’s a love letter.

Like anyone in love of either gender, Beyoncé wants to pamper her significant other, just like we all want to be pampered once in a while – and based on her other songs, I bet Beyoncé’s expecting to get pampered back in due time. As Jezebel wrote defending the song, “There’s a giant difference betweenwanting to do something for a man and having to do it.”

And this is why Beyoncé’s music crosses gender lines: It asserts female power while proving female empowerment does not exclude men. This is what feminists have been trying to convince men of for ages – that we are not anti-men, we are pro-equality. Beyoncé is pro-equality and questions gender roles, and her spreading that message to the Super Bowl – to a space largely defined by those roles – is in many ways a feminist victory.

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Follow her on Twitter or read more of her work on her blog.

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Violence Against Women: What Qualifies A Woman For Protection?


By Rachel Grate. Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on January 7, 2013. 

 ”For the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is no more.” –The Maddow Blog

Apparently, only some women are worthy of protection against violence. The Violence Against Women Act had been reauthorized without significant challenge in 2000 and 2005, but because the new version of the bill would extend protection to 30 million more women, House Republican leadership did not reauthorize the bill in 2012.

Essentially, in these politicians’ eyes some women are unworthy of the bill’s protection – specifically Native Americans, immigrants, and LGBT women who would have been included under the new bill.

Native American women are twice as likely as other demographics in the U.S. to be sexually assaulted, according to the Justice Department. One in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetime. About ten percent of hate crimes against gay men and lesbians include sexual assault. The Human Rights Watch found that at least 50% of the agricultural work force is undocumented immigrants, who cannot come forward about sexual assault because of fear of deportation.

In Jessica Valenti’s 2009 book The Purity Myth, she observed that, “The rates of sexualized violence against women of color in the United States are far higher than those regarding white women. In fact, violence against white women is actually declining, while it continues to increase among women of color… [T]he average annual rate of intimate-partner violence from 1993 to 2004 was highest for American Indian and Alaskan Native women – 18.2 victimizations per one thousand women.”

Why are the women who are most in need of support the women House Republicans are least willing to protect?

Valenti argues that “it’s not possible to prove that these increased rates of violence in particular communities are a direct result of society’s positioning women of color as impure. But a society that portrays them as such absolutely contributes to a culture of violence against them – women who transgress purity norms are punished, and women of color transgress simply by not being white.” Similarly, in consideration of which women House Republicans opposed protecting, LGBT women transgress simply by not following the heterosexual purity guidelines.

We have seen other politicians punish women for transgressing these purity norms recently with the constant redefinitions of rape. From Todd Akin’s now infamous “legitimate rape” qualification to Roger Rivard’s “some girls rape easy,” it is clear that these Republicans only believe a certain type of women can be raped – women who meet their preconceived idea of purity. And while these men lost the election, the House Republican leadership is perpetuating the same beliefs that only certain women – chaste, white women – are worthy of protection.

You don’t have to look far to see these beliefs reflected and reinforced by popular media. Native American culture is constantly overtly simplified and sexualized. In the past year alone, Victoria’s Secret featured a Native American headdress in their fashion show (removed from the TV screening), No Doubt pulled their stereotypical cowboys-and-Indians themed “Looking Hot” music video after backlash, and the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for using the Navajo name to sell products like underwear and a flask.

Native American women suffer from these sexual appropriations of Native American culture, and they’re not the only ones. This sexualization is rampant in the media concerning all minorities – the same minorities, incidentally, that the House doesn’t want to protect from violence. Because such portrayals sexualize these demographics, these women lose the protection of “purity” – they lose the respect of men who believe women’s worth lies in their sexuality. This leads to the high rates of sexual assault of women of color, and to politicians considering these women unworthy of protection, all based on stereotypes perpetuated by the media.

After all, as politicians (of both parties) have expressed time and time again, rape only counts if the woman was pure. It’s this idea that’s reflected in our media, and by both our law makers and law enforcers. SlutWalks, for instance, were created in response to Toronto Police Officer’s statement that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The problem with this statement – beyond it’s obvious victim blaming – is that no matter how modest one woman’s outfit is, it can’t undo the widespread sexualization of women in the media that is too easy to internalize.

When the media portrays women as objects, or only valuable if they meet a racialized standard of purity, it creates a rape culture in which no woman is safe. A rape culture that the Violence Against Women Act had helped to combat.

