A "Blurred Lines" parody video in which men dance shirtless was briefly removed from YouTube after being flagged as "inappropriate," sending a clear message that the idea of women dominating submissive men is unsuitable.
Tsion Abera is a freshman at Dartmouth College and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.
Date rape, nudity, sexual objectification, and the hottest song of the summer: In March, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” music video, featuring Pharrell and T.I., was released on YouTube. The song is said to perpetuate rape culture by rejecting the concept of clear sexual consent.
The song’s lyrics include “You’re an animal,” and “I hate these ‘Blurred Lines’ / I know you want it.” Rather than viewing women as actual human beings, Thicke portrays women as animals starved for sexual gratification; the “blurred lines” between consent and rape prevent intercourse.
The video has received even more negative attention from feminists and others, because in it three topless women are seen dancing and posing, while the three men—Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I.—are seen well-dressed, in suits. The video demonstrates a clear power dynamic, in which the men are dominant and the women are treated simply as sex objects.
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In response, law students Adelaide Dunn, Olivia Lubbock, and Zoe Ellwood created a parody of “Blurred Lines.” “Defined Lines” is a feminist twist on the tune that calls for social change and respect for women. “Defined Lines” reverses the roles of sexual exploitation and promotes women’s empowerment rather than submissive objectification of the kind seen in the original video. The “Defined Lines” video features three shirtless men in boxers who are dancing and serving three dressed women while they deconstruct the notion of male dominance.
In early September, “Defined Lines” was removed from YouTube after being flagged as “inappropriate.” Though the parody was later returned to YouTube, the damage was already done. The removal of “Defined Lines” sent a message that the idea of women dominating submissive men is unsuitable because of societal gender roles that portray women as submissive to men. Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video sexually objectifies women and includes topless women dancing. The “Defined Lines” parody mirrors Thicke’s video with male dancers. So why was “Defined Lines” taken off YouTube, but “Blurred Lines” wasn’t?
While objectifying women in music videos is socially acceptable, the same standard held toward men is “inappropriate.” The objectification of women in the music industry has become a widespread trend in society. Hip-hop and pop videos include racy clothing and actions. These music videos often demonstrate a misogynistic gender dynamic. Oftentimes, women are seen dancing on men as the men sing about wealth, sex, and power. Too many male artists—many of them at the top of their genres—join Robin Thicke in being notorious for the objectification of women in their music videos.
In addition to male artists sexually objectifying women, female artists use their own sex appeal to increase viewers and profit. A study by the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science concluded, “It has been known that music videos featuring male artists often sexually objectify women, but our study shows that many female artists are objectifying themselves in their music videos.”
To this I say, a woman’s body is her own. Women have every right to do with their bodies as they please. Women have every right to wear—or not wear—whatever they want. Even so, the double standard of power dynamics in music videos is troubling.
In particular, the double standard is blatantly obvious with the temporary removal of the “Defined Lines” parody video. Male domination in music videos has become a social norm in which men are seen as powerful and women are seen as submissive sex objects. This social norm is reflected in music lyrics such as those sung by Robin Thicke, who, in his song, blatantly promotes date rape. In temporarily removing the “Defined Lines” parody, YouTube reaffirmed the dangerous idea that women are submissive objects while men are rightfully dominant.
The fact that the “Defined Lines” video was removed even for a brief time is a clear indication of how welcoming music videos are to the idea of women in charge.
It's irresponsible to point to a character with a large chest or a perky butt as a problem, because that implies women are responsible for the patriarchal notion that makes these things problematic. But we do need to move away from stereotypes altogether to create characters that do not fit into the same tired box.
The roles of female characters in games has been a topic of conversation among feminists and gamers alike for years, but the issue has gained steam in the past two years, partly because of Anita Sarkeesian’s video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games.” The series, which launched in 2013 in an effort to explore the most common uses of women in video games, has caused contention between people both inside and outside the gaming community, particularly among those who denied the fact that women were misrepresented in games and who felt like Sarkeesian was trying to slander the gaming community and culture by bringing these issues to light.
Sarkeesian is arguing for more complex female representation, a point reinforced by the prevalence of the hypersexualized heroine, a trope that has caught my attention over the years and includes characters like Lara Croft of Tomb Raider that have a typical male character’s strength combined with a typical female character’s sexual appeal. Growing up with games, I’ve watched as female characters have become less submissive and more powerful and complex, as games have evolved with the advancement of technology and widespread popularity among both men and women.
