Performing ‘the other’ in music video

How do music videos reinforce or subvert bodily performance of ‘the other’ gender?


‘Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it’s ok to be a boy – but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly, you’d love to know what its like, wouldn’t you? What it feels like for a girl?’

– The Cement Garden film extract, in Madonna’s ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’

MTV, America’s 24-hour ‘advertisement channel’, made music video available to fan audiences of up to 28 million people by 1986 (Seidman, 1992). Music videos had circulated prior to this, but the exponential increase in availability appealed to young media-literate audiences. Because the meanings of visual texts are produced by viewing, videos potentially infer infinite meanings for the masses of individual viewers who interpret music video texts based on their personal, cultural, and social experiences (Brown & Schulze 1990, p88; Berry & Shelton, p132). In many music genres the body is often crucial to the success, circulation and inference of meaning in music videos. Singers and musicians use music video (as well as their own and others’ bodies within these texts) to construct and support existing social ideals that we take for granted, but which are actually constituted in the discourse of audio-visual narratives (Hennessy, pp148-149). Western culture idealises hegemonic images and desirable bodies, which are repeatedly performed by artists in media discourses including music video. Fans enjoy repeatedly visually accessing their favourite musicians, instead of limiting consumption and meanings exclusively to brief aural or temporal experiences of radio, CD’s and live performances (Rubin in Berry & Shelton, p134). Varied representations of gendered bodies and narratives in music video enable performers to negotiate their identity with the audience, in which McDonald explains (p281) that performance invokes notions of action, in which a performer constructs a fictional identity. Some performers participate in the creation ‘new’ representations of gender, while many other artists simultaneously work against these tactics by re-creating and anchoring familiar hegemonic identities and gender stereotypes (Kalof, 1999 p378). A comprehensive list is too large to list here, so I will examine instead a range of videos that depict and explore gender subversion, although the sample list may present its own limitations in relation to musical genre and social norms.

Pop singer P!nk has explored gendered identity multiplicity (‘U + Ur Hand’; ‘Most Girls’ ) without confusing her ‘pop-music’ fan base by permanently eradicating her performed femininity. P!nk’s masculine bodily behaviour (doing push-ups and wearing boxing gloves in ‘Most Girls’) connotes gender subversion, which is underscored by the depiction of a hyper-masculine male effeminately playing the violin while operatic voices sing. P!nk, however, uses song lyrics to question the ideals that she simultaneously contests and also operates within in many of her songs. She embodies masculine roles in ‘U + Ur Hand’ such as a car mechanic and a boxer/fighter, but this potential masculinity is balanced by her feminine makeup, feminine address of the camera, and awareness of her position as a sexual object by the males she refers in the lyrics of the song. This process of disavowal is cyclical, perpetuating bodily idealism (she is fit, appealing, wearing makeup and contextually revealing clothing) whilst also capitalising upon the very constraints that she explores lyrically. She is marginally less ‘ideal’ than artists like Britney Spears (possibly only through her temporary adoption of masculine signifiers and rejection of long, overtly-feminised hair), yet is still sexually appealing to males and provides a heterosexual model that women can identify with.

Beyonce Knowles (‘If I Was a Boy’, 2008) and Ciara (‘Like A Boy’, 2007) also explore new identities, but always return to their pre-established persona at the close of the video narrative. Knowles adopts the role of a male identity (a police officer, which invokes concepts of who can be given power in society) in the majority of the video, and the effect of the gender inequalities she attempts to expose is made clear when she ‘switches character’ from her boyfriend (the officer) back to ‘herself’. While she inhabits the ‘officer’ role, she still performs the body in her signature sexualised way, moving her hips and returning attention to her body. She confronts the notion of society’s double standards by revealing how her boyfriend returns to the officer role and engages in the behaviour that she did while inhabiting the identity of the officer. In contrast, Ciara’s music video for ‘Like A Boy’ (2007) juxtaposes two separately gendered bodies which dance according to gender norms (although they both belong to Ciara). She inhabits a feminised body (wearing a dress, with ‘floating’ long hair and high heels) that contrasts with her usual attire, while next to her, her transposed male body is adorned with a hat, pants, cornrows, and a cane which function as social and cultural symbols of black masculinity, complementing the ‘female’ body. Equilibrium is reached at the close of narrative in both of these texts through the re-establishment of the artist’s ‘natural’ female body (an ideal which is constructed within social, ethnic and gendered discourses). If these performers didn’t return their ‘female’ role, the consumption of the videos would result in fan confusion.