It’s important to note that this is not a political issue. This is a human rights issue. Nonetheless, House Republicans refused to support the measures expanding protection to millions more women because they considered them “politically driven.”

Despite this political party divide, only 2 of 25 Republican Women in the House opposed reauthorizing the bill, and even those 2 seemed willing to compromiseThe Senate had approved the bill 68 to 31, and the bill was co-written by conservative Mike Crapo from Idaho. This divide isn’t political – it’s ideological. It’s a divide between those who respect women, and those who only respect women who have earned their approval by fitting their standards of purity. The latter isn’t truly respect at all.

This is not the end of the Violence Against Women Act. The 2005 version of the bill will continue until a new version is passed, though its services are threatened by budget crises. Because of these economic difficulties, if a new version of hte bill is not approved, it is estimated that 200,000 victims of violence will lose services.

Senator Patty Murray has promised to reintroduce the bill in 2013. But if we want real change, in both our politics and our personal lives, we have to go further than a temporary fix.

It’s time to end the “purity myth.” We need to challenge these degrading, sexualized portrayals of women and acknowledge that all women are worthy of respect, regardless of their ethnicity or sexuality. This is what MissRepresentation.org has dedicated itself to, and we hope you and the 113th Congress sworn in Thursday will join us.

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn or read more of her work on her blog.

Happy Holidays & Offensive Advertisements

Originally posted by MissRepresentation.org on December 13, 2012. Editorial Intern Rachel Grate continues her series on Christmas traditions and gender stereotypes

by Rachel Grate

With Christmas shopping underway, commercials are starting to seem like little kids jumping up and down screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” And unfortunately, some retailers are resorting to tired stereotypes to win our business.

As we learned yesterday, Christmas songs often describe kids choosing gendered toys – Barney and Ben want boots and guns, Janice and Jen want dolls (“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”). But this phenomenon isn’t limited to songs – the gendering of kids’ toys is inherent in most advertisements. As a business model, it makes sense – after all, if a son and daughter refuse to play with the same toys, parents have to buy twice as much to satisfy their kids’ demands.

Take the above Hallmark advertisement, for instance. While the concept is cute, I can’t help but question why the girl wants “a ballerina tutu, a pink bike” and “a princess doll.” If a little boy were writing to Santa, Hallmark wouldn’t put any of those items on his list – but a boy in real life might.

Advertisements don’t have to be gendered to be successful. Top Toy, a Swedish toy maker, recently released their Christmas toy catalogue for Denmark and Sweden – and in the Swedish version of the catalogue the genders of the kids playing with toys have been switched. In the glossy pages, boys are shown playing with dollhouses and girls with Nerf guns – just as kids play in real life.

This sort of gender-neutral advertising isn’t seen in the United States. Eighth grader McKenna Popenoticed this oversight in the advertisements of Hasbro when brainstorming gifts to get her four-year-old brother. In a video (below), her little brother tells her he wants a dinosaur and an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas.

“Why don’t they have any boys in the Easy-Bake Oven commercial?” McKenna asks her brother. “You think they should put boys, right? Because boys like to cook too, right?”

In response, McKenna started a change.org petition with over 38,000 to feature boys in the packaging of the Easy-Bake Oven, as a step to achieve gender equality in toy advertising – against the societal norms that McKenna notes reinforce that girls are the only ones in the kitchen.

Christmas commercials aimed toward adults further enforce these harmful societal norms. Asda and Morrisons, both UK companies, have released Christmas ads that do acknowledge how stressful Christmas can be. Unfortunately, they do so by relying on 1950s style gender roles – the women are running around cooking and shopping to exhaustion while their foolish husbands stand back, suffering from what The Frisky diagnosed as “‘Doofus Husband Syndrome,’ where they are unable to make decisions related to the home.”

“It doesn’t just happen by magic. Behind every great Christmas, there’s Mum,” the Asda commercial concludes. The problem is, a Christmas where the mom is burdened with all the work and none of the reward is not a “great” Christmas. In fact, it’s a pretty awful one.

As Bitch magazine noted about the Morrisons ad, “It might be refreshingly honest if it didn’t end by saying she ‘wouldn’t have it any other way.’ If you’re a mom, Christmas SHOULD make you miserable!”