The hypersexualized heroine trope is the most interesting because it is, in my opinion, the most conflicting; it allows female characters to show strength and have their own complex storyline, but it also objectifies them. Because the trope both breaks convention (allowing a woman to save the day) and reinforces stereotypes (it hasn’t provided for a complete breakdown, and reimagining, of the patriarchal system), it’s the perfect example of why games must break away from clichéd writing to create more complex characters.
To be sure, not all sexual female protagonists are necessarily “unfeminist.” It’s irresponsible to point to a character with a large chest or a perky butt as a problem, because that implies women are responsible for the patriarchal notion that makes these things problematic. But we do need to move away from stereotypes altogether to create characters that do not fit into the same tired box. This will help eliminate binaristic gender roles and improve the ways in which people are able to define their sexual and gender identities in games.
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The archetype of this trope came about at a time when female characters were included in games mostly as “rewards” for the player reaching a goal. One of the most notable examples is Princess Peach from the Mario franchise.
For some, then, the hypersexualized heroine represented a step forward, largely because games with female protagonists were so rare. The heroine became the antithesis of the submissive damsel-in-distress characters that came before her, because she was both powerful and independent; she could save herself. She was challenging gender norms, at least when it came to traditional, subordinate roles. And, at a time when most game developers were using their characters to display strength as a masculine trait and physical appeal as a feminine trait, I found it to be inspiring to see a female character encompass both.
Research has even proven that female players find empowerment and appeal in female characters who are physically strong and attractive. In a study that focused on the importance of gender representation in gaming, researchers interviewed women who ranged from “power gamers” (defined in the study as those who play three to over ten hours a week) to non-gamers. When allowed the ability to customize their own characters, a common feature in MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) and RPGs (role-playing games), the study showed that power gamers were more likely to create female characters that were both sexy and strong. One participant said, “It’s that I want [a sexy character] to be my own fantasy, not [the male player’s fantasy].”
And that is exactly what stops the sexy-powerful trope from being as empowering as it could be. Many characters in games are still designed primarily to appeal to heterosexual men. Women fantasize too, yet they are not catered to nearly as much as their male counterparts. The women interviewed in the aforementioned study want the ability to customize their heroine like players are able to do in Fable, World of Warcraft, and other RPGs—though some RPGs have been accused of pandering to only heterosexual men in terms of female costume designs. But not every game can allow for a customizable heroine; some narratives call for one that’s tailor-made for the game. The bottom line is that game developers need to work harder at creating more variety when it comes to female characters.
One issue with hypersexualized heroines is that they are created solely to appeal to white heterosexual male players, and thusly, as stated by Dymphna on Gaming As Women, “a naked woman—a young, slender, busty white woman—is our [society’s] visual shorthand for sex.” While it’s likely that women can also be attracted to this type of character, having this as default when it comes to sex appeal limits who and what is considered appealing, perpetuating all sorts of “isms,” including ableism, racism, and lookism. Not to mention, allowing this to be the dominant way to portray female heroines implies that sex appeal is what differs a female protagonist from a male one, as if sexuality is the only way to sell a game featuring a female heroine. This may be due to the gaming industry’s fear of trying to reach outside of its “core” demographic, even though women make up 45 percent of all gamers.
The dangerous myth that female protagonists don’t sell well (the truth is that female protagonists aren’t given the same amount of marketing support) has forced most female heroines to give in to the heterosexual—and white—male demographic. The ideal woman becomes one who is extremely aggressive and attractive, which is commonly attributed to Lara Croft during her first appearance in Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft is the hero of the Tomb Raider franchise. Though the game is not the first to feature a female protagonist, Tomb Raider’s legacy, because of Croft, has made a lasting imprint on the gaming industry, as well as on heroines who have followed in its footsteps. With her debut in 1996, Lara Croft was an athletic, quick-witted adventurer. Wielding her signature dual pistols, one on each hip, Croft was a force to be reckoned with. But despite her heroic abilities in the games, Croft’s most memorable trait in advertisements became her body: her large chest and tiny waist. Eidos Interactive (now known as Square Enix), which owns the rights to Croft, took her overly sexual appearance and ran with it. Soon after the game entered the market, images of Croft in cocktail dresses and bikinis were seen in advertising for all types of businesses, from Visa to GQ magazine; her sexuality became a money-making machine. There’s a series of commercials for Tomb Raider II titled “Where The Boys Are.” One commercial features a dancer in a strip club, popping bubble gum and adjusting her shoe. She is bored. There are no customers for her to entertain because the boys are inside playing Tomb Raider II. Who needs a strip club when there’s Croft, the advertisement implies, even when sexuality has nothing to do with the plot of Tomb Raider? The commercial further reinforces that Croft’s strength and agency are nothing compared to her physical attractiveness.
