Portrayal of Female “Vulnerability” in Music Videos by Jess Cosentino

Females have long been seen as the “weaker sex” and are often portrayed as needing a man to “make it” in the world and in society unless she wishes to be seen as a pariah. The word “vulnerability” has so many different meanings that I wanted to look at how it is shown across a few music genres, and also how it can be shown differently within the same genre, even by the same person. Since vulnerability is tied to being weak and susceptible to attack, I was able to see how nearly every aspect of the stereotypes against and of women, from sexuality to violence against women, ties in with being vulnerable.

I chose to start with this video because I believe it is the first I saw that had an explicit sexuality mixed in with undeniable vulnerability. With Miley, because of her past as a “good girl,” this video also pulls into question how strong the virgin/whore complex is in our society. Valenti talks about how, as a society, we like to put young, “pure” celebrities on pedestals just so we can enjoy their fall from grace (184). I’ve heard and read many call Miley a slut or a whore for doing a large majority of this video nude, but I think it is her way of showing her vulnerability. When someone is naked, there is nothing to hide behind, and more often than not, when a female is thought of as vulnerable, she is seen as soft, crying, and in need of a man to “fix” whatever is going on. However, although in her lyrics it is obvious she is speaking of an ended relationship, Miley is not the soft and compliant broken female. She breaks the norm when she walks around carrying a sledge hammer and then sits on top of a wrecking ball and swings on it. Unfortunately, there is also the norms present in this video as well. Any naked woman is going to be posed in such a way that it is appealing to men, which is seen when she is leaning back while swinging on the ball (Berger). The gaze is very obvious in this video, because even when Miley is clothed, towards the end of video, the camera moves up her body, starting at her feet, and shows pieces of her body as she is writhing on the ground. Society has now made it almost mandatory for any type of pain to be sexualized. If we can’t be what we can’t see, then what type of message are we sending to young women that saw Miley Cyrus go from a young girl as Hannah Montana on Disney Channel to a young woman who is expressing her pain and creativity in a way that is her choice (hopefully, but we won’t go down that road at this time) and we criticize her for it every chance there is (Newsom)? Shouldn’t she, as well as the rest of us, be able to express her vulnerability in her own way without fear of recriminations from others around us?
Another aspect I noticed happened around the 3 minute mark, when Miley slapped herself. This brings in the commonality of violence against women in music videos. It actually surprised me at first that she would do something like that to herself, especially when a slap to the face is seen as demeaning. It seems to me that without the presence of a man in the video with her, she has to perpetuate the stereotype herself. As we saw in Dreamworlds III, hip hop videos are notorious for it, but apparently this phenomenon traverses across pop videos as well.

While watching this, I noticed once again that vulnerability equated to being naked. At the very beginning of the video, as she is getting undressed, there are only glimpses of certain body parts that are being bared, making the gaze obvious of who this video was made to bring pleasure to. This point is even more enforced when Mikky Ekko comes in and is still fully clothed, yet is still supposed to be seen as vulnerable. I also noticed a very strong representation of the male/female binary as it correlates to the dominant/submissive binary. Whereas Rihanna was in the bathtub, naked, and moving sexually or curled up on herself, Mikky was sitting above the bathtub, seeming to assert his manliness and dominance without being overt about it. Subversive messages are the ones that are not always the easiest to spot, but are the ones that reinforce dominant and hegemonic views and thoughts.
In this video, everything Rihanna did was sexualized in some way, or meant to be seen as her being weak and broken and needing the man she was losing in order to survive. Even the lyrics say “I can’t live without you.” The desperation not only in her words but in her actions and appearance scream vulnerable female who can’t survive in this world without a man. Unfortunately, all videos and media messages like this just confirm, or push, what popular culture wants us to think.

In this video, I found the sexualization of vulnerability mostly absent. Yes, she was wearing a top with a plunging neckline, but everything was still properly covered. I have to wonder, since this is a country song, does that change the need to show vulnerability in a “sexy” way? Since I am a country fan, I have actually seen interviews about the makings of this video, and the producers actually wanted to do another take of it, but Kristian, the man, said he couldn’t watch her do it again because watching her cry, seeing all that emotion, was tearing at him (Kellner). Most of the video is focused on Jennifer, with just a black backdrop behind her. This lack of a “background” leaves only her to focus on, and I think that makes just as much of, if not bigger, an impact on the emotional vulnerability that she is showing. The sexualization of a woman is not present in this video, yet the vulnerability is strong. It is impossible to not feel her emotions as you watch the tears stream down her face and watch her unable to sing because she is crying.

