In 1981, MTV was created as a way of delivering the hard-to-reach audience of adolescent white males to its advertisers, but it quickly became a product in and of itself, creating its own "aesthetic" that has been translated into other mediums like advertising, films and commercial television. Researcher Sut Jhally has argued that MTV has crossed over from being merely an avenue for the promotion of products to being a product itself which can communicate meaning and, therefore, ideology to its mass audience (Jhally 1991, 24). Although essentially mini-commercials for bands and their music, in the hands of devoted fans, music videos are played with like a puzzle, giving glimpses into a world created for the fans and sanctioned by the band. Once the fan has enough interviews, videos, and articles, she can piece together an entire "world" wherein she becomes the woman in the leading role: the woman in the video.
Since the beginning of MTV, images in music videos have borrowed from other mainstream media: photography, film, and theatre. Pornography is one of the "raw materials" borrowed and it cannot be divorced from its meaning in the larger culture. Andrea Dworkin has said that the first victim in pornography is the woman in the photograph (Dworkin 1994). Using 1980s video icons Duran Duran as an example, I extend her argument to ask what effect that image has on the audience, the female fans who follow popular music groups and consume music videos. By recognizing the pornographic qualities of these images, feminists and other educators will have a way not only to discuss their harm, but also to work to disempower them. This paper considers how pornographic ideology and conventions have been reproduced in music video and, thus allowed to invade mainstream consciousness. Because pornography harms real women by both its impact and creation of sexual stereotypes, music videos repeat this ideological content and harm by replicating these images.
The feminist analysis of pornography is not about "obscenity" or "sexual explicitness," but is grounded in an image's use of violence against women, degrading poses, objectification of women's bodies (or body parts), and the reduction of women's status to that of sexual object available for the accessibility or conquest by the (male) viewer (Kittay 1980, 147; Longino 1983, 45). By divorcing the definition of pornography from sexual explicitness, feminists have not only moved away from the traditional obscenity approach which is favored by conservative activists who are not concerned with the status of women, but also inched closer to creating a useful definition which extends to advertising and so-called "soft core" images. By foregrounding the pornographic nature of video images, we are able to address their harm, putting them on a continuum with other forms of pornography which feminists are confronting.
As Playboy functions as a way for young men to "learn" about sex, so too has MTV become a way for young women (and men) to do the same. More than merely importing pornographic conventions (poses, camera angles, and so forth), the commodification of sexuality is central to the creation of most music videos. Sexualized representations of women in videos partially define sex for the larger culture, viewers, and popular music fans. And the "sex" of pornography and music video is the objectification of women, the sexually explicit depiction of women's subordination, and the eroticization of (female) submission and (male) dominance.
According to Luce Irigaray, women live in a society where "selfhood" is defined by other's (namely men's) use of her: her image, her sexuality, her very being. In "The Looking Glass, from the Other Side," Irigaray writes that the image Alice sees in the mirror--her representation--is never an honest replication of herself, but one always mutated by external factors (Irigaray 1985, 17). Analyzing the use of women's bodies in music video and educating women about how to read and thus disempower those false representations of ourselves is one way, as Irigaray urges, of "pushing through to the other side," of escaping the male fantasy and commodity system that paralyzes women's sense of self.
The 1981 video for Duran Duran's first successful American single, "Girls
on Film", illustrates the pornographic convention of "bits
and pieces" as defined by Annette Kuhn. In this video, the camera
continually emphasizes one particular body part of a woman in order
to sexualize that "piece" of her. Kuhn argues that such representation
is a gesture of dehumanization because one part of the woman is made
to stand for the whole person. The model, quite literally, is her breasts,
her buttocks, and even her hands or feet--whatever body part the camera
chooses to linger on and sexualize. Even though her entire body might
appear in the photo, the woman is not seen as a whole person but a collection
of "parts" to be penetrated and (ab)used sexually.
