Author’s Note: Because people asked to read some of my essays for class, this is the first one. This was originally submitted as a paper for my Sex on TV class, which is basically a gender/media studies class. The assignment was to pick two instances in which the FCC fined or received complaints from a certain program and to evaluate whether or not you, the writer, agreed with their decision. The second part of the essay is an in-depth analysis of three music videos and their presentation of gender and their underlying ideologies about gender roles.
Part 1: Censorship: Filthy Sounds and Dirty Words
As new forms of communication continue to be invented, those mediums can be used to entertain general audiences. The danger, though, is being aware of those audiences and treading lightly as not to offend anyone. While the Federal Communications Commission resides as the Overlord for Decency in Modern America, the question remains, who is the FCC really looking out for? And is it “right” that they exist at all? This essay will examine two instances in which the FCC ruled against “obscene” or “indecent” content on the air; firstly, Mae West’s appearance on NBC’s Chase and Sandborn Radio Hour and the repercussions of that appearance; and secondly, George Carlin’s iconic and infamous monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”, which broadcast by Pacifica Foundation owned radio station. In every instance, though, so much of the reception is subjective, boiling down to a paradoxical argument of whether it offends the listener at hand or whether the listener at hand thinks it will offend other people. This, as many agree, is one of the pitfalls of trying to censor entertainment.
Mae West, born Mary Jane West, became one of the best known iconoclastic film stars in the 1930s, with her appearances in films like She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933). But, it wasn’t her anti-angelic looks that boiled the blood of conservative filmgoers and made ticket sale skyrocket; it was her voice. West had, at that point, not lost her native Brooklyn accent, but purposefully manipulated it into a sarcastic, sexy coo. It was a cross between the less refined, street talking sardonicism that was not often featured in pre-Code Hollywood films, and the scintillating risqué-ness that one would associate with the star of a bedroom, not the silver screen. By using this combination of intonation and accent, it was this that would bar her from appearing on radio after guest starring on an episode of the NBC show Chase and Sandborn Radio Hour.
In the sketch, Adam and Eve are having a conversation, and Eve, played by Ms. West, is bored with life in the Garden of Eden. Adam, played by announcer Don Ameche, on the other hand, is more than comfortable in Paradise. For the first two and a half minutes, West channels the bored sarcasm that she became well known for in films. Even with anachronistic lines and insults like, “Who are you, the Chamber of Commerce?” West uses the voice to perhaps examine the submissiveness of women at that time. West’s career was marked by interesting female characters that were able to oscillate between the genuinely strong and witty and the sexpot. Her character in She Done Him Wrong was a night club singer known for broad, crass jokes. Later I the film, she almost becomes involved in prostitution, but it is her wit and unique core values that work to her advantage. Much of the film, then, is divided up between the two facets of how West used her voice, and it was the way she used her voice which got her in trouble.
West as Eve prods Adam by saying, “I’ve got to get a chance to expand my personality!” The writers of the show must have been well aware of West’s stardom, as this was clearly a nod to her bosom. In this respect, she was almost unequaled for what she was allowed to get away with. It wouldn’t be until the Hays Production Code of 1930, which wasn’t enforced until 1934, that would stall some of West’s most well-known attributes.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of the broadcast is the sexual nature of the act. She coos, says, “Adam, my man, give me trouble!”, and makes coquettish, almost pseudo-orgasmic noises, predating Meg Ryan’s instance at Katz’s Diner. At this point in the broadcast, three minutes in, West is going, well, full on West. Channeling her persona to the hilt, she plays on the suggestive note as much as she can, and may, in this way, overplayed her hand.
John Semonche notes that NBC received “over a thousand letters protesting the show” (Semonche 184), one saying that the sketch was “a serious offense against the properties and a rather low form of entertainment” (Semonche 184). From then on, Mae West was essentially persona non grata from US airwaves, not even allowing her name to be uttered on the radio.
The reaction to this skit seems somewhat odd. One has to question as to whether it was the suggestiveness of West’s voice or the fact that the skit was so connected with the Bible. While the double entendres are easily discernible, even the tone that was used by West, the actress was so well known at the time, it seems somewhat strange that so many people were surprised and even offended. West’s claim to fame was her ability to turn even simple phrases into the most decadent “offenses”. Mae West, who was also a screenwriter and playwright, though, deserves more credit, as she knew full well what she was doing. It seems unfair, then, that someone who may have been mildly controversial, should be banned altogether for something the public knew her for anyways. One will have to assume that the ban was less because of Mae West’s herself and more for her “contribution” to a Biblically themed sketch.
