Breaking the Charts: Analyzing Racialized and Gendered Sexuality in Music Videos

by Roberto Ortiz

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Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

Recognizing the influence the media has on creating social norms, this paper analyzes four music videos depicting “sexual” behavior, namely Eminem’s “A** Like That”, Big Sean’s “A$$”, Iggy Azalea’s “Kream”, and Cardi B’s “WAP,” to answer the question: How do the intersections of race and gender affect whether sexuality is labeled as “deviant” in music videos? Using a combination of public commentary, visual, and lyrical evidence, I execute a qualitative content analysis (QCA) of the videos posted on the artists’ official YouTube pages, selecting comments from each video demonstrating a stigmatization of some, but not all, sexual behavior. Results demonstrate immense differences in reactions to different displays of sexuality in response to not only gender, but rather, reactions to a coalescence of both race and gender. Ultimately, I find that we are not only conditioned to label women’s sexuality in music videos as “deviant” but are also conditioned to be more critical of Black women’s sexuality within music videos. Additionally, I find a racialized contrast by gender, arguing that we are not only generally more accepting of men’s sexuality in music videos but have a higher expectation that Black men will express their sexuality. Ultimately, I demonstrate that the differential assessment of sexuality by race and gender functions as a mechanism of social control to uphold both patriarchy and white supremacy.

Race, Gender, Intersectionality, Music Videos, Racialized Sexuality

Popular culture is dominated by sexually suggestive music videos, ranging from Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” (2014) to Missy Eliot’s “Work It” (2002) (Karsay et al. 2019). In these music videos, women embrace their sexuality both visually and sonically. Sexually suggestive behavior is labeled “deviant,” because historically, women have been praised for their modesty and chastity (Anderson et. al 2019). As a result, women in sexually suggestive music videos, specifically Black women, face scrutiny and are stereotyped as “offensive” and “obscene.” However, men, specifically White men, are not scrutinized for equally suggestive music videos. Instead, White men are encouraged to be suggestive, under the pretense that “boys will be boys” (Turner 2011). Both attitudes depict implicit biases influenced by racialized gender stereotypes: overgeneralizations based on a coalescence of race and gender (Crenshaw 1989). This poses the question: How do the intersections of race and gender affect whether sexuality is labeled as “deviant” in music videos?

Sociological research on gender suggest that children are socialized into heteronormative gender norms from a very early age: elementary age boys are allowed to objectify girls, while girls are reprimanded and corrected for any displays of sexuality (Gansen 2017). Further studies find that sexuality tends to be racialized: Black women are stereotyped as “Jezebels,” and Black men are stereotyped as “hypersexual” (Anderson 2019). It is evident that the coalescence of race and gender play an integral part in how an individual is perceived by our hegemonic society (Crenshaw 1989). This explains the simultaneous condoning of White and Black men’s sexuality while criticizing Black and White women’s sexuality.

In an application of labeling theory, I examine this phenomenon through an intersectional lens to demonstrate that we are not only conditioned to label women’s sexuality in music videos as “deviant” but are also conditioned to be more critical of Black women’s sexuality within music videos (Conyers and Calhoun 2015, Crenshaw 1989, Becker 2018). Additionally, I demonstrate a racialized contrast by gender, arguing that we are not only generally more accepting of men’s sexuality in music videos but have a higher expectation that Black men will express their sexuality. Ultimately, I posit that the differential assessment of sexuality by race and gender functions as a mechanism of social control to uphold both patriarchy and white supremacy.

To demonstrate this difference, I analyze four music videos depicting sexual behavior: Eminem’s “A** Like That” (2005), Big Sean’s “A$$” (2011), Iggy Azalea’s “Kream” (2018), and Cardi B’s “WAP” (2020). Using a combination of public commentary, visual, and lyrical evidence, I execute a qualitative content analysis (QCA) of the videos posted on the artists’ official YouTube pages, selecting comments from each video demonstrating a stigmatization of some, but not all, sexual behavior (Goffman 1963; Schnieder and Rohlfing 2013). Identifying this double standard is the first step towards eradicating existing racialized gender stereotypes within mainstream media in hopes of forming a more equitable and stigma-free society.

Labels as Symbols of Deviance and Stigma

Deviance is defined as any behavior that violates a social norm; stigmatized deviance elicits a negative response from others (Conyers and Calhoun 2015). Deviance can be conceptualized as a social construction created through social interactions. Meanings are ascribed to certain behaviors and are perpetuated through reactions from other members of society. Depending on the reaction, a certain behavior may be viewed as deviant or normative (Conyers and Calhoun 2015). For this analysis, the behavior in the music videos labeled as deviant takes the form of sonic and visual frames— the artist may make a specific reference to their genitals in the lyrics or may wear revealing clothing.