Madonna’s music videos have confronted, conformed to, challenged, and heightened the visual representations of femininity and sexuality since her emergence as a pop singer. ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ (2001) confronts the limitations of negotiated gender performance in music video that Beyonce, Ciara, and P!nk conform to. Madonna engages in violent physical acts throughout video, eradicating the boundaries between herself and other (Wiseman, 2005 p. 88) by engaging in what we categorise as ‘male’ behaviour. By avoiding a narrative equilibrium for the expectant viewer, she rejects the notion of returning to ideal identity. Her use of weapons, and the act of transforming the phallic vehicle (which she uses to appropriate male energy and sexuality) into a weapon to harm others as well as herself, operate to suggest that for a woman to reject idealised femininity by claiming violence as a cultural symbol of power (Wiseman, p. 90) is not sustainable (or metaphorically, this is not encouraged if the goal is to achieve longevity in the pop music industry – which, contradictorily, she has achieved).

Another music video which explores masculine acts being performed by the female body is the video by dance/techno group The Prodigy for ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Filmed entirely in a first-person point of view, we watch the experiences of a person without identifying the person’s gender. During the narrative, we traverse urban nightlife environments such as strip clubs and bars, while our ‘character’ initiates abusive behaviour that suggests we are inhabiting a masculine identity. The acts that we observe and participate in (shaving in the sink, putting on pants and sneakers, fighting with bartenders and security guards, grabbing at and gaining the attention of several women, using male toilets, watching a private strip dance, taking a woman home and simulating heterosexual intercourse with her) suggest that there is absolutely no possibility that the point of view from which we observe could be female. Our character also attacks a male DJ in a nightclub (by smashing his equipment), distressing a character who is usually depicted as powerful in media discourses because of his control of music selection and the management of technology. There is a slim chance that our reading could suggest a certain type of female who could engage in this behaviour, which doubting viewers would associate with either ‘butch’ lesbian or transgender identities. Perhaps the indicator that ‘leads us astray’ the most, is the fact that this person actively initiates and engages in physical violence with other males, and generally wins these sudden fights. At the video’s close, a glimpse in a mirror reveals a woman who should be our sexually rapacious, physically abusive protagonist (Vernallis, p8). When we learn the identity of our ‘character’ is a beautiful, long-haired, blonde, ideal woman, we are confronted with the impact of our own gender assumptions, and our prejudices about what constitutes ‘acceptable’ feminine behaviour.

Frith (p. 43) states that ‘men occupy every important role in the rock industry and are in effect responsible for the creation and construction of suitable female images’. However, contemporary music videos of punk or heavy metal bands can avoid subordinate depictions of female vocalists, instead negotiating the presence of women through their conformity to male-coded behaviours. Punk singer Brody Dalle of The Distillers (songs include Young Crazed Peeling, Deth Sex) uses guitar in the way that Pegley (2008 pp. 52-54) suggests that only men like Jimi Hendrix can – he argues that women apparently cannot sexualise the instrument without becoming de-heterosexualised themselves. However, when Dalle plays the guitar with a beer bottle while she kneels against an amp, she invites the admiration of the audience because of her ‘rock’ skills or tactics without deeming her body as specifically queer. Her gender is a pastiche: a combination of red lipstick, tight pants and low-cut t-shirts usually reserved for male rock artists, a punk Mohawk and masculine arm tattoos (an oriental dragon on her right arm, and a skull on the right arm with black flags and text stating ‘Fuck You’). She constructs a complicated gender referencing 50’s rocker and 70’s punk, both of which were male-dominated genres. Robert Walser asserts that female performers of heavy metal can produce and control very powerful sounds, if they meet other genre requirements and acquiesce in the sexist physical display of metal (p. 132).

Angela Gossow, singer of heavy metal band Arch Enemy, also portrays a mixed gender which is admired by both male fans and female musicians. Her vocal performances and assertive bodily stances (see ‘My Apocalypse’) reject the aspects of romance, misogyny or exscription of women as the main components of heavy metal, instead using lyrical themes of empowerment, fear and alienation which simultaneously cut across gender lines (Walser pp. 114-120; 132). Gossow, like Dalle, often sounds like a man without adopting female homosexuality, and potentially redirects the ‘latent homoeroticism’ in all-male heavy metal bands. Gossow talks about her performance and participation in heavy metal, stating “… I wouldn’t wear too sexy clothes in the beginning. I would like, cover up really. No miniskirts, because that provokes the wrong comments. You know, just try to be looking… toughen up a bit, in your looks, and be good onstage’ (see appendix). She suggests that overt femininity is disadvantageous to the ‘serious’ performer. Her prerogative is not achieve female equality, but to perform well in this genre (by ‘toughening up’ she rejects idealised femininity, and by ‘being good onstage’ she embraces musicianship and aggression in favour of feminised dance), and hence becomes a kind of equal. She avoids subordinate objectification, adopting an assertive female role by co-existing in a male-dominated genre. Dalle and Gossow both sing in masculine ways, but retain what Laura Mulvey calls “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Walser, p. 125) making them heterosexually appealing while performing the masculine. Negatively, however, both these performers adopt (to differing extents) the ‘male rock star’s script of aggression and rage’ (McCarthy 2006, p. 76) instead of introducing or creating new ways of ‘being female’ in the genre.