Thirty years later, George Carlin, master comedian and provocateur, recorded his monologue “Filthy Words” (alternately performed as “Filthy Words” and “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”, as they were recorded and performed on separate dates and albums) in front of a live audience in 1973. Written as a commentary on censorship, the piece was inspired by a performance of Lenny Bruce’s, where the comedian was arrested for using seven specific “dirty words” and listing them in alphabetical order.
Inspired by this, Carlin too to the stage and his routine, smartly written, allowed him to analyze and deconstruct, with humor, why our culture has a stigma against certain words. He notes that, “As a kid, you don’t even know what the words are! You have to say them to find out!” In this, Carlin examines the hypocrisy of the system and of the society. He also examines the vitriol one will be assaulted with by acting out as if being beat up by his parents. He examines double entendres, or “part time filth”, as he calls it. One of the most interesting aspects of this act is one line where he mentions that some people’s lists of dirty words you shouldn’t say will be “three on a Friday night and then twenty-seven on a Sunday morning”.
Carlin uses this act as commentary to look at the opportunistic ways that the public will say that they are “offended”, rather than genuinely considering the repercussions of such language. Such opportunism takes the form of being offended and merely assuming others will be offended, using the cop out “we have to think of the children”. There’s the irony that Carlin notes of the number of words used to describe the filthy words, which is one of the best moments of the act.
Semonche writes that the show was broadcast “at 2 pm on October 1973 by Pacifica’s New York Station” (Semonche 188), the show garnered a complaint from the father of a fifteen year old son. The FCC claimed the broadcast was “indecent”, but Pacifica argued that the term was too vague and was being used as a synonym for “obscene”. Unsurprisingly, Carlin’s initial, small, not-exactly-modest comedy routine sparked an interesting debate within the FCC. During this, a distinction was made between obscenity and indecency on print and on the radio, the latter being more accessible to the children.
The nature of the program is satire, and intentionally vulgar satire at that. Thus, the complaint filed against the station makes sense. However, while it is understandable not to want your children listening to Carlin’s act, the question that one must continue to come back to the concept of context. The context of the act was to criticize the FCC and the public for their prudishness. The adult nature of the act makes it unsuitable for children, but filling a complaint and requesting for something like that to be banned denies every one of the freedom to listen or watch it. That is the danger of censorship in general, essentially wresting with the idea of what the “Common Good” really is and who really will benefit from the actions. Both West and Carlin were smart enough to be aware of their action, and, by pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable, may have changed history.
Part 2: Music Videos: Machine Gun Bras, Female Fantasy, and “MILFs”
Sut Jhally, in his documentary/extended video essay Dreamworlds 3: Desire, Sex, and Power in Music Video, that the medium warps the world we live in, presenting a fantasy, or to be more blunt, a “dream world” in which women are only objects of desire, devoid of agency and treated only as something to watch and want. While Jhally is not inherently wrong about this assertion, he fails to consider the narrative possibilities of the medium as well as the female artists who are able to gain agency from sexualization and, in turn, sexualize men. The sad truth of the matter is, though, that Jhally is, regardless of generalization, mostly right. Although the first music video analyzed in this essay, Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” challenges his assertion and acts as Antonio Gramsci would put it, counter hegemony, the other two videos used as examples in this essay, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom”, do reinforce the contact of female objectification, female submissiveness, and male fantasy.
In an homage to Bob Fosse’s critically acclaimed musical from 1972 Cabaret, Lady Gaga’s is featured in the music video for her single “Alejandro”, off of her album/EP The Fame Monster, with a bowl cut, reminiscent of both Sally Bowles and, even more tellingly, of Lulu from G.W. Pabst’s silent drama Pandora’s Box. Although both of these characters were sexually promiscuous, it is not without note that both of these characters were powerful, exerting their power through their sexuality.
