De-Sexing the Male Body: An Examination of Genderless Form and Space in the Work of Troye Sivan
by Laura Woodliff
This article examines how camera techniques and audiovisual elements of Troye Sivan’s music videos reject modern pop culture’s obsession with physicality and gendered expression. The presentation of form and space are examined in depth using three of his videos in particular—YOUTH, My Happy Little Pill, and WILD. In each video, intentional directorial decisions varying from lighting to opacity to movement itself contribute to a disconnect between the viewer and Sivan’s physical form. Camera angles that downplay Sivan’s size and spaces that refute typical masculine posturing are interspersed throughout each video. Inclusion of animalistic imagery that opposes anthropomorphism (and thereby the scopophilic gaze) is examined as a tool to reject typical gendered video imagery. Sivan’s eerily hollow, detached vocalization fuses with the visual elements of his videos to cement his status as a disembodied soul, a being without a sexed body. The women included in Sivan’s music videos are also discussed and examined, offering a sharp contrast to the typical hypsersexualization of women and femininity in music video today. This article provides insight into the musical work of a young gay man who seeks to redefine gendered norms and stereotypes in a culture of rampant sexism that still pervades the music industry.
As feminist theorists Diane Railton and Paul Watson discuss in their essay “Masculinity and the Absent Presence of the Male Body,” hegemonic masculinity is constructed relationally—that is, by its negotiated place among various other masculinities and femininities. In music video, extensive coverage of the male body is often presented in company with over-exposure of the female; the obfuscated male body assigns a hyper-focus to every curve of the female form. This trend is a hallmark of current mainstream pop music video; vulnerability and exposure are relegated to women’s bodies, while men retain dignity and composure in presenting their physicality. However, mainstream pop artist Troye Sivan employs Railton and Watson’s theories of disguising and deleting the body not as a means of emphasizing his own masculinity and distinguishing it from femininity, but rather to de-sex himself altogether. In Sivan’s YOUTH, WILD, and My Happy Little Pill videos, distinctive vocal and auditory elements fuse with creative camera techniques to reject the voyeuristic gaze and establish uniquely genderless spaces that foster a complete detachment from the physical form itself.
In his 2016 music video YOUTH, Sivan’s denouncement of corporeality is overwhelmingly apparent via the presentation of distracting lighting, electronically manipulated movement, and otherworldly vocalization. The video fulfills Railton and Watson’s theory of deleting the male body by “ignoring the human form, and, instead, focusing on the play of light, color, shape, and motion” (“Masculinity and the Absent Presence of the Male Body”). Bright neon shades, string lights, and patterned lamplight at least partially obscure Sivan and the other bodies throughout the majority of the video. Scenes of a crowded house party are interspersed with shots of Sivan pacing in front of both an illuminated doorway and a narrow hallway strung with flashing bulbs; neon hues fill the background as he mouths his lyrics and gestures with his arms, but his form is somewhat clouded, smoky. His body appears opaque and distant, his face nearly expressionless and his motion electronically slowed-down. The sonic resonance of Sivan’s voice forges a unique distance from his corporeal form as well; his vocals embody an ethereal, almost celestial quality that is more reminiscent of an echo than a typical human tone. Though gentle and soft, his vocalization is distorted electronically, rendering it eerily ghostlike and hollow. The distinctive lighting, slow-motion, and haziness of the shots coupled with a spectral musical tone fosters a disconnect between the viewer and Sivan; his body is relegated a mere silhouette, a secondary component of intensely radiant light-play.
The modest camera angles and unorthodox spaces Sivan inhabits throughout the video also act as compelling indicators of Sivan’s rejection of humanity and masculinity. YOUTH includes shots of Sivan among his fellow partygoers; though his movements are not always in slow-motion and the camera shots are not always hazy, they are nearly always shot from the waist-up. The only full-body shots of Sivan enshroud him in a haze of smoke and blinding light; the clear shots of him at the party focus solely on his face, his upper half. The space Sivan occupies throughout YOUTH seems to shrink his physical presence as opposed to magnifying it in the manner that male performers often desire. Men might typically seek to command space in a scenario such as a house party by acting as a recipient of attention from scantily clad women fawning over them, or maintaining distance from their fellow partygoers to establish a power distinction. Men in music video are often shot at a low height with the camera angled upward, ensuring that they either subtly or overtly tower over the viewer, a visual testament to power and prestige. However, the narrow hallway Sivan inhabits, the corner of the couch he folds into, and the crowded bed he lounges in all suggest he is not intent upon announcing a domineering male presence. The camera never employs techniques that engorge Sivan’s size; the video’s angles manage to present him as slight, perhaps erring on the side of shrinking his natural form. He dons a loosely fitting jacket throughout YOUTH, one that embodies the “amorphous corporeality” Railton and Watson discuss as a means of disguising the male body. The loose jacket is somewhat of a hallmark of Sivan’s work; he adopts it in both of his WILD music videos, as well as many live performances.