For males to perform femininity is ultimately more difficult, and serves different purposes than the cross-gender performance of women. Often, gender negotiations used in masculine narratives work on humorous levels, whereas women dress as men to make points about equality and rights. Bands such as Foo Fighters and Nirvana have performed effeminately in contrasting contexts. Males can adopt femininity in the rock genre as a way of portraying weakness or subordination, or as experimenting in the taboo (but can rarely be taken seriously). Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ shows the band members performing in girl’s dresses, and is filmed in black and white. No dramatic narrative thread underscores the action; we simply see a stage performance that could be synonymous with a live stage performance. This donning of dresses reflects the change in masculine roles in industry, manifesting itself in the ‘rock’ bodies of the band members. France suggests that as the lead singer, Kurt Cobain displayed an inward vulnerability by occasionally adopting feminised codes of dress, in which the music of the specific grunge-rock period broke down boundaries of ‘macho hegemony’ and encouraged female involvement in rock, simultaneously updating the ‘guy-in-rock’ prototype (p. 297).

Kurt Cobain occasionally adopt[ed] feminised codes of dress, in which the music of the specific grunge-rock period broke down boundaries of ‘macho hegemony’ and encouraged female involvement in rock.

The Foo Fighters’ video for ‘Low’, in contrast, shows Dave and a friend (Jack Black) arrive at a hotel where they park their masculine trucks. They go inside and proceed to film themselves getting drunk, dressing in women’s outfits, and acting in cliché and overly dramatic feminised poses. We see them as humorous because they engage in ‘silly’ antics of ‘gender-play’, which we understand as only temporary, expecting them to return to the masculine identities that we were introduced to prior to their engagement in these acts. In comparison, Nirvana’s video contains a standardised rock performance (albeit with dresses on), where we do not feel compelled to laugh, but to question why the adoption of female costume leads us to degrade or subordinate the performers based on our personal cultural interpretations or assumptions of what is ‘rock’.

Cross-dressing or the manipulation of gender roles in masculine performances can also be used to establish identity individuality, uniqueness and innovation, as seen in the constructions of Marilyn Manson and Brian Molko’s approach to inhabiting a ‘third gender’ in the 90s and 2000s. Androgynous musicians and fans appropriate the visual signs of feminine identity in order to claim the powers of spectacularity for themselves (Walser p. 129). For male performers who do consistently embody and embrace the most extreme representations in their stage personas (and in real life), many viewers and audiences are often shocked, rejected and scared to ‘like’ this kind of performer because of his provocative choices in identity construction (Burns, pp. 5-6). Marilyn Manson, who adopts an androgynous body in ‘The Dope Show’ and ‘Long Hard Road out of Hell’, employs methods of ‘queer-acting’ (through the use of smeared, over-the-top makeup and lipstick, the long extended and dramatic body, draping of costume, posing and attempt to imbue the male body with exaggerated femininity) to add exotic elements to a performance (Geyrhalter 1996, p. 218), integrating shock value which risks reducing the impact of subversion by ‘mainstreaming’ the bizarre. Brian Molko, as the vocalist in the Placebo video for ‘Taste In Men’, adopts a femininity in his hairstyle, makeup and bodily movement, although the narrative disruption centres around his appeal to both men and women instead of portraying his rejection by heterosexual identities or society in general. He is effectively a third gender, which intervenes in the ‘natural’ order of heterosexual relationships, without engaging in the ‘freakish’ body that Manson performs. Although his sexual pairings with both the male and female who constitute the ‘heterosexual couple’ are made implicit, the pairing with the female is explored in more depth in both sexual connection and social engagement with each other, showing how they are visually similar and he mimics her. He replaces her as an object for the male to be curious about, therefore identifying sexual ambiguity in both himself and the other male without operating within humour discourses used in the cross-dressing ‘shenanigans’ that are depicted in ‘Low’, or the degraded masculinity portrayed in ‘In Bloom’.