The band members are active during the video by virtue of playing their instruments, but even if the women are shown moving, narrowing in on a part of her leg or her breasts, the action is stopped. The camera dissects her body and subsequently produces a level of passivity not repeated with the men.
In the pornographic convention Kuhn calls "caught unawares," women are depicted without men--either in a group or by themselves--and looking away from the camera as if they have been caught by a "peeping tom." Part of the reason that men do not appear in this way in videos is that the spectator of the music video is usually constructed as male. This does not mean, however, that women are not an intended audience for this type of video, but instead all viewers are taught to see these videos through the "male gaze."
One example of the way in which female fans learn male spectatorship lies in Duran Duran's repetition of the video "The Chauffeur" throughout their career. Shot with black and white film and borrowing the style of fashion photographer Helmut Newton, "The Chauffeur" is a male fantasy of a lesbian encounter. But by citing and repeating this video throughout their 18-year career, Duran Duran tell their fans that this image of women and sex is privileged in their minds. To the average viewer, this may mean nothing. But to a devoted fan, this priviledged image is a clue to what the "band" likes, and, as one of the primary functions of rock music and videos, this clue is used to establish the consumer's identity. The line of reasoning follows that if "The Chauffeur" is "sex," then a portion of the female fans will accept this definition of "sex" (i.e., that it is always for the male gaze and enjoyment).
Through the genre of "caught unawares," the male spectator is
to remain in control because the woman in the picture can never return his gaze.
In fact, women in the videos are rarely portrayed with the "power" to look directly into
camera, to meet its gaze or the gaze of the "viewer" on the other
side. The male position as voyeur, therefore, is rarely challenged or rejected.
The "caught unawares" convention creates a world in which women are
not only available for sexual access and use, but are willing, as well.
Along with women's inability to challenge the male gaze, these images allow the spectator to watch women in an intimate moment without guilt. Engaged in the action, the women do not notice or pay attention to the viewer, eliminating his fear of being caught. She holds no power in this scenario, especially when the "he" is the eye behind the camera. Once viewed, she will always be "caught unawares" and sexually available to him, if only in his mind. This reemphasizes the feminist argument that pornography is the colonization of women for privatized and unlimited sexual access by men.
This genre of pornography produces lesbian scenarios for (mostly)
heterosexual viewers. These scenarios are oftentimes stereotypical and, therefore,
bring with them another level of harm, that of heterosexist and homophobic assumptions
of lesbianism. Although the "caught unawares" convention is supposedly
confronting the question of what do women do when they are alone, homophobia
precludes any displays of affection between women.
Although acting out a lesbian scenario, the women in "The Chauffeur" do not exist for the enjoyment of one another, but for that of the male chauffeur/voyeur. This reinforces Irigaray's argument that in the economy of sexual exchange of women within patriarchy, female homosexuality is forbidden or elusive. Irigaray writes that female homosexuality is "recognized only to the extent that it is prostituted to man's fantasies. Commodities can only enter into relationships under the watchful eyes of their 'guardians' " (Irigaray 1985, 196).
In a recent Duran Duran tour program, I read the phrase "I am the eye, you are my victim." This one phrase sums up the position of women in pornography and music video. Whoever controls the "eye"--whether that is defined as the camera, the gaze, or the image--also controls the "victim"--the subject, the photographer's fetish object, most notably women.
As long as female fans of pop groups are spending hours pouring over video images of what women "should be" by patriarchy's standards, and feminists refuse to confront the power of these images because they are defined as popular culture and not significant enough for academic inquiry or activism, then Duran Duran will continue to be the "eye" and the female fan base its "victim." Women's sexuality will continue to be defined by pornographers, video directors, and musicians.
Confronting these constructed images, whether in an academic or activist setting,
us to begin moving beyond the consumers' side of the screen. By opening up the
of pornography to include mainstream images of women, such as those found in
music video, we have at least one way of assessing the harm done by the reality these
instead of simply seeing images of women reflected back upon us and accepting
the projection found in music video, we can teach women to deconstruct and question
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