The physical presentation of Sivan’s body does not differ from that of his female counterparts in any notable way; creative methods of distraction are also used to obscure the women’s bodies in YOUTH. It is possible to interpret the distraction from and disguising of Sivan’s body as a means of asserting his own masculinity—if only the camera treated the female bodies in the video markedly differently. Railton and Watson note that while some music videos incorporate equal coverage of the male and female form, there is a stark difference in the representation of accessibility to the gendered bodies. While men adopt bulky, almost comically ill-fitting clothing that fails to define their physical shape, women might be covered by fabric that still clearly clings to every curve, sending a considerably different message regarding overall physical availability. Sivan’s body is certainly rendered inaccessible by his loose clothing and the tricks of light and haze, but not at the expense of the exploited female body. The camera applies the same light bouncing techniques and camera play to distract from the women’s forms; silhouetted girls bathed in bright light skate with balloons, kiss each other, and dance—all while managing to avoid invasive, lengthy camera shots that might insinuate sexual access. Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” details the pervasiveness of the voyeuristic camera gaze, one that objectifies women for the pleasure of a (male) audience. Though Mulvey’s article concerns cinema specifically, her observations regarding the “scopophilic” gaze can surely be applied to women’s treatment in music video as well; she asserts that women on screen act both as “an erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as an erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium.” As a gay man, Sivan is not portrayed to consider women in his videos as “erotic objects;” consequently, the audience is not persuaded to view the women in any prying, sexually suggestive context either. The absence of a scopophilic gaze that scrutinizes and sexualizes the female body provides nothing for Sivan’s disguised body to dominate over; rather than being leveled into tiers of gendered power, the human form is erased in importance altogether.
It is not just creative directorial choices that divorce Sivan from his body; his transcendental, detached vocalization couples with enchanting lyrics that further enhance an escape from the physical form. In his 2014 single “Happy Little Pill,” Sivan deadpans disconnected lyrics that imply substance abuse; he croons about “glazed eyes, empty hearts” and “sipping love from bottles” before launching into a chorus of “My happy little pill, take me away…” The song demands an escape from the bodily entrapments of the human form; he commands that the pill take away his hunger and numb the feeling in his skin, both inextricably and universally human qualities. “Happy Little Pill” is similar to a considerable amount of Sivan’s work in that it is dark, haunting; it evokes a stirring desire to escape, to run away from physicality itself. YOUTH’s video bears several striking similarities to the Happy Little Pill video; purple-red light fogs Sivan’s face as he mouths lyrics unemotionally, in slow-motion, with the camera fading in and out of focus. In these near-psychedelic sequences, both Sivan and the camera remain solidly pinned in place, the lens never panning below his chest.
Though Happy Little Pill does incorporate lighting tricks similar to YOUTH in order to render the physical body imperceptible, it relies perhaps more heavily on symbolism through color and specific action to enforce its denouncement of corporeality. Ironically, the vibrant light dominating Happy Little Pill ceases on the lyric “Bright lights and city sounds are ringing like a drone” – at this particular moment, a white owl blending into a solid white background makes an appearance—the first of several. The owl embodies Sivan’s lyrical pleas to escape from a numbing, uniform world devoid of color. It stretches its wings and takes off as Sivan sings “Take me away…,” attempting to leave the white background altogether. It is almost difficult to distinguish the bird itself from its surroundings; it seems to become one with the confining backdrop that entraps it, symbolizing Sivan’s anxiety over the absence of distinguishability between his physical self and the mind-numbing monotony of the world around him. The video cuts vivid head-on shots of slow, dreamlike Sivan with bleak, muted shots of him in what appears to be a hotel room, bored and alone. Just as the owl seamlessly blended into its environment, the dark green and yellow hues of Sivan’s clothing match his hotel room surroundings disconcertingly well. The gendered significance of defying the traditional human form is revealed by Laura Mulvey’s observations regarding the importance of anthropomorphism in relation to the scopophilic gaze. Mulvey asserts that “curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition…the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world” (“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”). Through the conscious inclusion of animalistic imagery and overt color symbolism, Sivan rejects the voyeuristic invasion of the scopophilic gaze. Later in the music video, a man is shown stretching out his arms and gripping the top of a soccer goalpost, his body hanging limply; his corporeality becomes a literal burden that requires taxing exertion to support. The man might be Sivan, but the darkness of the video obscures the form and renders it difficult to discern, further emphasizing the irrelevance of the human body and inherent sameness of humanity in its physical form.