Still, despite this blatant sexism, some game critics find themselves in debates over whether it is misogynistic or not to simplify a woman down to her sex appeal just to sell a game with a female protagonist. Dr. Christina Sommers, host of the YouTube series Factual Feminist, says it isn’t, because “the game industry knows its market.” Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research who gained notoriety among gamers when she released the video “Are Video Games Sexist?” that denies games’ sexism and condemns feminists for thinking so.
In a recent interview with APG Nation, Sommers stated that censoring sexualized female characters is “sexist—against men.” She admits the overuse of hypersexualized women could be due to lazy writing, but forgives it because it is “prudish to condemn them in art and entertainment.”
I don’t condemn Lara Croft for having unrealistic physical proportions or being attractive by cis white men standards. Some women find Croft just as appealing as their male counterparts do, and view her as an iconic figure that’s helped initiate the roles of women in games. She has autonomy within the traditionally male-dominated game world that is unlike many heroines before her. But heroines like Croft also reinforce the feminine-masculine dichotomy that has isolated female players, and other gamers that aren’t cis men, when it comes to defining gender and sexual orientation in games.
As Sarkeesian states in her series, “The gender binary erases the continuum of gender presentations and identities that fall outside of the rigid masculine/feminine false dichotomy.” The dichotomy perpetuates the idea that there are strict differences between men and women when, in fact, there isn’t—for example, the idea that makeup is for women, when really anyone can wear it. In this case, games maintain the notion that women, no matter how strong or independent, must be differentiated by their sex appeal or sexuality, even though men can be just as sexual. Unfortunately, the hypersexualized trope tends to be strictly for female characters in games.
There’s Bayonetta, for example, a witch from the eponymous series, who may be the most controversial heroine after Croft. She wears a skintight suit made out of her hair, which is also where her power comes from, so when she uses a special power her clothes become more revealing. As Ria Jenkins points out, Bayonetta is “unapologetically female, sexual and confident.” She doesn’t tip-toe around her sexualized body, which is light-skinned, thin, and curvy around her bust and butt. Bayonetta may be a great way to portray a woman who is strong and proud of her body and sexuality, but she also reinforces the gender stereotype in games: Her power is also the source of her sexual objectification.
Or there’s Samus Aran, a female bounty hunter in the Metroid series. Usually donned in a full-body armored space suit, Samus removes her suit as a reward once the game ends. Beat Metroid in under three hours, see Samus in a leotard. Beat it in under one hour and she’s in a bikini. Once she is revealed to be female—again, white, slender, and busty—her sexual objectification works as a reward for players who complete the game fast enough. Seeing a woman’s body becomes just as rewarding as finishing a game, or saving the world.
It is important to note that these characters are not one-dimensional; they carry their own stories, shape their own adventures, and many gamers, including female gamers, see them as inspirational for such reasons. But let’s not forget that these heroines share similar body types, which further isolates players who in real life don’t fit that mold.
The oversexualized heroine is problematic, but the trope has also heralded a change in the role of female characters. It is my hope that these conversations about its problems will push game developers to take the next step toward creating a greater variety of female and male characters.
After a hiatus, Lara Croft herself made a reappearance with a Tomb Raider reboot in 2013, an origin story for the beloved heroine. The new Lara Croft is younger and less striking in her appearance. She is still physically attractive, but her build is more realistically proportioned, and her character is more developed, so it would be even more difficult to boil her down to just breasts and two signature pistols. In an interview with the magazine Kill Screen Daily, the writer of the reboot, Rhianna Pratchett, detailed her desire to make Croft a more human character while not avoiding the fact that she is female:
Certainly with Lara, I wanted to make a human story. But I never wanted to forget that she was female either. And, I mean, certainly the way she reacts to things could be said to be more female as a reaction. I’m not talking about being scared, or being vulnerable. But the way she interacts with other characters, her friendship with Sam in particular …you wouldn’t see a male character holding the hands of an in-pain male character or hugging a dying male character.