To explain variation in the labeling of sexual behavior as deviant, I apply labeling theory, which theorizes that social interactions lead to the assessment of behavior and subsequent ascription of labels (normal vs. deviant). The actor who ascribes the deviant label often holds authority of some form. Through the stratification of individuals into insider and outsider categories, hierarchies are constructed and maintained, in part, by labels (Calhoun 2015, Becker 2018).

Additionally, I examine the comments on each music video, noting whether there is stigmatization. Stigma is defined as a deeply discrediting attribute (Goffman 1963). Stigmatization is assessed in each comment using the presence or absence of language suggesting the application of deeply discrediting labels. I also examine the comments for the application of positive labels, suggesting that some behavior is condoned, and therefore, not stigmatized. Ultimately, I will demonstrate that stigmatization serves as a mechanism of social control through which patriarchal and White supremacist values are upheld by the public and not necessarily just those with formal authority (Goffman 1963).

I have selected four music videos for analysis, representing four depictions of racialized gender to capture some of the various ways race and gender intersect in meaningful ways when it comes to perceptions of sexuality: a video featuring a Black man, White man, Black woman, and White woman. The artists chosen each publicly identify as cisgender, and each either identifies as Black or is White-passing.

Racialized Masculinity in Music Videos

Eminem’s “A** Like That” (2005) and Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$) Remix” (2011) official YouTube music videos represent content by White men and Black men artists. I specifically selected these two videos because both men, despite racial differences, rap about a woman’s “ass,” another word for buttocks. The focus of their rap is significant due to their objectification of women, which places the men in the dominant position as authority figures over women. The subordination of women ultimately suggests that women do not have equal value to men, rather, have value comparable to an inanimate object that is easily manipulated by human men. The comments provide further context on how this gender phenomenon is also racialized.

“A** Like That” by Eminem (2005)

Visually, the video switches between humans and puppets. The human women of all races are seen dancing in revealing clothing with their backs toward their camera to display their “ass.” In the puppet world, provocatively dressed women puppets are portrayed as pole-dancers, stripping for the pleasure and entertainment of the Black and White police officers. Women are dehumanized and objectified; their faces are seldom shown throughout the video, and when they are, they are depicted as puppets, not humans. Eminem shows interest in women for their “ass” and nothing else (Eminem 2005).

Lyrically, Eminem (2005) is quoted rapping,

“the way you shake it, I can’t believe it. I ain’t never seen an ass like that. The way you move it, you make my pee-pee go, doing, doing, doing.”

 In this song, “doing” serves an onomatopoeia to imitate the sound Eminem’s genitals make in reaction to the way she “move[s] it.”

It is important to note that Eminem never presents pleasure from a woman’s point of view. He centers himself as the sole recipient of pleasure. The lack of regard for the woman creates a very clear power imbalance between men and women, suggesting that women are solely an object for men’s pleasure. Additionally, Eminem’s use of “you” is quite significant— it is as if he anticipates his audience to be women (Eminem 2005).

Users commented things such as “He is genius af” and “He couldn’t get away with this in 2020” (Eminem 2005). It is interesting that users praised Eminem, yet they are aware that his overall message is offensive and would be criticized in 2020. This demonstrates the power of allowing White men to be subversive and subtle with their objectification of women as a way of maintaining power and dominance. It is also important to note that the comments themselves seldom condemn Eminem’s use of sexuality and objectification. The lacking condemnation functions to condone and/or normalize the behavior and ultimately uphold both White supremacist and patriarchal values.

“Dance (A$$) Remix” by Big Sean (2011)

Visually, Big Sean is depicted sitting on a throne with girls dancing around him while touching his body. This may perpetuate the “hypersexual” trope assigned to Black men, for there is a sense of excess sexuality attached to Big Sean (Anderson 2019). Additionally, these same women are seen bringing and putting on Big Sean’s coat for him. This action illustrates the association of masculinity with power and femininity with subjection. The most notable aspect within this video is how Nicki Minaj, the featured artist who is a Black woman, is seen dancing in provocative clothing for both Big Sean and the camera itself. Regardless of her role as a featured and esteemed artist, Minaj is reduced to another one of his girls (Big Sean 2011).

