Images of women in pop music: which is worse?


I’m not a feminist. At least I don’t think I am. But I’ve noticed two distinct types of woman in pop music recently, and I’m wondering which is worse. I’d be interested to hear what you think on this topic.

The first portrayal is the obvious one: women as sexual objects. We’re not exactly stuck for examples here –  Lady GaGa riding an inflatable dolphin, Beyonce waggling her gusset around in the video for Single Ladies, and let’s not forget that dance video with all the babes exercising in lycra outfits.

The second treatment of women is less blatant. It’s embedded in the lyrics of songs. Let me quote Miss [[Taylor Swift]] as she approaches the climax of her Love Story video:

He knelt to the ground, pulled out a ring and said
”Marry me Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone
I love you and that’s all I really know”

What a classic lyric – marry me or you’ll get left on the shelf a lonely old hag. What a freakin’ charmer! Let’s have a look at Beyonce Knowles, surely the embodiment of the independent 21st Century woman? In Single Ladies, she’s telling the men that if they want to keep their women, they need to be marrying them, or at least show you’re serious through the universal currency of jewellery.

Perhaps a suitable response is: if you like it, you shoulda took a swing on it. Sorry, couldn’t resist 🙂

Role Model?

Part of the inspiration for writing this post is that I’m the father of a young daughter who’s increasingly listening to pop music.

Which is the best role model for a little girl: the frenzied jiggling of Beyonce, or the passive, Disney Princess shite that Taylor Swift in singing? Lyrically, both are giving out unrealistic expectations. Is marriage the right direction for every relationship? Divorce statistics would suggest otherwise.

Too Serious?

Whenever I do a post like this, someone always complains that I’m taking music too seriously. I think sometimes it pays to take a second look though.

I cringe whenever I think my daughter might spend a percentage of her life fantasising about the Princess syndrome. Handsome princes are a dime a dozen in fiction, but they’re thin on the ground in real life. The lyric from Love Story I quoted above makes me angry for the implication: “If you don’t marry me, you’ll spend your life alone.” Hell, faced with a proposal like that, I’d run away!

On the other hand, Beyonce’s music seems to promote a more independent spirit for young women. But if you scratch the surface, it’s quite anti-men. Girls group together and bitch about what deadbeats their men are. Take for example Irreplaceable in which the aforementioned deadbeat has sponged off her while cheating on her. And back in the Destiny’s Child days, Bills Bills Bills told a similar story of a lazy man who was just there to sponge money off our Beyonce.

From a musical perspective, I enjoy all of the songs I’ve mentioned. But sometimes I wonder about how women view themselves in these videos and songs. It’s either starry eyed fantasy or man-hating nonsense.

What’s your view?

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  1. Doc Mallard

    I Couldn’t agree more, as a father of a young daughter I feel the same way,  where are the great role models in pop?  If you build in unrealistic expectations of life, disappointment is made all the more likely. 

    Personally, the Disney princess is the more disturbing.  I am all for aspiration,  but it should be tempered with a spoon of reality.  I work on a large local authority estate and the prevalence of Disney princesses there beggers belief.  It appears to me that the whole princess ethos is one of “I shouldn’t have to work to get what I deserve”.  Sadly life is rarely that simple.  Unless these young women marry a footballer, their lives are more likely to revolve around the harsh reality of tedious low paid jobs and early motherhood. 

    With regard to the Beyonce bunch, this unfortunately is more realistic (what does this say about male role models?).  Kate Bush might have been bonkers, but she did show people that she was herself and not conforming to someone else’s view of womenhood.  Oh, and she still looked fantastic!


  2. priyabhakta

    So I’m paraphrasing your first sentence but you totally are which is a great thing, particularly as a father. It’s clear you think about these things and want your daughter to grow up knowing her mind and her choices and realise she doesn’t have too fit into some vapid portrayal we see increasingly in the media and can equal any man. It’s not something all parents have and it’s a great quality to have 🙂

  3. Gerard McGarry

    I’m paraphrasing your first sentence but you totally are which is a great thing, particularly as a father.