[Brian Molko] identif[ies] sexual ambiguity …without operating within humour discourses used in the cross-dressing ‘shenanigans’ that are depicted in ‘Low’, or the degraded masculinity portrayed in ‘In Bloom’.

The most extreme or bizarre embodiments of femininity in male bodies are often performed by other identities, rather than the singers themselves. Videos which portray male cross-dressing (not performed by the band members) explore gender roles in a way that does not infringe on the audience’s understanding of the band’s identity. Swedish electronica band The Knife use a non-band member to depict a negotiated male body (albeit in traditional drag, suggesting fetishized feminine idealism) in the video ‘Pass This On’ (2003), conveying a narrative where we expect the karaoke-singing drag performer to be rejected by the signified lower social classes represented in the audience. This video works on the assumption that the audience within the video will not understand the drag queen’s motivations, ideologically placing us as the voyeur within a higher cultural category of understanding. When the people in the video’s audience get up and dance with the drag queen, our assumptions about public response to cross-dressing are challenged.

Queens of the Stone Age’s video for ‘Monster in the Parasol’ (while working on a humourous/bizarre level context) presents the narrative of a cross-dressing male who is paid to rescue a kidnapped puppy to return it to its owner. The man’s matronly costume and masculine stance combined with the close-up shots on his eyes, wig, makeup and fast-paced gait make his body seem unnatural, yet the respect he gains by being paid by ‘normal’ people (and within masculine spaces of the bar and the street) attribute him with power. The determination (signified in his facial expressions) of the empowered ‘unnatural’ body combined with the violence he utilises to ‘rescue’ the puppy constructs a bizarre milieu, further emphasised by his lack of feminine hip or torso movement and prominent arm swinging, constructing a body which retains elements of its masculine gendering while transgressing social norms. Fans of the band would understand that much of the lyrical content is obscure and contains drug references, creating the likelihood of strange music video content. We can stare at the characters in both of these videos and reconsider more meanings than we would be able to imagine if these roles were played by band members, who we are already familiar with.

Music video has enabled artists and musicians to explore their alter-egos in ‘safe’ environments, where the escapist fantasies of female pop singers can attract audiences without disjointing their expectations. Innovative female artists such as Madonna, Angela Gossow and Brody Dalle utilise visual media to explore negotiations of power and assert their stable identities within male-dominated genres, but Madonna and the Prodigy also suggest that this empowerment is ultimately destructive for the woman. Therefore, it becomes apparent that the medium can both offer freedom and reinforce gender stereotypes, by encouraging women to return to their ideal feminine identities. Men can use the medium to make statements about their disenfranchisement, while also engaging in ‘fun’ behaviour which is otherwise non-permissible. However, these instances of ‘dressing up’ are just as negative as the ideal femininity, because they reinforce that acting outside gender norms is either laughable or weak, and cannot be sustained outside of the video narrative.

However, these instances of ‘dressing up’ are just as negative as the ideal femininity, because they reinforce that acting outside gender norms is either laughable or weak, and cannot be sustained outside of the video narrative.

Male performers are able to engage in the performance of the ‘third gender’, although the portrayal of fetishized sexualisation can (intentionally or not) encourage the viewer to reject this negotiation. Whether the artist is unable to extricate this sexualisation from his negotiated gender, or tactically uses horrific theatricality in such a way that we can only consume this performance as an exotic other, also depends on the artist’s intentions. In these examples, music video highlights the difficulties faced within gender negotiation for both men and women, and reveals that even the most powerful statements about gender subversion can often ultimately reinforce ideal gender identities.


Angela Gossow Interview 
Arch Enemy ‘My Apocalypse (2005)
Ciara ‘Like A Boy’ (2007)
The Distillers ‘Deth Sex’ (live); ‘Young Crazed Peeling
Foo Fighters ‘Low’ (2003)
The Knife ‘Pass This On’ (2003)
Beyonce Knowles ‘If I Were A Boy’ (2008)
Madonna ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ (2001)
Marilyn Manson ‘The Dope Show’ (1999); ‘Long Hard Road Out Of Hell’ (1999)
Nirvana ‘In Bloom’ (dress version)
P!nk ‘U + Ur Hand’ (2006); ‘Most Girls’ (2000)
Placebo ‘Taste In Men’ (2000)
The Prodigy ‘Smack My Bitch Up
Queens of the Stone Age ‘Monsters In The Parasol
NOTE: all YouTube videos last accessed on 8 November, 2008.


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