Lady Gaga, donned in a strange bionic, almost cyber punkish head device, sits upon a throne and watches a half-naked men dance in a circle. They, too, have bowl cuts or bobs like the aforementioned characters. The beginning of the video features Lady Gaga leading them in a march, and the connotation seems to be one of a militaristic, cold, solemn environment. Thus, it is interesting that the men should dress in almost nothing, wear hair dos that are more feminine than they are masculine, and yet retain the dark militaristic strength of a storm trooper.
These men are also featured in a scene where Lady Gaga even more overtly recalls Sally Bowles’ costume from Cabaret. There’s a convergence of the masculine stereotype and the feminine, or homosexual, stereotype, as the soldiers walk forward as if they are on a runway. There’s an interesting juxtaposition here, with the masculinity of a soldier outfit, meant to symbolize power and unfailing strength, and the distinctive walk of a runway model, which is often cited as being powerful, but feminine and “weaker” than other gaits.
Lady Gaga dresses as a nun and drops Rosary beads down her throat, swallowing religion, a callback, undoubtedly, to the many religious groups that have criticized her work. In this scene, and in the scenes where she is dressed not unlike Joan of Arc, Lady Gaga seems self-aware. The video, as well as most of her “filmography” have a self-reflexive nature that acknowledges what it is doing and how it is doing it, again the mark of Lady Gaga’s brilliance.
The opening tracking shot, which is interrupted by the words Gaga and Klein (the latter denoting the name of the music video’s director, fashion photographer Steven Klein), features a bar with men in fishnet stockings slumped over in chairs. Other sequences in the video contain men tied by a string to their weapons.
What does all this elliptical and enigmatic imagery mean? It seems to point in the direction of the lack of reconciliation between gay men being in the military and the public’s comfort with this idea. There’s constant juxtaposition between masculine elements and feminine elements, and the cold, snowy palette points to the bleak nature of the subject matter. But what is interesting about the video is that it spends time sexualizing its actors and dancers and its performer, but in an atypical way. Lady gaga, the show woman that she is, does appear in the video wearing very little, and men do have control over her. Conversely, though, she has control over them, as evidence in a sequence where she tries to tie up her male lovers in a bed. In these parts, she is the one who has power, not only by the way she handles the rope, but also by the sexual positioning. She is seen as the penetrator in these scenes as often as the men are, at odds with the popular image of sexuality. Again, gender plays a part in this sequence where both Lady Gaga and her male lovers are wearing high heeled shoes.
In another sequence, Lady Gaga wears a brassiere with the barrel of an AR-15 rifle attached to the cups. Although usually a punch line in bad comedies, this presents the idea of death and life coming together like one, as breasts are where nourishment is found and guns are responsible for the destruction of life. While dancing with these soldiers, she is the only one who is dressed and lit in an extremely pale way, allowing her to stand out from the crowd.
The video was released in late 2010, several months before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the United States policy on gays serving in the military, was put to an end. The militaristic nature of its imagery, though, is unmistakable. However, while there is very little connection between the video and the song’s lyrics (save for seemingly coincidental image/lyric complements), Gaga and director Klein made differing statements about what the music video was about. Lady Gaga said it was about the “love [she has] for [her] gay friends” and Klein states that it was about “The pain of living without your true love”.
The way it presents men and women (or woman, rather) in the video, though, is counter hegemonic (Croteau, Hoynes, Milan 159). As opposed to reinforcing the idea that men always have power in music videos (Jhally, Dreamworlds), Lady Gaga subverts this idea by there to be a fluidity of power exchange within the video, one is never quite sure who really holds the authority within the “Alejandro” music video. Lady Gaga’s flexibility with dealing with such issues in her videos, from “Bad Romance” to “Paparazzi” has always been one of the aspects that make her an interesting artist. The subject matter, as subtle as it may or may not be, handles head on the concept of what we accept as “natural”. Nothing about Lady Gaga is, societally speaking, “normal”, but by considering gay rights within this video, even going so far as to allude to the Stonewall Riots I the form of superimposed newsreel footage and projection footage, she challenges the norm in the video. At the same time, though, despite the arguments that the authors of “Media and Ideology” make, neither does Lady Gaga attempt to make the content of the video normal. There is not a sense of “normalizing” outside of the video. Yes, within the world of “Alejandro”, beating hearts on a black pillow and soldiers in fishnets might be normal, but there isn’t a push beyond belief to make it seem like it would occur in the real world, at least not with the same theatrical flair. With sadomasochistic theatricality, ”Alejandro” challenges the idealistic hegemony that we may have come to be used to in music videos, and goes so far as to challenge the primary argument within Jhally’s Dreamworld 3.