Ironically, Sivan’s songs often deal with human connection; however, he lyricizes about connection of human souls, of spirit and of emotion rather than any sexual or physical bond. In Sivan’s work, human emotion and empathy transcend the body in importance; in his 2015 single “TALK ME DOWN,” he wistfully pleads, “I wanna sleep next to you / but that’s all I wanna do right now.” Sivan’s work seems to treat the physical form as a mere vessel for achieving and experiencing a transcendental, almost spiritual high. Using physicality as a means to reach a deeper consciousness is reflected in Sivan’s song “BITE,” the chorus of which implores an unknown being to “Kiss me on the mouth and set me free…” In his 2016 music video WILD, Sivan collaborates with Alessia Cara in a nostalgic found-footage compilation that incorporates a considerable focus on humanity itself. Though it hinges on friendship and compassion as abstract concepts, WILD negates the importance of the physical, sexed body in its use of space and camera direction. The handheld camera shots of Sivan and Cara goofing around with their friends are very brief, noticeably quick and choppy; one face flits almost immediately to another, loosely cut together to elicit the sloppy-yet-genuine energy of a home video. The camera simply fails to focus long enough, or manage to move in any significantly prying manner, that would draw attention to the young bodies themselves. The camera does not work to capture bodies; it instead captures moments, emotions, bits of memories. The camera’s function in gathering brief flashes of interactions evokes a certain type of universal emotion from its audience. Nostalgia, perhaps feminized simply due to its inherently sentimental nature, overrides physicality in significance; the video intends to evoke emotion devoid of any physical or gendered connotations.
The particular spaces and locations utilized in WILD signify a dissociation from music video’s typical gendered arenas. In her essay “Male Address Video,” Lisa Lewis examines the role of the street in music video as a fiercely male domain, primed for adolescent boys to take advantage of their gendered privilege and fully command their transition to manhood. Any woman’s presence on the street serves merely to represent the sexual opportunity the outside world offers to young men. As a result, the masculinized liberation symbolized by the street poses a correlative threat to the safety of women. Since men in music video utilize the expansive outside realm to flaunt their privilege and dominance, it is decidedly rare to witness a man contentedly inhabiting a small, unimposing domestic space. If men do appear inside a living space, their surroundings often speak to their power and success; large, mansion-like backdrops indicate wealth and authority. The simple yet darkly opulent décor displayed in The Weeknd’s 2016 music video Starboy exemplifies the potential for men to masculinize domestic spaces. The Weeknd struts about a grand, minimalistic mansion that leaves no doubt about the capital he has accrued from his wide success. Even as he sits on the edge of a bed, the affluence implied by the aesthetic of the boldly furnished room around him asserts his masculine power.
Both the street and domestic spaces appear in WILD, but the typical gendering of these spaces is actively contradicted. The opening scene of WILD immediately distinguishes the piece from the mainstream, heteronormative music videos that saturate popular culture. Sivan lounges on a bed in a cramped bedroom, clutching a Magic 8 ball with noticeably painted black nails. He dons a pastel pink shirt and his trademark loose jacket, offering a quietly content smile at the camera, which is implied to be handheld. Sivan folds himself into this meager, cozy space throughout the video as he is shot by both handheld and professional lenses; two different gazes, each presenting Sivan as being comfortable basking in the unimposing ambience of a cramped bedroom. The passivity and softness of the space is magnified by gentle, warm lighting and the inherent vulnerability of being observed by a handheld camera operated by the hand of someone else. As the camera cuts to the outdoors, it is clear that the space is commanded not by male bodies, but by the energizing, fiery youth of the young adults embracing it. Emotion, rather than physicality, conquers the space. Both women and men prance around a grassy field, kissing and laughing. The friends venture into the street, frolicking in the dark—a time that typically might invite fear and unease on part of women. However, the carefree nature of the group’s interactions almost implies that they exist in a vacuum, in a world where their spirits are unequivocally free, no gendered norms dictating or burdening their consciences whatsoever.
As advances in gender equality are made in legal and governmental spheres, popular Western media remains uniquely and unashamedly sexist. A culture that normalizes the objectification and commodification of the female body in its media can never rid itself of sexism in its reality; while celebrities and public figures glorify hegemonic gender structures to further their own careers, insidious prejudices against women will inarguably persist. In such an environment of cultural toxicity, the social significance of a mainstream pop artist defying the gendered tide of popular media trends should not be underestimated. Through the unique location choices, distorted camera shots, and distinctive vocalization that define his music videos, Sivan, even as a mainstream artist, manages to effectively reject gendered hegemony. His denouncement of physicality in his work can be interpreted as more than just an artistic statement—it also might be a form of activism. Becoming increasingly vocal regarding LGBT rights and social justice issues, Sivan uses his music videos as a platform to normalize and validate homosexuality, presenting spaces that are safe for men and women to interact without any ingrained expectations about sexed domination or power. Sivan’s refreshing contributions to the degrading, morally corrupt arena of modern music video invite a sliver of hope for an industry that shamelessly profits off of the sexual exploitation of the female body.
Lewis, Lisa. “Male Address Video.” Gender Politics and MTV. Temple University Press, 1990.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.
Railton, Diane, and Paul Watson. “Masculinity and the Absent Presence of the Male Body.” Music Video and the Politics of Representation. Edinburgh University Press, 2011: 12
Associated course: Gender and Music Video (WMST 4310)
Professor: Susan Thomas
Writing TA: Joshua Bedford
Citation style: MLA