Consumers aren’t siting back and accepting these stereotypes – instead, the Asda ad received over186 complaints in the first ten days it was on air, in addition to social media action. As a result, Asda apologized for any offense they’ve caused – but the ad continues to air.

In America, this Sears ad shows the other side of this stereotype- the “Doofus Husband” running around trying to find the perfect gift for his wife, and losing his child in the process. In addition, the man is portrayed as an idiot for thinking of getting his wife power tools – because of course her real preference is jewelry.

Jewelry commercials are perhaps the most obvious example of gender stereotypes there are. Nonetheless, the Zales Christmas ad (below) surpasses its peers by suggesting that jewelry can be exchanged for sex.

These messages both reinforce unhealthy relationship dynamics. Sexualized images of girls and women result in boys’ developing unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of their appearance (Girl Scouts) – and in the context of the Zales commercial, also of their behavior.

Girls between 11 and 14 see on average 500 ads a day. Advertisers know that kids constantly begging adults for toys they saw in ads is a more effective tactic than targeting the ads to adults – and kid see the advertisements targeted towards adults as well. Unfortunately, when kids internalize this gendered advertising, it has negative effects on their future.

In my letter to Santa this year, I’m asking for an end to sexist advertising. But just in case Santa is a little to busy to get to me, I’m using Twitter to tell these advertisers that I’m #NotBuyingIt. Will you join me?

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn.

Happy Holidays & Troubling Traditions

This blog was originally posted by MissRepresentation.org on December 10, 2012. 

by Rachel Grate

“The depressing thing about the Christmas season – isn’t it? – is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice… They all – religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy – line up with each other so neatly once a year.” – Eve Sedgwick, “Queer and Now”

Christmas is a powerful force. As soon as Halloween ends, the commercials conquer TV and the songs invade radio. Come December, newscasters begin to frame each story in what Sedgwick calls “the Christmas question”: will the soldiers be home in time for Christmas? State-run schools and businesses get Christmas off – but no vacation time is dedicated to Hanukkah or other religions.

I’m not trying to be the Grinch–I love Christmas. It can be a comforting holiday, a celebration of one’s religion or family, but both religion and family are defined very narrowly in the holiday season. Unfortunately, Christmas songs, advertisements, and traditions are unavoidable and are often entrenched in stereotypical gender roles.

Take mistletoe, for example. Mistletoe was regarded as a sexual symbol with fertility powers before Christianity, and like the date of Christmas itself, the church adapted preexisting Pagan customs to facilitate conversion.

According to The Holiday Spot, during the eighteenth century “at Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed…If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the following year.”

Thankfully, women nowadays have the option to refuse unwanted advances, but avoiding mistletoe at holiday parties can still be an exhausting experience.

This is not to say that a moment under mistletoe with one’s significant other can’t be romantic. But it can be important to remind ourselves of the historical creation of these traditions, especially for those in non-traditional relationships that are often marginalized during the Christmas season.

After all, the pressure to find the perfect gift from Santa (or to fit the cheery holiday narrative) can be at least partially alleviated by the knowledge that an American cartoonist designed the modern rosy-cheeked, round-bellied Santa in the 19th century. These traditions may be comforting, but the moment they become stressful, it is key to remember that they were created – and they are optional.

The modern day illustration of Santa was first drawn in 1865 by cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Perhaps the best demonstration of Christmas’s somewhat arbitrary influence is its effect on the traditions of other cultures. Hanukkah is held up as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, but this isn’t historically accurate. In Israel, Hanukkah isn’t celebrated as heavily as in the United States, because it is no more important than other Jewish holidays.

A study published in the Economic Journal in 2011 titled “Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” reported in its abstract that in America, “Jewish-related expenditures in Hanukkah are higher in countries with lower share of Jews. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that Jews increase religious activity during Hanukkah because of the presence of Christmas … Jewish parents in the U.S. celebrate Hanukkah more intensively so their children do not feel left out.”

This holiday season, don’t be afraid to make your own traditions, or rejuvenate the ones you’re surrounded by. Why not hug under mistletoe, or simply exchange compliments? If expensive holiday gifts are wearing down your budget, suggest a White Elephant gift game with friends.

My favorite part of the holidays are the simplest: Going into the mountains and cutting down my own tree, baking pumpkin pies with my father, going to the empty movie theater on Christmas Eve. These aren’t reliant on a pre-defined idea of family or home, but they are what define the holiday season for me.