Although “Alejandro” is a welcome change in pace for music videos narratively, aesthetically, and sexually speaking, it does not necessarily make up for the many other contemporary music videos that reinforce much of the argument that Jhally makes in Dreamworlds 3. Carly Rae Jepsen’s infectious and undeniably popular earworm “Call Me Maybe” features a music video that perpetuates female stereotypes of shallowness, blind coquettishness, and then uses a questionable punch line to end the video. What may be an interesting aspect of the video, though, is that it does not entirely sexualize its artist, Jepsen, but instead her object of desire.
Canadian pop singer Jepsen is seen looking out of a window, ogling her neighbor as he mows his lawn. IT is not the ogling itself that perpetuates female stereotypes of shallowness, but the insert shot of a romance novel and the fact that Jepsen uses this novel to fan herself. Although it challenges the initial idea behind Dreamworlds 3 that women are only sexualized, it does “compromise” on the idea that they are made to be illustrated as shallow human beings. Paul Hodgkinson covers the popular nature of the romance novel by looking at Janice Radway’s analysis of romance fiction. Hodgkinson writes, in “Media, Gender, and Sexuality”, “Radway learned that one of the most important motivations for reading was that the act of reading itself enabled women to claim time and space within the home. It was ‘a way of temporarily refusing the demands associated with their social roles as wives and mothers’” (Hodgkinson 230). Although Radway makes a compelling argument, at 29, Jepsen is too young to be either of these roles, making that argument, for this case at least, weak. The romance fiction within the video is used as fantasy, as when Jepsen is cleaning her car and falls off of it, knocking herself unconscious, she recreates the cover of a romance novel with the man she was looking at lustily (played by rapper/model Holden Nowell).
Again, we encounter a music video whose lyrics have nothing to do with the content on screen, and even less so than “Alejandro” as, at least with that one, they were thematically linked. Here, the number means less than the fantasy of being with someone, and there always a mediator between Jepsen and Nowell.
The music video overtly employs the “Female Gaze”, what could be considered a branch off of Mulvey’s theory of the “Male Gaze”, which was featured in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasures and the Narrative Cinema”. The video treats Holden Nowell as the object to be looked at and desired, going over his washboard abs in slow motion and paying particular attention to his charming smirk. At this last bit, Jepsen ducks under the window. As to whether video, as Mulvey puts it, reflects “the unconscious of patriarchal society” (Hodgkinson 221), two arguments can be made: First, the woman is the one objectifying, and second, it is the video portraying the woman as fairly shallow and thus objectifying, perpetuating the idea that young women are more focused on good looks than anything else. (This last bit, of course, goes along with the historical hypocrisy of how society labels women.)
In an attempt to create humor, Jepsen “makes fun” of the music video cliché, where she is seen trying to wash a car in a tantalizing way. Brought out slightly against her will by her bandmates, she clumsily tries to look sexy as she washes the car, and ends up falling off of the car. The scene amounts to little more than a joke, barely passing as a commentary or observance of the same clichés it’s trying to mimic.
The video ends on a punch line, where, throughout the attempts to entice, with Nowell giving his number to one of Jepsen’s male bandmates. It cuts to Jepsen looking incredulous, as if realizing all of her hard work trying woo her neighbor have been for naught. But this ending isn’t subversive, instead it’s fairly tacky. In essence, it uses the sexuality of her neighbor as the joke itself, the cop out being the audience’s “surprise”. Films and television shows have done this before with as much tactlessness, but that there is this reveal creates an even greater disconnect between the video and the song’s actual lyrics.
“Call Me Maybe” resides in a strange middle ground where it manages to use the Female Gaze and yet still portray its female artist as stereotypically shallow. It does not fully support Jhally’s ideas in Dreamworlds 3, but it correlates with some of the assertions made within the video as well as the hegemonic ideas featured within “Media and Ideology” and “Media, Gender, and Sexuality”.