Games have an issue of maintaining gender stereotypes. As Pratchett mentions, it’s not likely to see a man showing physical empathy for other men, like hand-holding, and that’s just as problematic as always forcing a woman—especially a white woman—to be an object of desire. The best way to expand what it means to be male or female is to create more stories, and expand the definition of being female or male. With all the progress being made to give women the power they so rightfully deserve in games, developers still have a tendency to stick to stereotypical definitions of gender and sexuality, and having more representation can further mature a growing art form.
Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.
If you aren’t living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the big news that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West got married, following on the heels of being featured on the April cover of Vogue, with Kardashian wearing what seems to resemble a wedding dress.
There is a lot to celebrate about Kimye’s relationship. They are not playing by society’s traditional rules for relationships and don’t seem to care what anyone thinks about it. For example, they not just became pregnant but had a baby before their wedding and yet avoided the stigma that often goes along with premarital pregnancy. Further, they are both successful entrepreneurs in their own right.
I’ll admit it: I’m a huge Kardashian fan. I’ve been following the family, watching their many TV shows, and wishing that I’d been born with a name that starts with a “K” since 2009. So, I’ve closely watched the relationship between Kardashian and West unfold since they became a couple, and I’m interested in how their relationship as viewed through the public eye reveals that society has enduringly negative approaches to gender and sexuality.
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One of the first things I noticed after they started dating was Kardashian’s drastic wardrobe change. You might remember her in the past having worn a lot of body-conscious dresses, belted tops with leggings or jeans, and bright colors and patterns. Soon after she started dating West, she was seen wearing almost all neutral colors, a lot of leather, and different cuts and fits. Her makeup also became subtler, as her previously signature smoky eye all but disappeared from her look. On Keeping Up With the Kardashians, there was an episode that featured the inner workings of this change, as West and his stylist threw away most of the contents of Kardashian’s closet and brought in new, high-fashion designs. She was so upset that at one point she started crying. While I understand that as a television show this was probably staged, it just really didn’t seem like a change that she wanted in her own right. In fact, the way it was staged, it seemed to me like Kanye West was making her his personal Barbie doll.
This is not to say that the clothes she wears (or doesn’t wear) define Kardashian; from what we can gather about her in the media, fashion has always been a huge part of her life and her career. Before her fame, she owned a clothing store with her sisters (that now has expanded to include sister stores) and was a wardrobe stylist for celebrities. Now, she has her own clothing line with her sisters, owns jewelry companies, and recently launched a kid’s collection. Fashion is a massive part of her image and something she’s clearly passionate about. What she wears is a big deal to her, or especially her public persona. The public persona distinction is important because Kardashian is a reality TV star, which means that everything she chooses to put on camera is not necessarily who she is but rather a carefully curated image presented for the consumption of others.
As the relationship has progressed, Kardashian seemed to show less of her pre-Kanye personal identity to the public. She was noticeably not as active in her career, and West was noticeably not on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I almost cringed when his name was brought up on camera, since every other partner she has had appeared on the show, and it seems reasonable to expect she probably wanted West to be a part of it. After she gave birth to their daughter North last year, she took leave from her career (although she had a few brief appearance on the show), later joining West in touring around the country. I saw Kardashian putting West’s career ahead of her own, which is not at all like the Kim Kardashian of a couple of years ago.
While Kardashian was briefly married to Kris Humphries, it was reported that he wanted her to move to Minnesota with him and stay home to raise any children they were going to have. She vehemently disagreed and ensured Humphries that she was never going to move to Minnesota and that her career came first. At the very least, this was the perception she chose to present to the public on her reality show.
Kim Kardashian seems to have changed. Now, if these are things Kardashian wants to do, or are just a part of her personal evolution, more power to her. But there’s something about this that feels … strange.
She has in many ways highlighted (even if not intentionally) the ways in which her relationship with West reflects traditional, sexist ideas about marriage and parenthood. She recently said on Ellenthat West “is not a diaper changing kind of guy.” And although she insisted he would in an emergency, she made it very clear on the show that she is the one doing the care-taking. This sort of declared helplessness is a gendered behavior that contributes to sex segregation at work and home, since men are viewed as ignorant and above doing “women’s work.”
