By Madison Ann Baker
Music and sexism are inextricably intertwined.
From the objectification of women in lyrics and to the exploitation of female artists of color, sexism is woven into every thread of the tapestry that is the music industry. Despite the widespread MeToo movement and the universal nature of fourth-wave feminism, sexism still runs rampant throughout the music industry and has even begun to manifest in new ways.
Pop singers do not often receive the same flak for being sexist that rap, hip-hop, and R&B artists do, but their treatment of women is problematic and harmful to women for different reasons. In particular, pop songs about female beauty performed by male artists, like “Just The Way You Are” by Bruno Mars or “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction, are insidious in their depictions of women.
These catchy, upbeat songs hide something darker underneath: the fact that women are only valued for their looks, especially when that beauty is appreciated by men. In both Mars’ and One Direction’s songs, they comment on being attracted to the nameless woman’s physical characteristics: her eyes, smile, hair, or face. Absolutely no mention of her personality, accomplishments, interests, goals, or talents — just her appearance.
Both songs take on an almost condescending tone, as the singers believe the unnamed subject does not realize that she’s beautiful until they tell her so. These songs even imply that the woman does not have any confidence in herself until a man calls her beautiful. They completely take agency away from the woman by assuming what she’s feeling and that they can “solve” the supposed problem by singing to her. And who says the female subjects even wanted the men, or anyone else for that matter, to comment on their appearances anyway?
By simply referring to the subject of the song as “you,” any person can imagine that Mars or One Direction is singing about or to them. Though they have seen widespread success, these songs and artists are popular with young girls in particular. These songs send an unhealthy message to impressionable young girls that they must be “more beautiful” than other girls, which can lead to a number of mental health issues.
Rutgers University notes that teenage girls can develop body image issues and depression by comparing themselves to others online, especially those perceived as more attractive. Targeting a developing demographic with toxic media leads to another generation of oppressed women. When focusing on a young audience, these songs can even be interpreted as slightly predatory.
Though these songs are designed to make all women feel like they are beautiful, it’s time to abandon the notion that women have to be beautiful at all. The social standard of beauty is narrow and exclusionary — able-bodied, thin, small facial features, straight hair, and white skin — and the overwhelming majority of women in the world do not meet this Eurocentric standard. Reinforcing the notion that women must be beautiful erases physical diversity and can lead to lifelong issues with low self-esteem.
These songs, and others like them, cloak layers of misogyny under a flimsy cover of body positivity. Messages like this detract from the importance of that powerful movement, contribute to rape culture, and negatively affect women everywhere. Worst of all, some men have twisted the meaning of these movements and contorted it to fit their own desires. Under the guise of empowerment, they encourage women to embrace their beauty and sexuality in the hopes that women will be interested in them romantically or sexually. Ultimately, both artists do not care for the wellbeing of their female subjects; they simply want to be romantically involved with the woman.
In this context, these artists are simply men performing feminism for their own benefit and likely need to think critically about how they should view and treat women. All men may benefit from the systematic oppression of women, but by examining their own beliefs and behaviors, they can work against the biases of themselves and others.
In comparison, the way female artists portray the empowerment of women in pop songs offers a stark contrast. Songs such as “Perfect” by Pink, “Girl On Fire” by Alicia Keys, or “Roar” by Katy Perry showcase agency of the subject, inner strength, determination, self-forgiveness, and acceptance of mistakes and flaws. The male gaze limits women, and when female artists have the chance to express their views on what makes a woman beautiful, they can explore the depths of female power.
Keep in mind that people can still listen to and enjoy these songs. If people rejected all imperfect or problematic media, there would be no music to listen to, books to read, or movies to watch. No one should blindly consume media; instead, they should build up their media literacy, examine things with a critical eye, and not make excuses for a piece of media simply because it’s enjoyable. That said, male artists can and should do better in their portrayals of women in pop music. Women and girls should be treated as human beings whose entire being is worthy of respect, because that’s exactly who we are.
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Madison Ann Baker is a writer, Netflix-binger, and pop culture enthusiast who lives in Idaho. Literature and linguistics are her two passions, both of which she studied in college. In her free time, she enjoys hiking with her Borador, Dash, and re-reading Harry Potter.