The video that most supports the ideas behind Jhally’s Dreamworlds 3 is undoubtedly the cult hit song “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne from 2003. (It is, also, the only video that has direct correlation between its source song.) The song can be taken whimsically, but presents many fundamental problems. The song itself is straightforward in its portrayal of adolescent male fantasy (something that is by no means unusual), but its somewhat clever devices subject its characters to a creepy and borderline lewd sexualization, including that of the underage actress playing Stacy.
Depicting the fantasy of a young man of his friend, Stacy’s (or perspective love, depending on how you read it) mother, the video intentionally creates a fantasy world for that of its young male protagonist. But mixed up in this fantasy is deep objectification of two characters, Stacy, and her mom, played by model Rachel Hunter. The beginning shots of the video feature Stacy’s mom rolling up in a sports car, wearing a tennis outfit. In these opening shots, there is more concentration and focus put on the reaction shots of the boys around Stacy waiting for her mom than, say, the insert shot of her mom’s legs. That is not true for much longer though, as, in accordance with Jhally’s assertions, Stacy’s mom acts out all the usual clichés: from bending down to give the audience a view of her cleavage, to the undressing in front he watchful eye of the “little boy”, to laying down and receiving a massage from another man. In this last instance, the camera creeps up and follows the hands of the masseur.
This objectification reaches comic heights with two final sequences, where Stacy’s mom dances as a stripper on top of the kitchen counter, to the final moment where she walk out of a pool, recalling the film Fast Times at Ridgmont High. Although these sequences are purposefully played up beyond reality, acting as the fantasy of the young boy, it nonetheless reinforced the objectification of the woman as sex object. There is, to some extent, an Oedipal part of the video and to the song itself. Because, as the chorus goes, “Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on”.
The manifestations of arousal are somewhat reminiscent of films made during the Hays Production Code, a time where directors had to use subversive imagery in order to convey naughty ideas. The moment that Stacy’s mom fully undresses, the boy’s soda opens and overflows, obviously an allusion to premature ejaculation. The phallic nature of the bottle, the mailbox he runs over while mowing the lawn, and the rose he fantasizes of giving to Stacy’s mom are all indicative of the male fantasy. More cinematic than many of the music videos featured in the documentary Dreamworlds 3, the Male Gaze is featured within the confines of a linear narrative, instead of a random montage.
The most problematic aspect of the video, though, is the sexualization of Stacy herself. In the first verse, Stacy is seen on her bed, wearing very small underwear and a shirt that reveals her midriff. She takes off her shirt and jumps into the pool, and the bikini she wears is as suggestive as the one her mother wears, though in a notably lighter color. In the second verse, as the boy mows the lawn, Stacy is seen lounging and, in a nod to Stanley Kubrick, wearing heart shaped glasses and a coquettish smile. The heart shaped glasses are interesting, showing the competition Stacy is engaging in in order to win the affections of the young boy. They are an allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. IN the film, Sue Lions plays Dolores (although HH likes to call her Lo), and in the first meeting between the two, she is wearing those glasses. The image was used in promotional material for the film. This is also interesting, as the novel and the film present a reversal of the Oedipal Complex. Here, it seems it is misused, only employed to show that Stacy is trying to be, as HH would put it, “a nymphet”.
With its overt objectification of all female parties involved and giving its male protagonist the position of “man who fantasizes”, the music video, although tongue in cheek, nevertheless present problematic ideals that reinforce the ideas behind Dreamworlds 3. It seems to be the most overt offender of the three music videos examined and the one that most supports Jhally’s ideas.
The three music videos examined in this essay present a range of ideas, but only the first one, Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” has any hope of representing counter-hegemonic ideas. The other two are relegated to being fairly standard videos where someone is objectified, although Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” has the distinction of objectifying a male actor instead of a female actor. That video, though, has its own issues with the presentation of its female artist. Fountain of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” exhibits the most faults. The three videos, though, examined almost in reverse chronology (Lady Gaga’s video was released in 2010, while Carly Rae Jepson’s was released in 2012), shows a slow change and evolution of how some directors and artists use the music video form to exhibit not only males and females, but the ideas of how we think of them as a whole. From colloquial “MILF” to lady with a machine gun bra, who knows how music videos will portray women in the future?
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