The politics of Paris

They recently banned Paris Hilton’s video, “Stars Are Blind,” in India for its rampant sexuality. That’s not very surprising to anyone who’s seen the video or knows anything about Paris Hilton and her previous “videos.”

“Stars Are Blind” is directed by Chris Applebaum and from the opening shot it is obvious that he’s referencing 1991’s “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak, a video that raised similar objections when it first aired. The two videos share shots of water rushing and bodies rubbing, not to mention annoying singers.

They also share a huge emphasis on female anatomy over male anatomy, choosing to highlight Ms. Hilton and model Helena Christensen over their male counterparts. It’s nothing new to point out the rampant misogyny in pop music, particularly in music videos, but there’s a more interesting question lingering here.

In Isaak’s piece Christensen shows a bit more than Paris, but neither is ever fully nude, rather they strut and stare in a sexual manner. Can you imagine the equivalent male poses? Chris Isaak barely takes off his shirt here, while Paris’ counterpart is definitely meant to be eye candy, he doesn’t move around or touch himself provocatively – and the camera almost always lingers on Paris anyway. Michael Jackson grabbed his crouch emphatically for over 20 years on MTV, and while it angered a few, none of his videos are really considered “too sexy,” but rather somewhat disturbing.

Some may remember the D’Angelo video a few years back, where the camera grazed over his completely naked body as he sung soulfully, but D’Angelo is not exactly the same as Paris. He was a great singer who used his body to compliment a particular song’s force and even then he barely moves throughout the video. On the other hand, “Stars are Blind” is a fairly innocent love song with a playful coded reference, but it doesn’t have to be about sex, we just expect as much from Paris Hilton. The fact is, there is no male equivalent in music to Paris.

There are no popular male singers today who have built a career solely on sex. Or rather, there are no male artists who live purely off sexualizing themselves. There are plenty of artists who make
a living making songs about sex, about women or even about their sexual prowess with women, but none of them are sex symbols who have made a name for themselves based only on their bodies.

Justin Timberlake and Usher are very fetishized figures, but both rose up on the strength of their voices and dancing abilities. There are numerous other examples in hip-hop and R&B of sexualized men, who became sex symbols, but began as musicians (or so-called “musicians”). The fact that Paris Hilton and others (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera etc.) have done the opposite reveals serious inconsistencies in popular culture.

Aguilera is a good example because she is widely respected for her voice (winning a Grammy), but her lead single was “Genie in a Bottle” and hinged on the line, “I’m a genie in a bottle baby, gotta rub me the right way honey,” while the video focused on her teenage dancing form in revealing attire. At the same time the Backstreet Boys were enjoying great success without discussing sex a great deal, but even when they dipped into the field on “Everybody” with the line “Am I Sexual? Yeah,” the video was not as correspondingly upfront. Though both were being marketed towards the teeny-bopper crowd, the inclusion of such sexualized images in Aguilera’s and Britney’s cases resulted in wider sexual appeal for those artists. Spears’s albums even came packaged with poster-sized images of the singer in full Lolita mode.

But does this mean these women are being forced into portraying themselves in a certain manner in order to attain a level of success? Probably, and honestly no one can blame Paris Hilton for capitalizing on an opportunity. What is far more disheartening is the fact that in making a video that references the sexuality of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” the director and Hilton did not choose to reverse the angle. Since the days of Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema, published in 1975, we’ve been fully aware of the male gaze in cinema, but it is clear that not much has changed.

The music industry is still run by heterosexual men and their desires. Aguilera and others have recognized this, and even come out against it, and yet they are still forced to sell their own work based on their bodies. While there is an unbelievable amount of objectification and dehumanization of females in many music videos, female displays of sexuality should not be banned. Instead, one just wishes that someone in the music industry, male or female, would have balls and actually use them once in a while.

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