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Music to My Ears

Posted by: Hilary Jones on 1/17/2012

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, British artist Adele stated, “I don't make music for eyes. I make music for ears.”   

If you are unfamiliar with Adele, you are probably familiar with her song, “Rolling in the Deep”. Blues-inspired, with a neo-soul feel, Adele was difficult to avoid in 2011. Her record, “21”, spent 15+ weeks at number 1 on Billboard’s charts and she was ranked as the number one artist in 2011 by Billboard.

Adele was followed in the top 10 by several other female artists including Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and Taylor Swift.  While Adele’s statement above might not hold true for all of these artists, this is clearly a group of strong women.

So, with all of these women at the top of the charts, it would seem that gender equality is not really an issue in the music industry, right?

Well, not quite.  What the charts do not reveal is the presentation of women within the industry.  Anyone who has watched music videos for an extended period of time or read popular music magazines, can attest to the fact that women and men are not necessarily portrayed equally

Researchers Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner recently completed a study assessing covers of Rolling Stone magazine from 1967-2009. They broke up images into three categories: not sexualized, sexualized, and hyper-sexualized.  They found that despite the popularity of female artists, the majority of images of women were not just sexualized, but hyper-sexualized. Across the years, only two percent of images of men were hyper-sexualized, contrasted with 61 percent of images of women, with an increase over the last 10-20 years.  In fact, in the 2000s, women were five and a half times more likely to be presented in a sexualized, rather than non-sexualized manner. The authors attribute this change to a narrowing of acceptable presentations of women in the media.

Its implications are not difficult to see: girls and women are presented with fewer ways to exist in the world; their options are limited and the message they receive is that what is important about them is their sexuality and appearance, rather than their talents, skills, or personality. But this increased sexualization is not relegated to just adult women. In 2010, the American Psychological Association (APA) released the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which found that girls are being presented in increasingly sexual ways, and that the consequences of this are serious, affecting many areas of life, including: cognition; physical and mental health;sexuality; and attitudes and beliefs.

As the Director of Girls Rock! Rhode Island (GRR!), whose mission is to help girls and women empower themselves through music, part of my job is to help girls and women navigate the culture and the media (music or otherwise). GRR! does this through workshops within our programs, focusing on media literacy, relational aggression, gender stereotypes, the history of women who rock, and more. Participants at Girls Rock Camp (ages 11-18) and Ladies Rock Camp (18+), (most of whom have no musical experience), attend these workshops in addition to learning an instrument, joining a band, writing an original song, and performing it live, in a few short days. The hope is that the workshops, combined with a positive all-female environment that supports self-expression and creativity, will allow participants a space to create their own media and challenge the negative images around them.

While Adele’s focus on the creation of music over the creation of an image is a beacon of light in this sea of hyper-sexualized media, she is still the exception. GRR! wants to do more than simply provide a life vest to keep girls and women from drowning; we aim to create a safer and less dangerous sea.

In future RightHer blogs, I am very excited to continue discussing girls’ and women’s representations in music (and the rest of media) and the ways that music and art can act as vehicles for empowerment.

This article focuses on artists in popular music. However, one of GRR!'s strategies is to expose girls and women to artists outside of mainstream media who might encourage a greater range of possibilities and experiences.  Who are some positive female artists that you would share?    

Contents of this blog constitute the opinion of the author, and the author alone; they do not represent the views and opinions of Women's Fund of Rhode Island.

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Fantastic post, Hilary. It is so critical that there are alternatives to the sexualized identities you write about, while at the same time women having opportunities to be sex-positive and freely express themselves. It's a tricky balance, and as the step-parent of a 16-year-old girl it is something I think about daily. GRR!'s Girls Rock Camp is so important, in part for raising these issues with teens. Thanks for all you are doing!
heather jensen
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Hilary, a great article. I have noticed this phenomena for years and years - being almost 40 myself now! SO very frustrating as an observer - i can't imagine how frustrating as a musician. The show "Toddlers and Tiaras" comes to mind actually. We have been sexualizing girls for years now, but it seems that in the past 10 years it's gone warp speed. Actresses, musicians and even everyday women have to not only be talented and capable, they have to look sexy doing it. It's the strangest thing, because if we're so liberated, how come - in many ways - we're more boxed in than ever?
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