If you’re anything like me, you spent your childhood head-bopping to [and possibly drooling over] boy bands, and your teenage years getting angsty with Avril Lavigne and Paramore. The 90’s and 2000’s will always have that comforting nostalgic coating for our generation, but that doesn’t mean the music that emerged from then didn’t have its feminism-related problems.
I’m not necessarily disparaging the musicians in question, nor saying that these songs are all bad. But recognizing friend-zoning, sex-shaming, stereotyping, or girl-hating messages in media we enjoy is important, and helps prevent us from absorbing those implications inadvertently. It also raises our awareness so we can look out for these messages in anything we may listen to/watch in the future! So without further ado…
1. “It’s Gonna Be Me” by NSYNC (2000)
‘You might been hurt, babe. That ain’t no lie…’
‘You don’t wanna lose it again. But I’m not like them.’
‘Baby when you finally, get to love somebody, guess what…it’s gonna be me.’
‘You’ve got no choice, babe, but to move on…there ain’t no time to waste’
‘You’re just too blind, to see, but in the end you know it’s gonna be me. You can’t deny…’
It took me years to realize that this is the (damn catchy) ANTHEM of the “friend-zoned” boy. He sees his crush having problems with boys doing her wrong, and seizes the opportunity not only to make a move, but to assert that she WILL end up dating him. It doesn’t matter if she’s not interested: he knows better, and his convictions and desires get prioritized. He knows this will happen because he does so much for her, even though it “never seems enough,” according to the chorus.
It’s classic Nice Guy™ syndrome. He thinks his basic politeness and being there for her through all the other assholes she’s dated entitle him to a relationship. She has no choice but to move on…to him. He dehumanizes her by ignoring her feelings and makes it her fault for not satisfying him. Relationships aren’t machines that you put niceness coins into until sex falls out. If you don’t view the object of your affection as a human being, it’s probably not gonna be you.
2. “Don’t Tell Me” by Avril Lavigne (2004)
‘I’m gonna ask you to stop, thought I liked you a lot, but, I’m really upset.’
‘This guilt trip that you put me on won’t, mess me up, I’ve done no wrong.’
‘Did I never tell you that I’m not like that girl, the one who, gives/throws it all away…’
At first glance this seems like a fairly feminist song: a girl establishing boundaries and not letting a guy push her around. That part is great. We could use more songs about girls standing up to pressure. The problem is that, to do this, Avril felt the need to distinguish herself from OTHER girls who DO want to have sex; who want to, in her words, “throw it [her virginity? Her ‘purity?’ Avril’s definition of standards?] all away.”
Empowerment in your sexual choices doesn’t mean always abstaining: it means always making the choice that’s right for you. You’re not throwing anything away or giving up a part of yourself if you’re having sex that you’re satisfied with. I’ve yet to see this accusation leveled at men with active sex lives.
And, sadly, it’s too common for girls to try to distance themselves from femininity and its stereotypical weaknesses in order to appear interesting, agreeable, or just plain better: “I’m not like other girls.” But when you say things like this, you’re heaping more judgment and criticism on a group that is heavily judged and criticized by everyone else. Women need to support each other, and Avril could’ve made her point without this piece of internalized misogyny.
3. “Daughters” by John Mayer (2003)
“I know a girl, she puts the color inside of my world.”
“Fathers, be good to your daughters.”
“Girls become lovers who turn into mothers.”
“Boys will be strong, and boys soldier on, but boys will be gone without the warmth from a woman’s good, good heart.”
Overall, this song has a good message: Treat your children right so they don’t turn into screw-up adults. But something about it always rubbed me the wrong way, and I finally figured it out: the gender roles Mayer subtly parcels out to girls and to boys. He reinforces the idea that women exist primarily for others instead of themselves: first as a dating partner, then as a caregiver. Don’t treat your daughter decently only for her sake or because it’s the right thing to do: do it because she’ll be affecting someone else’s life someday. This auxiliary, relative importance is echoed whenever women are referred to only as wives, sisters, mothers, and/or daughters in public rhetoric. They may very well be those things, but before that they are independent human beings. It seems like that’s too often forgotten.
Boys are conditioned to “be strong” and to “soldier on,” but they’re human beings too, and they can’t be strong all the time. Showing emotion is widely considered a feminine trait, so boys are steered sharply away from it, with bad consequences for themselves and society.
And is the only purpose a woman’s heart serves to ensure that a man survives? What about gay couples? A gay man certainly doesn’t need or want a woman’s “warmth.” These messages aren’t overbearing or necessarily toxic, but they reinforce a status quo with which Mayer is clearly comfortable.
4. “Livin’ la Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin (1999)
“She’s got a new addiction for every day and night.”
“Upside, inside out, she’s livin’ la vida loca.”
“Woke up in New York City, in a funky cheap motel. She took my heart and she took my money, she must’ve slipped me a sleeping pill.”
(TW Rape) It’s easy to get caught up in the fun of this song. So easy, that for years I missed (or glossed over) a flat-out admission in the second verse that this girl drugged (and possibly raped) him, before stealing all his money and disappearing. “Waking up” in New York City implies that he wasn’t there before, so we can add kidnapping to the list, too. But hey, it’s okay! She’s just livin’ la vida loca!
Weirdly, Ricky doesn’t seem too flummoxed by this. If the gender roles had been reversed—had he sung so openly about a man committing these actions towards a woman—I’d think there would’ve been some uproar when the song came out, despite its infectious beat. It’s one thing to be into black cats and another thing to slip people drugs and drag them to motels. The former is a little quirky and the latter is actually, criminally crazy. I think the widespread acceptance of these events has to do with the common view of heterosexual relations and power balances. Men are always assumed to be wanting sex, while women are assumed to not want it. So the fact that this girl desired to have sex with him was seen more as a whirlwind, ego-boosting experience for him than the crime it was.
5. “Misery Business” by Paramore (2007)
‘I told him I couldn’t lie, he was the only one for me.’
‘Just watch my wildest dreams come true, not one of them involving you.’
‘Second chances they don’t ever matter, people never change. Once a whore you’re nothing more, I’m sorry, that’ll never change.’
‘Woah, it was never my intention to brag, to steal it all away from you now.’
I love Paramore. I want to be Hayley Williams when I grow up (and I’m 21.) But as often as I blasted this song in my room sophomore (and junior, and senior) year, I can’t ignore the slut-shaming language and stereotypes she reinforces. The music video shows the “you” of the song—Hayley’s competition for this boy’s affection—to be a needlessly cruel person. She knocks over a guy on crutches, makes out with someone else’s boyfriend, and chops off a girl’s braid. Her actions show a person who is damn easy to dislike. But Hayley’s choice of insult wasn’t the best one. Once you have one bad or scandalous romantic experience, that’s all you are, forever? That’s what defines you?
Abstinence-only sex education often teaches that once a woman has sex, she is used-up, filthy, and worthless (as Elizabeth Smart can attest.) That sounds awfully similar to the implications of “Once a whore you’re nothing more…that’ll never change.” Painting this as an acceptable way to speak can only further the unrealistic and harmful expectations of a girl’s inherent value tying in with her sexual decisions. (Also, referring to a relationship or a person as an “it,” an object, a prize to be competed for and won, isn’t mature or fair.)
What songs do you love but have realized carry problematic messages? Share with us in the comments below.
Written by Melanie Stangl