During West’s Yeezus tour last year, she joined him for a radio interview he was doing with Angie Martinez. She said she was tagging along to be “wifey for the day,” to which West responded that she was “wifey for the life, now.” That’s fine, but why isn’t West showing up to support Kardashian’s ventures and business dealings? It seems that being “hubby for life” has a different set of rules and criteria—rules that reflect patriarchal ideas about gender and sexuality. It also seems like she’s trying to simultaneously appear as a businesswoman who is in control of her brand and image, while also being a loving partner and mother. This metaphorical pull-and-tug comes across as a bit confusing to her audience.
West raps about Kardashian in many of his songs, mostly in sexually explicit and misogynistic ways. A recent example of this is in the remix of “Drunk in Love,” in which West says he knew Kardashian could be his spouse when he “impregnated” her mouth. His valuation of Kardashian as a potential spouse based on sexual performance is an example of objectification.
In his new song that will be featured on Future’s album, he calls her his “number one trophy wife.” He also says about Kardashian’s sisters, “You could look at Kylie, Kendall, Kourtney and Khloe. All your mama ever made was trophies, right?”
You don’t have to read too much into that to see the sexism. West is turning Kardashian into an object, while also erasing all of her and her families’ accomplishments. Let’s not forget all the reality stars that have been discarded by the public. It takes some skill to build a multimillion-dollar reality TV empire. So with this savvy, it’s curious that Kim does not address Kanye’s lyrics about her or other things Kanye-related, beyond him being her partner. Clearly there is more happening than meets the eye.
This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to celebrate when looking at their relationship, however. They are an interracial couple in a nation where only 15 percent of new marriages are interracial (this represents some progress since interracial marriages weren’t even legal in all 50 states until 1967). I think their relationship represents working against what is still considered “the norm”—they’ve faced some public racism against their pairing, with one man harassing Kardashian in a parking lot, allegedly called her a “n- lover.”
It’s also important to note that Kardashian represents a woman using her sexuality for her own gain. Most women who are objectified and praised for their beauty and sexuality (like Kate Upton, for instance) are in industries run by and for men, which is part of a system of exploitation. They are a part of a patriarchal society that treats women as sex objects, that tells them to be sex objects, while simultaneously shaming them for being too sexy. Kardashian has been in control of her own career, and while her sexuality has been a central component of it, she’s always been in the driver’s seat. No one can argue that Kardashian has been a victim of the industry. She’s reinvented it.
West similarly has become one of the most popular rappers of this generation. He clearly has a lot of musical talent and didn’t come from money or prestige. He’s a self-made man who became a household name in music.
They are two people who have made a name for themselves in their respective industries.
This brings me to their recent Vogue spread and cover.
Looking at the photos from that photo shoot critically, a few distinct patterns emerge. For one, in every photo that includes their baby, West is the one holding her, which is a welcome change from the traditionally gendered nature of their relationship. The photos create a transgressive narrative of gender and sexuality, as fathers typically aren’t seen as primary caregivers in society, and pictures tend to act as symbols for wider cultural conditioning. I can’t think of many pictures that feature a heterosexual couple with a baby in which the father is holding the child.
The spread also features Kardashian in a variety of white gowns, seemingly representing wedding dresses. Importantly, the outfits don’t appear particularly sexualized. This is a rarity in a culture of objectification.
The interview itself focused on the dynamics of their relationship. Kardashian was definitely where the interviewer focused though, which was refreshing to see, since the dynamics with heterosexual couples usually place focus on the man, because of our culture’s implicit emphasis on masculinity. Usually the audience is reminded that the woman is feminine—and femininity is devalued in our broader culture even if it is exalted in fashion magazines like Vogue. Interviews that aren’t inherently based in sexism, but reinforce gender, place women in a bind, so that the audience devalues them because of their femininity, and doesn’t respect them. It is, in a word, misogyny.
Kimye’s relationship as represented in the public eye offers fans some possibilities for new models of relationships, but ultimately reenacts many of the traditional dynamics of heterosexual relationships. They are both presented in very gendered ways and they themselves are seen acting out assigned gender roles. For Kardashian, this interacts with misogyny as she is scrutinized in ways West will never be. Gender roles are becoming increasingly destabilized, but if Kimye can show us anything, it’s that we still have a long way to go.