Lyrically, Big Sean (2011) raps,

“How your waist anorexic and then your ass is colossal, like woop. Drop that ass make it boomerang…They pay me respect they pay me in checks. And if she look good she pay me in sex….”

It is important to point out that he is not suggesting for women to “drop that ass” or “pay me in sex,” but rather, demanding they do it (Big Sean 2011). This illustrates heteronormative gender roles very well: men are placed in a dominant position while women are afforded no agency or room for consent. Big Sean also frames the solicitation of sex as providing a favor for the women involved.

Users commented things such as “Wonder how Big Sean feels knowing he got out rapped on his own song” and “Nicki was way ahead of her time” (Matt Harajuku 2020, airmix08 2020). It is interesting that all the attention is on Nicki Minaj, despite her short feature in the music video. This alludes to society’s focus on Black women’s sexuality above all else. By moving the focus from Big Sean to Nicki Minaj, Nicki is presented as the sexual focal point in the video, despite her relatively short visual and lyrical appearance within the song.

Racialized Femininity in Music Videos

I selected Iggy Azalea’s “Kream” (2018) and Cardi B’s “WAP” (2020) official YouTube music videos for my analysis of racialized femininity. I specifically selected these two videos because both women rap about their genitals. The focus of their rap is significant because it can be interpreted as either a form of self-objectification or empowerment. Notably, there are an overwhelming number of sarcastic comments, suggesting that the audience has interpreted these songs as a form of self-objectification by the women artist. The audience’s reaction to the women artists differ immensely from the reactions recieved by the men artists for similar behavior, pointing to fundamental differences in reactions purely based on gender.

“Kream” by Iggy Azalea (2018)

Visually, Iggy Azalea features women of all different races dancing on poles in revealing clothing. Their sexual behavior is extremely performative. For example, there is a shot of a woman ‘twerking’ her buttocks while standing on another woman in stiletto heels. Tyga, the featured artist and only Black man in the video, is seen with multiple women dancing around him. This shot perpetuates the trope of the hypersexual Black individual, while simultaneously perpetuating the trope of the dominating man (Anderson 2019, Iggy Azalea 2018). Additionally, an excess amount of money can be seen in many shots, which serves to commodify sex.

Lyrically, Iggy Azalea (2018) raps,

“Ass rules everything around me. Deep in that pussy, got him drowning.”

It is clear Iggy Azalea is aware that sexuality is what men value. Specifically, her framing suggests that men value sex excessively— almost to the point of “drowning.” This ultimately paints women as the ones in control during sexual encounters with men (Iggy Azalea 2018).

Users commented, “Tyga being so close to Iggy makes me uncomfortable” and “Iggy is sexier, sounds better, and has a better personality than Cardi” (Iggy Azalea 2018). Suggesting that White-presenting Iggy Azalea is “better” to Black rapper Cadi B points to racialized sexuality in music videos; despite the immense similarities between the two in terms of genre and aesthetic, one user compares the two and decides Iggy Azalea to be superior. Additionally, the audience’s discomfort with the proximity between Iggy Azalea, a White-presenting woman, and Tyga, a Black man, could be evidence of the stigma associated with interracial sexuality in heterosexual relationships.

“WAP” by Cardi B (2020)

In this video, Cardi depicts herself dancing among other Black women in revealing clothing throughout the video. It is pertinent to pay attention to the animal print costumes used and the prominence of wild animals within the video (Cardi B 2020). These are used to signal the innate nature of sexuality— it is natural, not something to be policed by society. Another interpretation of the use of animal print is that it allows Cardi B to comment on the animalistic trope ascribed to Black individuals (Anderson 2019). Notably, the video depicts the sensuality between Cardi B and the featured artist Megan Thee Stallion. They are often seen touching each other in this unique instance of bisexual intimacy. Other videos include little to no depiction of the LGBTQ+ community, and when present, the representation was subtle and involved only background actors.

Lyrically, Cardi B raps

“I don’t wanna spit, I wanna gulp, I wanna gag, I wanna choke, I want you to touch that lil’ dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat.”

Cardi B frames herself as dominant; she is the one making the demands. This is deviant because domination is associated with masculinity. It is clear this video is meant to be empowering: a reclamation of women’s sexuality. However, throughout the song, a man’s voice can be heard repeating “There’s some whores in this house” (Cardi B 2020) through the entirety of the song The evidence suggests that there is a stigma attached to the reclamation of Black women’s sexuality.