Throughout this blog series, I’ll be taking a closer look at the Christmas media that define the holidays from a place of privilege. Now that we’ve covered the historical context, in the next few days I’ll walk you through holiday media: songs and advertisements that reinforce gender roles. And we’ll finish things off on a cheery note, with #MediaWeLike gift guide.

Together, we can make sure this holiday season remains happy.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn.

Selling “Girl Power” Short

Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on July 20, 2012. 

The phrase “Girl Power” appears in my mind bedazzled and engraved on a background of pink glittery flowers. I don’t know why, and I don’t know when it started, but a simple Google image search proves that this isn’t my own exclusive creation.


Yet, “Girl Power” isn’t a phrase I think of often. As a feminist, one would imagine the phrase would resonate with me, but some of the previously mentioned connotations had scared me off the term completely. It wasn’t until recently that I was reminded of its existence, from a most unlikely source: aCrystal Light Energy commercial.

If you haven’t seen it, the ad (above) features two women talking when one of them pulls out a drink which she describes as “new Crystal Light Energyfor women.”

My negative response to that statement matched her friends critical “Yeah right, ‘cuz we can’t have a guy’s energy drink.” I appreciated the (likely intentional) poke at Dr. Pepper’s attempt to advertise theirDr. Pepper “10″ drink as “not for women.” However, two wrongs don’t make a right, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this ad fell securely in the “wrong” category.

My intuition was accurate, as her doubtful friend is soon proved wrong in her criticism of the “girly” drink when her purse is stolen and her friend saves the day. The Crystal Light drinker chases the two thieves on their motorcycle through the city and into a desert, where she grabs back the purse and a narrator proudly explains that the drink is “Girl power to go.”

At this statement, the two men run away terrified, and I realized my problem with the ad. Girl power is shown as the worst fear of these idiotic men, placing feminism in a dichotomy against male integrity. But feminism – and true girl power – isn’t about putting men down, it’s about pulling women up until we’re all on the same level.

Beyond the polarizing gender divisions the commercial promotes, lies another problem: the commercial, under all its pretense of girl power, is for a diet drink. Part of the estimated $61 billion dollar industry designed to make both genders (though more often women) feel inferior – not empowered.

In the past few weeks, MissRepresentation.org has focused on the magazine industry’s creation of unhealthy body ideals for women in our #KeepItReal campaign. What we didn’t explore as closely, however, is that this Photoshop “industry standard” exists because of close ties between magazines and the advertisement industry.

One example of this link (that Naomi Wolf discusses in The Beauty Myth) is a prominent women magazine that lost one of their biggest advertisers, Clairol hair color company, after they featured gray-haired models in a fashion spread. The magazine never again positively portrayed gray-haired women. The same scenario plays out on an even larger scale with the diet industry.

So it struck me as a bit suspicious when I realized that the only other place I had heard the phrase “Girl Power” recently was in – you guessed it – magazines. Magazines filled with instructions on how to do our hair or “tighten our abs” or “get a guy”, because sexual power seems to be the only kind of girl power that matters. Or at least that’s the message I’ve been getting.

For instance, look at the portrayal of female Olympic athletes in major magazines. As Jezebeldiscussed, the Vogue spread “Wonder Women: Team USA’s Female Olympic Athletes” rarely portrayed the women athletically. Instead, the athletes were sexualized, mostly dressed in suggestive clothing unrelated to their sport. Soccer player Sydney Leroux (below) didn’t even have her face shown in her shot.

Despite their obvious physical power, the only “Girl Power” these women are portrayed as possessing is sexual. In contrast, the male athletes were shown doing their sports, often with female models as props.

The lack of consideration for other types of female empowerment reminded me of the recent Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercials, in which she declared that “Before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t.” Despite all of her achievements – American Idol, winning an Academy Award – without the sexual power of the “perfect” body, she had achieved nothing. (At least, that’s the disturbing undertone that critics protested, causing a new release of the ad that changed the line to “When it came to losing weight before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t.”)

This distorted view of girl power starts young. A line of power girl action figures from Mattel features provocatively dressed women with large breasts. The female superhero’s physical strength is implied, but they still can’t fight fully dressed.


