MTV worries me… part 4; Making Street Harassment ‘Sexy’

3OH!3 Katy Perry Starstrukk

Whilst writing my (ever multiplying… gosh, I’m easily perturbed, aint I?) blog posts about music videos, I’ve started to notice another little trend. This time, however, it’s not content of the videos that’s getting to me but the lyrics of the songs, instead.

We’ve been talking a lot about street harassment on Uplift lately, from Reclaim The Night marches in London and Leeds to Lydia Harris‘ feature on the new Hollaback UK movement. With that background in mind, take a listen to 3OH!3’s Starstrukk featuring Katy Perry, released yesterday…

You can find the whole lot of lyrics here (should you want to sing along, you weirdo) but here’s the gist in case you missed it;

Nice legs, Daisy Dukes, makes a man go (swit swoo!)
That’s the way they all come through like
(swit swoo! swit swoo!)
Low-cut, see-through shirts that make ya (swit swoo!)
That’s the way she come through like (swit swoo! swit swoo!)

There’s certainly a whole lot of wolf whistling going on! Apparently it’s all to ’show appreciation’ of nice legs, revealing shirts and ‘Double Ds’ (is it just me or does Katy Perry pull a rather embarrassed face at this line?), but what does Katy Perry have to say on behalf of the women who are being ‘appreciated’?

‘Cause I just set them up
Just set them up
Just set them up to knock them down

Oh. Kay. So we are to believe that WOMEN(TM), as presented in this song, dress in a particular way (or are simply the owners of breasts/legs) just so that they can attract attention because, inevitably, they enjoy rebuking the advances of enamoured men. Right…

I don’t think I know of any women in my life who relish receiving ‘compliments’ from street harassers (although some women commenting here seem to), or who dress for the benefit of them just so they can feel some hollow sense of ‘empowerment’ when they ignore them. Of all the stories I’ve heard from people who’ve been sexually harassed on the street, most will point out that they were not dressed ‘provocatively’ (not that it should matter what you are wearing).

I know that personally I find unwanted judgements on my appearance and sexual suggestions as I walk alone in a public space creepy, disresepectful, threatening and uncalled for. I’m with Katy Perry when she sings “You know that type of shit just don’t work on me, whistlin’, trying to flirt with me”… but seriously, who does this type of shit ‘work’ for?

The team behind the Sugababes, perhaps?

I’ve written about the Get Sexy video before, but haven’t yet given the lyrics the full going over they deserve. Whilst the video exhibits a topsy turvy world, where to be empowered is to be put in chains and cages, the lyrics are equally skew-wiff in their documentation of female sexual liberation…

In a polished world where there is nothing more important than appearing to be sexy, the Sugababes seem pretty pleased with how often their fuckable-ness is commented on by strangers. They’re so proud of it ‘they’ (ahem) even wrote a song about it, just so that their bragging could be set to a tune and go top 10. These comments aren’t out of the blue though, the Babes have come to expect them. They even concede “Yeah, I’m so sexy” and, because we should all want to be sexy too, the Babes then encourage everyone else to join in and get sexy.

Bleurgh. Give me Right Said Freds version over this any day!

There is some truth to the Sugababes words though; When they say “It don’t matter where I are, they say Hey Sexy” – ain’t that the truth? It doesn’t matter what you are doing, wearing, thinking… street harassment can happen at any time and any where, giving it the potential to happen every single day. The lyrics of Get Sexy mirror the relentlessness of street harassment which, for me, gives the song a weirdly depressing tinge. Bet the Babes weren’t betting on that.

In both Get Sexy and Starstrukk, women are shown as empowered by the interest (it validates them as desirable) and so have learnt to actively seek it. Whilst they are flattered by it, they pretend not to be, and rise above it by ignoring or being rude to the person commenting on them. The Sugababes call their admirers ‘Silly boys’. The message of both songs is almost identical to this advert (found here on Sociological Images);

Noxzema advert

With such strong messages coming from the media, it’s no wonder that street harassers might mistakenly think that women would welcome their appraisals. But what the mainstream media usually omits from their version of the reality of street harassment is that it is so often an assertion of power and privilege over a public space, one that will override any common sense that women walking alone might not welcome sexual advances and will, more likely, see them as a threat to her own personal safety.

I’d like to finish by showing a film that, I feel, reflects street harassment much more accurately. It’s not an MTV video, sadly… and I think we’ll have a to wait a while before the mainstream media changes its view on this subject! Still, this film, directed by Nuala Cabral, is a poetic and emotional response to street harassment that beautifully demonstrates the feelings and thoughts of women as they are being ‘complimented’ by that threatening stranger on the street.

More brilliant filmed female responses to street harassment here, here, and here.

By: Sarah Barnes, 15.12.2009 | Comments (6)
Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
  • Fran
    December 15th, 2009
    7:49 pm

    I was appalled the first time I heard both of these songs. I’ve seen the film by Nuala Cabral and think it’s fantastic.

    What I dislike about these music videos is that they’re implying it;s ok to harrass people in public places. No hang on, it’s okay to harrass women. Men will be fine wherever they go since they were clever enough to choose androgynous bodies. Giving the girls a wolf whistle will make their little day!

    Harrassment is ILLEGAL and has been since 1997!

  • Dan
    December 30th, 2009
    3:35 pm

    I think u all need to get a grip tbh its a wolf whistle big wow. Id agree with you if it was serious but OMG he whistled at me call smat and the army to come and lynch him. Ever took it as a compliment im sure u would prefere a whistle than “hey fatty” ur pathetic. Grow up

  • JenniferRuth
    January 6th, 2010
    12:50 pm

    Wow Dan – thanks for mansplaining that to us!

  • Laura
    July 22nd, 2010
    4:27 pm

    Oh, so we should graciously accept any kind of attention we receive from men, eh dan? Even if it’s not looked for or wanted? It’s horrid walking past a group of men, knowing that they’re staring at your breasts and hips and face, not giving a damn if you are uncomfortable with it and even happy if you aren’t. It’s intimidation. Blatant intimidation. So don’t say grow up and call her pathetic, she’s totally right. And whether it’s a compliment or an insult, it doesn’t matter. What gives someone the right to pass vocal judgement on someone else on the street because of the way they look? You’re the pathetic one.

  • [...] no doubt that street harassment is normalized in our culture. Just watch TV, listen to music, or pay attention to advertisements and you’ll see it being made light of. [...]

  • Molly
    July 5th, 2013
    11:32 pm

    The fact that’s often missed by men telling women “jeez its just a compliment” is that, on average men are larger and physically stronger than women (this is, of course, by no means true in all cases; many women are very strong and many men very much otherwise, I’m speaking as a small and not-at-all-physically-strong woman), and our awareness of this is heightened by media stereotyping. This means that if this man really wanted to he could overpower you. This is part of what makes street harassment intimidating. And, yes, most sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim so it is very very rare that a wolf-whistle leads to a violent attack (despite how sexual assault is portrayed in the media as a pschopath in a skimask hiding in the bushes), the knowledge that you could be attacked, that if you are you may not be believed, you may even be blamed, is in your mind – even if you’re not always thinking about it.

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