God or Stripper? Little Mix, Ariana Grande, and Pop Music Subterfuge
For pop artists of 2018, music videos are perhaps as important as the song itself. This visual guide to the track contributes to the artist’s consumable personal brand. And when it comes to women’s public image, age-old capitalist lore dictates that SEX SELLS. So, I wonder, is it possible for modern female musicians to make successful videos without pandering (even just a smidge) to the male gaze? And, even as women who love a Sexy Getting Ready Song, are we satisfied with the media we’re consuming?
Recently, female pop artists have been making pretty interesting music videos centred around women’s perspectives. The videos for Beyoncé’s Hold Up and Dua Lipa’s New Rules combine playfulness and sexiness with a sense of female agency, strength, and in Bey’s case, even anger. Ariana Grande’s video for God is a woman is being hailed for a feminist reimagining of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. And just this November, Little Mix released a video (for their new single Strip) which showcases notable influencers and activists such as Megan Crabbe (aka bodyposipanda).
We’ve sure come a long way in the 20 years since Britney’s Baby One More Time first accosted our eyeballs.
From trans-rights advocate Maxim Magnus to Daughters of Eve co-founder Nimco Ali, Strip platforms certified champions of women’s equality and bodily autonomy. It’s celebratory and inclusive, and all underscored by a pop-y, sassy, sexy beat that would certainly get you dancing around your bedroom in your underpants before heading out to the club.
Ariana Grande and Little Mix are trojan horsing popular culture with their videos, packaging up feminist narratives in palatable pop music and sneaking it into mainstream media before anyone has a chance to cry “Viva la Patriarchy!”
And if that’s the case, this pop music subterfuge is pretty revolutionary, right?
Maybe. Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure if I’m completely on board with the brand of empowerment that these women are selling. Because let’s face it, they are selling something, and it’s for that exact reason that they won’t ever be quite as radical as women deserve.
For even as Grande promises to “strike down [...] in great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy [her] sisters”, she wears a helmet with cat ears while twirling a sledgehammer around in a way that feels more porno than divine. She spends half the video semi-submerged in pastel paint, showing just one perfect buttock, and employs a lascivious amount of coquettish under-the-lashes-eye-fucking of the camera.
There is something disappointingly false about the Little Mix lyric “take off all my make-up 'cause I love what's under it”, when all four singers in the video are glowing under the magic of a black-and-white filter, with perfect contouring and false eyelashes. The name ‘Strip’ seems to prove that even a song about diversity and body positivity can’t be sold unless it’s ultimately also about sex.
On the one hand, these women are using catchy melodies to smuggle a celebration of female confidence into the mainstream. On the other hand, they use sexiness as currency in a way that male artists are never expected to do. For this reason I feel that it’s women – and feminism – who are the victim of a subterfuge here. Perhaps these artists (or at least those directing their music videos) want it both ways - to cash in on a millennial love for hashtag social justice while appeasing the entrenched patriarchal ideals that have built society as we know it. Any agent worth their cut could tell you that a body positive music video in the current climate would be a magnet for press attention.
I say this, of course, with absolute love for any woman in the public eye making art that starts conversations about the way women are treated in the media. The last thing I want to do is tear these women down for using their platforms to change the narrative. Even so, I want us to resist the urge to become complacent.
Just because you can buy t-shirts branded with feminist slogans in H&M and our popstars are using body diversity to sell music, it does not mean we have won the fight for equality. What’s more, pandering to an ideal of sexiness that is rooted in male fantasy is not the same as the feeling of confidence that comes from realising your self-worth has nothing to do with men at all.
So, while we can thank Little Mix for giving those brilliant women in their video a deserved platform, let’s not be satisfied. We’re just not there yet. More than ever, we need networks and record labels to trust the fanbase, trust the kids, and let our pop culture reflect our generation’s true hankering for radical change.
In the meantime, you may as well stick on some Ariana Grande because if you’re gonna fight the patriarchy you may as well do so with a sexy getting ready song.
Title image from Strip. Little Mix.