Sexuality, Sexism, and the Music Industry

Sexuality, Sexism, #MeToo, and the Music Industry

Natalie Portman gave a brave testimonial about the sexual harassment and sexism that she faced as a young actress highlighted her fear of the media’s sexualization of her body and her decision to create a prudish persona to feel safe. Being afraid to be sexual, because of the social stigma surrounding it is a feeling shared by many women in almost any industry. Recently, my extended family was discussing a Kelly Clarkson concert, and they were surprised at how enjoyable her concert was. Of course, Kelly Clarkson is a lovely person and singer, and it was probably a great show. Nothing controversial or irritating in that, until the discussion changed from complimenting Kelly Clarkson’s loveliness to complaining about how trashy other female singers are and how they are bad examples for young girls, based on nothing other than the way that those women dress.

Apparently, Kelly Clarkson is good, because she is wholesome, and accordingly, an acceptable female musician to listen to. Immediately, there were numerous complaints about almost every main stream female performer. The focus of the attention was on Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, although Céline Dion was also included. Yes, Mariah and Beyoncé as bad examples for young women to listen, because of how they dress and act. The comparisons were so dated and frustrating. If you are a woman and are not completely safe in your music and your clothing choices, then you are not a good example, you do not have good values; you are trashy.

Mariah Carey may not be a feminist, but she is an incredibly talented singer and performer and therefore a great role model. I also think that she should be able to do whatever she wants, within the law/reason, and wear whatever she wants. Also, Mariah Carey has openly spoken about the fact that she feels good when she dresses sexy. She first started to do so as an act of freedom when she divorced her first husband, who was extremely controlling and had her dress very conservatively. If dressing in tight and short dresses works for her, and it does, why does society need to shame her and criticize her for it? Especially when being hot is basically a requirement for success for women in pop music.

To say that Beyoncé is not a good example for young girls is ridiculous, but for some reason, Beyoncé especially is a lightning rod for this kind of criticism. Yet, Beyonce consistently advocates for the feminist movement, in her own powerful way. She literally performed in front of the word FEMINIST on her Mrs. Carter world tour, and she included a sample from “We Should All Be Feminists,” a speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her song, “Flawless,” which is itself a song of female empowerment. Beyoncé has demonstrated her values in a lifelong career of hard work and dedication. She is committed to sending a positive message of empowerment to young girls in her both her music and her life. But, because she owns her sexuality in both her music and her clothing choices, she is just dismissed as trashy or acting like a stripper.

Equating being a good woman and a good role model with virginal, controllable behaviour needs to stop. Female sexuality is not something to fear or to turn into a scandal, or a marketing tool for that matter. Male artists in rock, hip hop, and to a lesser extent, pop, are sexual in their music and there isn’t usually the same level of outrage or complaints. In a 1999 interview, Britney Spears even commented on this exact issue, noting that she is criticized for her clothes and for moves that male performers are allowed. Of course, her point was easily dismissed by the interviewer, who happened to be a man. Even worse, these men often sexualize and objectify objectifying women in both their lyrics and music videos. Remember the fall-out from the Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson incident? Justin Timberlake barely faced any consequences and is even performing at the Superbowl half-time show this year.

Beyoncé performing during the halftime show. Photo by Pete Sekesan, 2013. Retrieved from

Furthermore, female performers are often subject to sexual harassment at every level, just trying to make it in the industry. When asked about signing female rappers, Rick Ross, a major hip hop producer, unashamedly said in an interview with the Breakfast Club, a major radio program with national listeners, that he didn’t sign female artists, because, “You know, she looking good. I’m spending so much money on her photo shoots. I gotta f**k a couple times.” The dismissal of female talent only is appalling, let alone the assumption that he is owed sexual favours. Even more troublingly, online comments make clear that many people don’t see an issue with his comment and think he’s being honest, which shows how deep the issue goes. And he is not the only popular and powerful sexual predator in the music industry, which includes R. Kelly, Chris Brown, Dr. Luke, apparently Richard Simmons, and surely many more.

On the other side of the coin, conservative men (mostly), from Bill O’Reilly to Piers Morgan to Rush Limbaugh, have criticized Beyoncé for years, mostly for being sexy. But men are not along in sexist attitudes, as women often perpetuate this paternalism too. Beyoncé memorably caused controversy with her performances, like the 2013 Superbowl, but her amazing talent was overlooked, because of her appearance. Kathryn Jena Lopez, a writer for the National Review Online, wrote a piece literally called, “Put a Dress On,” that outlined what a trashy performance Beyoncé gave. In it, she said that she wasn’t surprised at men’s comments that she looked like a stripper. Women in music are constantly expected to meet everyone’s expectation: be sexy and attractive, but not too sexual, wear hot, tight clothing, but not too hot, all while dancing complex choreography in heels.

This criticisms of female musicians’ sexuality is a continuation of a history of controlling women’s bodies and ultimately their sexual agency. Women also need to be able to talk about sex, including that they enjoy sex, and be able to explore that in their art. Music and song lyrics often are sexy or address sex and that needs to be open to both men and women. These powerful women in music should be celebrated, not held to impossible standards and torn down for expressing themselves. Embracing your own sexuality is empowering and these music legends are setting the example for all women, and girls too, that they have agency to make their own decisions. Women also contribute to these criticisms, as has been evident in the many skeptical and critical responses to women who have come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault. We need a culture in which women are able to address sex, or any topic that they want, and be sexy without constant, sexist criticism and slut shaming.

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