    Thanks for that – it’s sweet of you to say so! The thing is, I do think a lot about how we socially condition our children. Do I want my daughter skipping around singing “Someday my Prince will come…”? No. And even though I’m married, I don’t want her to think that it’s necessary or inevitable that she needs to get married someday herself.

    Because, if I’m honest, I believe marriage breeds complacency in a relationship. But that’s a whole other story, and if I can tie it into entertainment somehow, I will (one day).

    I’m not a total feminist though – I can still appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the Pussycat Dolls! But I still wonder about Christina Aguilera’s claim that wearing next to nothing is a symbol of empowerment…

  4. priyabhakta

    I’m not a total feminist though – I can still appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the Pussycat Dolls!

    Oh please, you think feminists can’t objectify? You should know from me that’s not true! But the fact is you know the worth of women isn’t based on looks alone.

    And part of our reactions to women like Taylor Swift and Beyonce, as well as all women in the public eye, is about objectification. Somewhat unrelated but I don’t know if you read any of the articles about Barbie earlier this year (there was a huge flurry coinciding with her 50th ‘birthday’) but there was a great one by Sarah Haskins in which she talked about her feelings towards Barbies:

    Barbie. Happy 50th. You haven’t had it easy, serving as both the template for idealized female beauty and a lightning rod for controversy. So, congrats on weathering the storm. And since we’re talking: I need to tell you something. — In the debate over whether you and your pronounced bosom, platinum blond locks and teetering stature have objectified women, well, I objectified you. Wherever and whenever I could.

    What I’m trying to get at is that we are constantly bombarding with these images but kids are smart and, for the most part, can tell the difference between a dream and reality. Or maybe I’m just trying to justify myself because I constantly eat this stuff up and would like to believe I didn’t turn out too bad 😉


    Edit: Sorry, I know I’m going off-topic but I just read this interview with Susie Orbach on The Guardian website on body image which you may be interested in.

  5. priyabhakta

    Whenever I do a post like this, someone always complains that I’m taking music too seriously.

    I think music is serious though.’Entertainment’ is general is serious because it’s such a key part of society and it does influence your emotions and your beliefs. And this sort of music is what’s in the minds and hearts of young girls and women. That Beyonce song annoyed me no end because it does suggest that a woman needs commitment to prove her self-worth.

    The Taylor Swift song annoyed me more because of how much it’s been played and the general overkill. With Love Story it’s definately a fantasy – I think it’s a bit unfair to accuse her of ‘giving out unrealistic expectations’ – I think the whole point of it is that it’s a love story and no one expects them to be true. She herself, as a nineteen year-old, is not a terrible role model for young women – she shows that they can be themselves and achieve their dreams without have to dress like they belong in a Playboy magazine.


    …sometimes I wonder about how women view themselves in these videos and songs. It’s either starry eyed fantasy or man-hating nonsense.

    Most of all I just think there’s a point when women realise that they kind make up there own mind and pick and choose which bits of their role models that they want to take to heart and, most of all, they can be their own role models.

    I was walking home the other day and listening to Polly Scattergood’s song Other Too Endless and, in all her songs, there’s usually one lyric I want to cling too, the lyric that I think makes the song – which got got me thinking about favourite lyrics. A lot of them were by women and about relationships but I don’t think they’re all ‘starry eyed fantasy or man-hating nonsenseat all. In fact I’d say they were about heartbreak,  self-doubt and self-loathing. Here’s a small sample;

    And I gave you my body and when I said I did I meant it, and you gave me your anger and for that I’m still trying to vent it and that hurts, I give up.” (Other Too Endless Polly Scattergood)

    “You’re spending Saturday alone drowning heartache out with cheap red wine.” (Juliet (Keep That in Mind) Thea Gilmore)

    It’s breakfast, it’s lunchtime, it’s dinnertime, spent with all those women’s magazines that tell you you’re not as fine as you look.” (No One Takes You Home, Kathryn Williams)

    “The young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye. She said, ‘You won’t understand, and you may as well not try’. But her face was a child’s, and he thought she would cry, but she closed herself up like a fan.” (The Queen and the Soldier, Suzanne Vega)

    I know for each of these there are a half a dozen ones which have the values you mentioned but once you get to a certain place I don’t think those ones mean as much to you and you do continue growing and changing well after your formative years.

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