Pop Misogyny: Nick Jonas, One Direction and 50 Shades

Pop music has a misogyny problem.

Now, were I to posit that hip hop has such a problem no one would bat an eyelash; that's old news. But I mean just what I said, that popular, top 40 music, in the United States of America, in 2015, shows evidence of deeply ingrained notions of female inferiority, subordination and disempowerment.

I can already hear the chorus of dissenters citing examples of empowered women in the medium in an attempt to stave off having this conversation:

"What about Beyonce, huh? How can pop music have gender equity problems when Beyonce is Beyonce?"

It's her world. We're just living in it.
"Lorde's a feminist right? Doesn't that mean everything's basically fair?"

As if the success of a few women/minorities means the playing field is suddenly level. As if, because a few women have successfully navigated the murky waters of fame, we should stop talking about female representation in music. It's a flimsy line of thinking, albeit a familiar one.

Granted, the popular music scene may be the closest we get to equality in the entertainment sphere. Hollywood is still slogging behind the times, producing more male-centered films by far, with woefully inadequate female representation in such films (even while female-centered films do measurably better in the box office). At least in the music industry we have certain female artists absolutely owning their art and winning much-deserved acclaim for it (Beyonce, Taylor Swift). Still, we also have some highly problematic themes coming out of extremely popular and influential songs.

Take, for instance, a couple Billboard mainstays from the last few months: "Steal My Girl" by One Direction and "Jealous" by Nick Jonas.

"Steal My Girl" never topped any charts, but given the industry clout of One Direction, and the earworm nature of the song, it was hard to avoid for a time. And before I gave it a good listen, I was fairly into the song. It's got a stomp-clap rhythm and an aggressively upbeat feel, both of which appeal to my pop sensibilities. Indeed, on the surface it seems to be an utterly benign, pleasant ditty.

Once you peel back even the thinnest layer, however, you find a theme ever-present in our culture's media though no less nefarious for it: possessiveness, the idea that men own "their" women.

That sounds stark, sure, but even a cursory assessment of the lyrics reveals a disturbing attitude toward the narrator's relationship with his significant other.

"Are you gonna steal my girl?" he sings, "Are you gonna take her heart away? Couple billion in the whole wide world. Find another one, 'cause she belongs to me." (emphasis mine)

While the chorus' last line is most disturbing, the trouble starts straight away. Are you gonna steal my girl?

Apparently the narrator is squaring off against some rival alpha male whose sights are set on his girlfriend. While this is understandably frustrating, a decent man would trust his girlfriend, but our "hero" instead seems intent on posturing and chest-puffing, all while making perfectly clear to the world exactly whose girlfriend she is.

"She is mine."
Use of the possessive "my" might be excusable if not for the follow-up line "she belongs to me". That's the clincher, the nail in the coffin, signifying we are not merely talking about affinity, nor affection but possession.

You tell 'em Audrey!
As a matter of fact, every line of this chorus is dripping with de-humanizing, objectifying language. You don't "steal" people, you steal objects. Even this girl's heart is, according to the lyrics, a possession to be taken, and not from her but from the narrator, who apparently owns that too. Oh, and there are a "couple billion in the whole wide world", a couple billion women, interchangeable as machine parts. In other words, the narrator isn't afraid of losing his relationship so much as he would hate to have someone else touching his things.

File under "ew".

Now I don't mean to come down too hard on 1D, because honestly the song is not an outlier. It is not especially misogynistic compared to its peers and predecessors. That's the thing about misogyny, though: it doesn't require special hate for women. All one need do is reflect the larger's cultures attitudes, internalize its problematic ideas, and one is implicitly and intrinsically misogynistic. We are so awash in these attitudes we cannot discern or even notice them. That's why we don't immediately hear these themes that most of us would agree are awful once we give them even the slightest thought.

Alright, ready for another? Take a deep breath, this one could smart a little.

Many of us were thrilled over the comeback of a certain young Jonas. Even more exciting was the apparent craft behind the newly-grown Nick's music. I, for one was surprised and delighted when I first heard "Jealous", a soulful, catchy track filled with impressive vocals and beats.

