Dreaming About Boys

The subversion of the male gaze in Charli XCX’s “Boys” music video

Femme Fatale

We talk a lot about female objectification in the media—how women are constantly sexualized, objectified, and used as nothing more than aesthetically pleasing and sexually arousing props in advertisements, music videos, and movies. The dehumanizing effects of this imagery have been well-documented, with extensive research demonstrating that objectification leads to depression, anxiety, body shame, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders among women.

Objectification of women’s bodies, however, is nothing new. Throughout history, much of visual art has been about appreciating female beauty and the female form. Less than 4 percent of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 76 percent of the nudes are female. From the Venus de Milo to the Mona Lisa, women are overwhelmingly the objects, not the subjects, of art. Imagery is catered to the male gaze. Women are not meant to do the looking; they are meant to be looked at.

But when I was watching Charli XCX’s self-directed music video for her latest song “Boys,” I felt something distinctly unfamiliar stir within me. As I watched Connor Franta seductively brush his lips with his thumb and Brendon Urie gaze sensually at me as he lay among rose petals, I realized that this piece of art was specifically designed for me, a heterosexual woman.

As I watched the music video, I thought about the discomfort that my straight male friends might feel. I thought about how they might feel uncomfortable seeing other men in such a sexualized and romanticized light, with Joe Jonas licking his lips while staring deeply into the camera and Khalid laughing as he cuddled with puppies, and how they might feel insecure about their own bodies after seeing Cameron Dallas’s god-like abs and Jay Park’s chiseled cheekbones.

And I realized that this is how I feel all the time. Whenever I’m watching music videos or glancing at advertisements, I get the uncomfortable feeling that this material was not made with me in mind. I feel slightly uneasy and insecure, as a straight woman, seeing other women constantly portrayed in such a sexualized and romanticized light, with long-eyelashed Victoria’s Secret models throwing “come hither” glances at the camera and beautiful naked women used as voiceless props in music videos.

This subversion of the male gaze was exactly Charli XCX’s intention. She explained that she wanted the boys in the music video to be “doing all the sexy things that girls usually do in music videos” and, in this way, “flip the male gaze on its head."

And it worked. Straight women everywhere swooned and reveled at the abundance of sexy boys in the music video, leaving enthusiastic comments about their favorite ones and how their smiles “melt my heart” and how “I almost passed out” and how “I died when I saw Brendon.”

The “Boys” music video did more than bring joy to millions of women around the world; it also busted the myths that women don’t have sexual feelings of their own, that women don’t crave sex the same way men do, that women aren’t as visually stimulated as men are. All of that is false. Numerous studies have shown, over and over again, that women want sex just as much as men do, and women actually might be more turned on by visual images than men.

But the myth that women have low sexual libidos persists, in large part, because the people in charge of directing, casting, and producing visual content are overwhelmingly male, and have no idea how much women crave sex, and how much pleasure and enjoyment we get from seeing a man’s body. In producing this wildly successful music video, Charli XCX showed the world that women have just as much sexual agency and desire as men do.

The problem with objectification in the media isn’t necessarily that women’s bodies are put on display or that women’s beauty is being appreciated, but rather that representations of beauty and sexuality are so consistently one-sided. Everyone likes looking at pretty people. Sex is titillating. But visual content in the world is overwhelming tailored for the viewing pleasure of straight men, making the rest of the world feel like our desires don’t matter or don’t even exist. By failing to produce content with other audiences in mind, we end up marginalizing and erasing the vibrant spectrum of sexualities that exist in the world.

So the solution to the issue of objectification, or at least one part of a possible solution, appears to be simple. We need more content. We need content that celebrates beauty as it manifests itself in men, women, transgender people, and nonbinary people. We need content that caters to gay people, bisexual people, pansexual people, and straight people. We need content that captures the vast diversity of sexualities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.

It’s no longer good enough to create content with only straight men in mind, which only affirms the validity of straight male sexuality. It’s about time that content reflects the rest of us, too.

Until then, I’ll be dreaming about boys.

Nian Hu ’18, a former Crimson editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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