Stigma was further evident the comments section. Users’ comments tended to be hostile, such as “Welcome to the idiocracy world”, “This song is a lot better when it’s muted and ur phone is off,” and “There is more plastic on these girls than in the Pacific Ocean” (Cardi B 2020). Out of all the music videos analyzed, this music video was the only case in which the comments were exclusively negative. The negative comments could be linked to Cardi B’s status as a Black woman, which increases the likelihood that her sexual expressions will be labeled deviant compared to other artists.

The audience does not seem to view Cardi B’s video and her dominating position to be empowering. Instead, it is understood as pure self-objectification. Users also brought up Cardi B’s history of plastic surgery, an irrelevant detail to the music video, further suggesting that her depiction of empowerment was seen as self-objectifying. Self-objectification is clearly negative in this case, as the negative comments serve as attempts at social control to discourage Cardi B from releasing similar songs in the future.

Racialized Gender and Sexuality in Music Videos

As the evidence suggests, there are immense differences in reactions to different displays of sexuality. These reactions are not in response to solely gender, but rather, are reactions to a coalescence of both race and gender. Overall, despite the use of an intersectional framework (Crenshaw 1989), a large limitation of this study is the overwhelming presence of heterosexuality and heterosexual gaze in all of these videos. Future research could increase robustness by accounting for LGBTQ+ identities in combination with gender and race. Despite this limitation, a number of conclusions may be drawn from my analysis.

As seen in comments surrounding Eminem’s video, individuals praised Eminem for his objectification, labeling him “genius.” Most interesting is the comment that “he couldn’t get away with this in 2020” (Eminem 2005). The reactors are aware that Eminem’s behavior would be labeled deviant in today’s circumstances, but do not point out why his behavior was wrong. Instead, they merely ignore it, similar to how teachers teach girls to ignore displays of boys’ sexuality in preschool (Gansen 2017).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, individuals reacted very poorly to Cardi B’s WAP, employing personal attacks, such as “there is more plastic on these girls than in the Pacific Ocean.” In labeling Cardi B as an “idiot,” and asserting that “this song is a lot better when it’s muted and ur phone is off,” or that “this is getting out of hand,” individuals are attempting to dissuade Cardi B from creating similar content— a form of social control (Cardi B 2020).  Users were not able to interpret Cardi B’s music video as a form of empowerment, because they could not see past her race.         

Most interesting are the comments found in Iggy Azalea’s video, specifically the comment stating that “Iggy is sexier, sounds better, and has a better personality than Cardi,” (Iggy Azalea 2018). It is notable that one user preferred Iggy Azalea over Cardi B based on sound, appearance, and personality (Cardi 2018), the latter constituting and attribute irrelevant to the music video. Cardi B and Iggy Azalea create media of the same genre and have a similar aesthetic, and the similarities suggest that the favoring of Iggy Azalea may be racially motivated. In summation, although Iggy Azalea received pushback on account of her womanhood, it was not to the degree of the pushback Cardi B received due to her Blackness (Iggy Azalea 2018). This is one of the reasons an intersectional lens is crucial in the study of gender (Crenshaw 1989)— femininity is clearly racialized, resulting in the unequal application of negative social sanctions for similar behavior.     

Through the visual and lyrical analyses, as well as the analyses of selected comments, larger societal norms became evident, as did the importance of the intersectional framework (Crenshaw 1989). Social norms label women’s sexuality as “deviant” and are also more critical of Black women than White women for equally suggestive visuals and lyrics in music videos.

Additionally, men’s expression of sexuality is considered the norm, and Black men are hypersexualized: there is a heightened expectation that Black men will pursue this gender norm compared to men of other races (Anderson 2018). Norms are products of socialization— we are taught to label and stratify individuals as a method of maintaining the systems of power within our society, namely patriarchy and White supremacy. One of the ways this is accomplished in the United States involves the use of the internet to criticize and/or praise celebrity musicians. The inequalities and double standards resulting from racialized gender bias must be addressed in order to enact change within social institutions and erase the existing stigma surrounding racialized sexuality. Only then can we form a more equitable and stigma-free society.

References

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Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Rumya Putcha for equipping me with the tools for content analysis, Dr. Josie Leimbach for equipping me with the tools for systemic critique, and finally, Professor Heather Sue M. Rosen on providing me with invaluable feedback and guidance throughout the writing and editing process. I am incredibly grateful to these powerful women, for without their mentorship, I could have never imagined crafting such a paper.

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