Then the glass shattered, as it had before with "Steal My Girl", when I actually listened to the song.

Now pay close attention, because this one is trickier, subtler. Jonas doesn't explicitly claim his girlfriend belongs to him. He does, however, imply as much, through the language of jealousy.

Here's where I lose some of you, I know. Some will no doubt fail to see how vehement jealousy is actually akin to misogyny. Doesn't jealousy just demonstrate affection? Isn't it a good thing? Or at least a normal thing?

Hear me out.

At the surface there's not much to "Jealous". In the song Jonas sets out to justify to his girlfriend how jealous he gets (not a great start). As in "Steal My Girl", the girlfriend in question is the target of some amount of male attention. To Jonas' credit, at least he's talking to his girlfriend, rather than arguing with some random guy about his girlfriend (as in SMG).

Still, it gets bad quick. Take a look at the chorus: 

"I turn my chin music up
And I’m puffing my chest
I’m getting red in the face
You can call me obsessed
It’s not your fault that they hover
I mean no disrespect
It’s my right to be hellish
I still get jealous."

Let's start with the good, as there's not much. At least Jonas does not, in this moment, blame his girlfriend for the excess of male attention she receives. "It's not your fault that they hover," he says. Then again, in the third verse he backpedals with the plea, "I wish you didn't have to post it all, I wish you'd save a little bit just for me." There we learn he actually does blame her for being so attractive to other men. She "post[s] it all". She asks to be ogled. Standard victim-blaming rape culture language. So, ya know what, never mind.

The chorus goes on to describe his visceral, primal reaction to "his" woman being the object of other men's desires. Red face, puffed chest. He is "obsessed", so poisoned by testosterone he can't help lashing out. As a matter of fact, it's his right.

It's his right.

To be hellish.

It's a boyfriend's right to terrorize his girlfriend, so long as he's motivated by jealousy.

Ugh... guys? Can we all please agree this is lunacy?

Nick Jonas [may I call you Nick? Nicky?], let me clear something up for you: it is no one's right to be hellish.

I don't care how much you "love" your girlfriend/fiance/wife. It is not your right to blame her for receiving male attention, nor is it your right to lash out in a jealous rage. Such is the behavior of abusers.

Really ladies and gentlemen, these are the real stakes we're dealing with. Lyrics like these normalize a too-prevalent and deeply problematic sense of possessiveness in romantic relationships which, while not causing abuse per se, certainly contributes to a culture in which abuse is more palatable.

Look at last weekend's box office record-breaker, 50 Shades of Grey. That entire film centers on a controlling, obsessive man and the woman he abuses. And we EAT IT UP! As progressive as we Americans purport to be, we love controlling male figures. We seem to believe these stories and attitudes pay respect to some "traditional" brand of masculinity, when our endorsement of them actually reveals our latent disrespect for women and our tacit endorsement of abuse, all of which amount to a constant and consistent reinforcement of power structures which maintain male superiority at the expense of half the population.

Before I leave you to reflect on these thoughts, allow me to make my appeal to those not typically drawn into the "women's issues" conversation. For example, I spend much of my time in the milieu of Evangelical Christianity, a subculture wherein feminism is often considered a dirty word. While I don't agree with that sentiment, and actually consider myself a feminist (or at least as much of one as Jesus was), I would like to set aside that baggage for a moment and try to point out some common ground on which we, feminists and Evangelicals, ought to be standing together.  

We, as Jesus people, ought to be the ones advocating for those most oppressed, abused and taken advantage of. Such an ethic is central to Christian teaching and practice, not peripheral. And with domestic abuse as real and ubiquitous an issue as it is, we must be the ones speaking out against it. We must be the ones offering the world better. Unfortunately, given the surfeit of abuse scandals within the church, our reputation is more often the opposite.

Something must be done. Something must change. And I can hear God calling His people to lead the charge.

But we're not there yet.

So, in the words of Sarah Bessey, "until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these things, you can also call me a feminist.”


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