From the toys kids play with to the bodies women strive for, “Girl Power” has become a packaged good, sexualized and sold to us from birth under the guise of feminism. The phrase has been so diluted (and bedazzled) that the only “power” it leaves girls with is the “power” to diet, or the “power” to conform to the degrading images society sells us. The problem is, girl power – or empowerment of any sort – isn’t something that can be bought. Empowerment is something that must be lived, and we can all start living by #NotBuyingIt and calling out these advertiser’s lies.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.

What Makes You Beautiful? Disturbing Messages In Pop Music

Originally published June 6, 2012 on MissRespresentation.org

Intern Rachel Grate looks at the scary messages for girls embedded in seemingly innocent pop songs

By Rachel Grate

In the length of my hour commute to work it’s not unusual to hear One Direction’s hit “What Makes You Beautiful” upwards of three times on the radio. The pop music phenomenon is just the most recent of a series of artists that have topped iTunes charts and captured the hearts of young girls everywhere. But have you ever listened beyond their catchy beats to focus on the lyrics?

“What Makes You Beautiful” begins with the observation that the girl is “insecure” and the band “don’t know what for.” However, despite the entire song essentially being a list of compliments, the band members never encourage the girl to stop being insecure. In fact, the chorus croons, “You don’t know you’re beautiful, Oh oh, That’s what makes you beautiful.”

The band is telling their target audience of teenage girls not to be confident in their appearance (even if they are as beautiful as the girl from the song), but to remain insecure because low self-esteem is literally “what makes you beautiful.” Is that really a healthy message for young girls to be absorbing?

Disturbed by this song that seemed permanently stuck in my head, I delved deeper into seemingly innocent pop music. Turns out Justin Bieber, the icon of the teen pop music scene, isn’t actually that innocent either. His songs seem to subtly imply that women can be bought, are a source of property, and that being showered with cash is all they need to be happy.

In his first hit, “One Time,” Bieber promises to give his girl “everything down to my last dime.” In “Baby,” Bieber tries to stop his girlfriend from breaking up with him by promising to “buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring.” In his newest hit, “Boyfriend,” he flaunts that “I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow/Swag swag swag on you.” Over and over again, his songs support the idea that women are just after men’s money and – judging by how many pre-teens wish he was their actual boyfriend – the message is sticking.

According to One Direction, what makes a girl beautiful is insecurity 

Admittedly, it can be a little difficult to take anything seriously in a song that includes the word “swaggie.” It may seem a bit nit-picky to be analyzing the misogyny in these light-hearted songs when so many other artists (from rap to rock) seem incapable of referring to women as anything other than “bitch”. (Even when Akon, with David Guetta, tries to “find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful,” the best he can do is “sexy bitch.”) So why bother focusing on these pop songs?

Because so many pre-teen girls listen to Justin Bieber that you can actually buy a bed cover with his face on it, or an entire Justin Bieber dental care set. Because these artists’ target audience are at an age where they are most vulnerable and most likely to take these messages as valid life advice. Because the fact that these messages are so subtle compared to those in some rap songs means that it’s actually more difficult to identify and avoid them.

It’s not just male pop singers sending these messages. In Orianthi’s hit “According to You,” she lists all the (disturbingly abusive) insults her boyfriend has hurled at her: stupid, useless, difficult, hard to please, a mess, boring, moody, inattentive and more. But instead of supporting girls to leave an emotionally abusive relationship because of their own self worth, her only defense against this boyfriend is that another boy thinks she’s “beautiful.” The whole song is defining her value according to other people – never once is her target audience given an example of generating healthy self-esteem based on their own thoughts.

I’d love to think that pop songs will change their tune and start encouraging girls’ self-confidence, but given their commercial success, it doesn’t seem likely. Even less likely is that “Beliebers” will suddenly cease to exist. What is possible, crucially so, is to make sure young girls are aware of these hidden messages. The secret is that you don’t have to stop enjoying catchy music to resist the messages it’s
implying.

Raising awareness is as simple as one car ride with my dad. “My Life Would Suck Without You” by Kelly Clarkson came on the radio, and I was singing along to the chorus (which is the title of the song).

“You should never be so emotionally dependent on someone to believe your life would suck without them,” my dad commented. “That’s unhealthy.”

I thought about it, I nodded in agreement, and I went back to belting out the song. Though my action stayed the same, my mindset, if only just a little bit, had changed for the better. And with enough little changes like that, girls will become conscious of these negative messages instead of absorbing them subconsciously.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.