Maroon 5’s “Animals”—How Cultural Stereotypes Mask the Message

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 4.20.22 PMBy Allison Epstein

It would take some searching to find an American with a radio who hasn’t heard a song or two off V, Maroon 5’s latest album. It’s packed with the kind of earworm tracks that wiggle into your head and refuse to leave. Full disclosure: “Maps” has been stuck in my head since about mid-August. But with the release of the band’s latest music video, I’ve got a nasty taste in my mouth. It tastes like unchecked male and privileges. And my life soundtrack could do without either of those things.

The “Animals” video really is a case study in terrible, tone-deaf artistic decisions. For a cringe-ridden four and a half minutes, lead singer Adam Levine wanders around a few steps behind a woman as she goes about her business. It culminates in what is presumably meant to be a hot makeout session, while blood rains down from the ceiling in the strangest riff on Flashdance I’ve ever seen. The video also features cutaways to Levine in a butcher’s shop fondling Rocky-esque cuts of meat, which threw me for a minute until I arrived at this gross conclusion: “Oh. He thinks women are pieces of meat he can have whenever he wants, so if he can’t have his girlfriend he may as well hump a slab of beef.”

Ick. Thanks, People’s Sexiest Man 2013. I’m sure your female fan base appreciates the sentiment.

Reinstating a tiny bit of my faith in the universe, the Internet is up in arms against this. In the words of Katherine Hull Fliflet, vice president of communications at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN),

“Maroon 5’s video for ‘Animals’ is a dangerous depiction of a stalker’s fantasy—and no one should ever confuse the criminal act of stalking with romance. The trivialization of these serious crimes, like stalking, should have no place in the entertainment industry.”

There’s been plenty written about how true this is. The age-old defense of “art for art’s sake” is tough to swallow when over 1 million women are stalked annually in the US. 81% of women stalked by a current or former partner are later physically assaulted by that partner, and 31% are also sexually assaulted by that same partner. Makes this blood-dripping video feel a little less “edgy,” a little less “artsy.”

Unfortunately, feminists aren’t exactly treading new ground pointing out this strange false-equivalence between art and misogyny. In 2011, Adios Barbie spearheaded a coalition petitioning Universal Music Group and MTV to pull the video for Kanye West’s track “Monster,” which featured dead women scattered, sprawled, and hanging from the set with stomach-churning disregard for female humanity. We were successful in convincing MTV and VH1 not to show the video. Still, the disclaimer over “Monster”‘s final cut should stun everybody, but will surprise nobody:

“The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people. It is an art piece and should be taken as such.”

Skimming the comments under Maroon 5’s video or articles written about it, variations on this theme aren’t hard to find. “It’s art, don’t take it so seriously.” “It’s a fantasy, it’s not real.” “The only offensive thing about this video is Adam Levine’s awful falsetto.” I’ll rest my case on the falsetto, but just as free speech and hate speech aren’t the same thing, art and misogyny aren’t interchangeable terms. Just because you use cool camera angles and a pop hook that, as I write this, is still stuck in my head, dammit, that doesn’t mean you can project with impunity messages of hate, discrimination, or tired status-quo tropes of casual domestic violence.

I’m not suggesting that Maroon 5 is a band full of stalkers or supporters of intimate partner violence. However, Levine’s demographic (straight, cis, male, white, and economically well-off) is statistically less likely to experience sexual violence or stalking (though it does happen). This said, he does have the privilege of not having to think about these issues day in and day out.

There are those who do, however. I can’t tell you the number of my friends who carry pepper spray in their purses, take self-defense classes so they can feel confident returning alone from a night class, or walk home with their keys between their knuckles, just in case. For these people, and for the one in six women and one in nineteen men who will experience intimate partner stalking during their lifetime, it’s unlikely that watching a man follow a woman into a bar, down the street, into her bedroom, and then into a blood-soaked sex sequence is going to do anything constructive for them artistically.

There’s another reason the “Animals” video thinks it can get away with projecting a stalker’s fantasy as art, though: because it can. Adam Levine doesn’t fit society’s profile of a relationship abuser, stalker, or perpetrator of sexual violence. Even though two-thirds of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, media coverage and racial biases (individually cultivated and socially indoctrinated) encourage us to believe in the “young black male phenomenon.”

We’re told implicitly and explicitly that if someone is sexually assaulted, more likely than not a black male between the ages of 18 and 25 jumped out of the bushes after dark at the victim. From the media’s reliance on the loaded word “thug” as a descriptor for young black men to the constant pearl-clutching panic of the effects of rap music on our cultural mentality, violence in all its forms has been coded as a black problem.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Mass media is quick to paint Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin as “thugs” or threats based on their appearance, implying as they do so that their deaths were, if not necessary, at least easily explained. White suspects of mass murders are frequently portrayed more positively than black victims. The cases of sexual violence that make it to the front pages of tabloids feature young conventionally beautiful white women, though minorities and native women in particular are more likely to be attacked. Why? Because that’s the story we’re coded to expect. Do we think for a second a video with a young black male in Levine’s role following a young white woman would have made it off the drawing board?

We need to speak up when unchecked white or male privilege is used to the detriment and oppression of marginalized groups, no matter how much easier it is to shrug and say “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.” If we don’t watch it, it won’t go away. That’s not how this works. Calling out a public figure when they make a mistake (and this is a mistake) doesn’t make you a fun-sucking feminist or someone who can’t take a joke. It means you want to hold the media you consume to a higher standard.

We’ll see what the band’s response is in the coming days. For my part, I hope it’s less tone-deaf than the video

One thought on “Maroon 5’s “Animals”—How Cultural Stereotypes Mask the Message

  1. I kind of like the song because of the catchy tune, but the lyrics unnerved me quite a bit and the music video really disturbed me – it did indeed strike me as creepy and abusive, almost saying that he had a right to the woman, and if she won’t pair up with him, she needs to be stalked until she does. I actually had no idea that stalking was a crime – thank you, Adios, Barbie! I really don’t think that my contemporaries responded to the video in the same way as I did – hoping that the woman was able to go to the police and call him out, get professional help and lots of support from her friends and family, and managed to stay safe. I also thought that the sex scene looked a lot like rape, and she looked pretty scared when she looked at him in the butcher’s shop at the beginning. I secretly hoped that he was going to be so busy giving her intimidating stares that he would forget to notice where the knife was going and cut his fingers, which only goes to show how vindictive I can be sometimes. I shall conclude this rant by saying that I hope Maroon 5 are listening and that their next video, if they don’t change this one, will be a lot less disturbing.

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