In this video, it was interesting to see how violence against a woman was portrayed by a female singer. From what we saw in Dreamworlds III, the blatant violence towards women in hiphop videos is scary because that is the “norm.” While watching this video, it was shocking to see a woman, especially a black woman, take a gun and pull the trigger, killing a man in the middle of a square full of people. It wasn’t until the end of the movie that it all started making sense her reasoning behind what she did and then what she did made sense and it went against what society sees as normal; a rape victim is just that, a victim. But, even as racial masculinity was shown and the black man was going to take what he wanted whether she wanted it or not, she didn’t turn into a victim. She became a survivor and she took the steps she thought were needed to protect herself. It is the norm in our society that rapists get away with the deed because the one they preyed upon is too scared to speak out for fear of recriminations or being came after again. In this video, she breaks that vicious cycle and stands up for herself. She goes against the “victim” stereotype of someone who has been raped.

Before even watching this music video, I had heard this song many times on the radio, and looking at just the lyrics, this song takes a spin against the typical view of the “weak” female. In her words, “I was a zero, now I’m my own hero,” she shows that a woman does not need a man to save her and that it is possible for a woman to be her own savior (Kellner). Once I watched the video, I saw how female empowerment was made sexy. While there is the fact that she is sexualized in this video, the video doesn’t just use her body, but also the power within, showing that she is more than just a sex object, but can in fact take care of herself out in the middle of the jungle. At 3:15, it is clear she is now Queen of the Jungle, which is not seen very often as that spot is generally reserved for a man, but she worked hard and she earned that place. She even sat like a man, with her legs spread open, instead of crossed in the more feminine fashion. Even as feminine as she is, she still portrays types of masculine behaviors such as hunting and being the leader of the pack, so that even though she is a woman, she has had to take on typical “manly” traits to take care of herself. This video certainly mixes subtle hegemonic views with blatant disruptions to the norm.

As I was compiling these texts, I started with just a general idea of where I wanted to go, starting off first with “Wrecking Ball” since we had watched it in class and then going from there. Together, these videos give a wide view of how women in society are sexualized, as well as what vulnerability can, and often does, look like for women. While there were many dominant traits that are seen across pop culture as a whole, such as the virgin/whore dichotomy, objectification of women, and violence against women, there were also instances where these videos broke the mold. It is important for women to be able to see that they are not just objects for the pleasure of men, and that just because they are sexy, which women are, they are not just sexual beings here for the pleasure of men around them. The female empowerment was seen in one aspect or another in each of these videos, which shows that society is ready for a change in how women are viewed, since these songs and videos are so popular.
Putting these videos together, I noticed the differences, as well as the similarities, between the genres that were slightly surprising, but at the same time, were not. In class, we have extensively discussed ways to intersectionally critique a text that is in front of us, and the way that gender, sexuality, and race came together in these videos was something that made me realize how much we actually do this subconsciously already. As Berger talks about, all these women were made up and dressed (or not dressed) in a way that would be visually appealing to men. While there was no real interaction between a man and woman in these videos, the gaze was still ever present in the camera angles and the poses of the women. It seemed to be reasserting the idea that women in vulnerable positions affirms a man’s own masculinity, much like Mulvey talks about, with the “Fear of castration.” A woman being strong breaks the norm, which is why the last 2 videos were very oppositional and why they may have been the most important, because they show the real truth, that women are strong, that even from tragedy, strength can be found, and that vulnerability is not a weakness.
Pop culture likes to show a variety of different views into society, mostly by using ideologies and reinforcing them for coming generations, because change is scary (Lull). But, much as ideologies are ever changing according to the times, so must pop culture do the same. These videos go against the norm and push back against the inherent ideologies of our society in ways that are the first step to changing and reshaping those ideologies. As Confucious said long ago, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” These videos, that go against the norm, are society’s first step towards change, and hopefully, we will begin seeing less violence towards women and less objectification of them.

Works Cited
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Amelia Jones. 2nd ed.
New York: Routledge, 2010. 49-52.
Dreamworlds III. Dir. Sut Jhally. 2007. Online.
Kellner, Douglas. “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture.” Gender, Race, and Class in
Media:A Critical Reader
. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M Humez. 3rd ed. Los Angeles: Sage, 2011. 7-18. Print.
Lull, James. “Hegemony.” Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach. 1995. New York and
Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press. 61-65. Print.
Miss Representation. Dir. Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Girls’ Club Entertainment. 2011. Online.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader.
Ed. Amelia Jones. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. 57-65
Valenti, Jessica. “The Cult of Virginity.” In Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and
Contemporary Readings
. Susan Shaw and Janet Lee, eds. 2011. 5th Edition. Boston: McGraw
Hill. 181-185. Print.

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