Earlier this week, pop-star Rihanna was defiant over her latest music video in which she shoots someone who raped her. US parent groups were up in arms at the message that sent to the nation’s children.
Those who bought the album (who does that these days?) to find out more will have been shocked: the sleeve depicts Rhianna’s crotch on full unclothed display save for a strategically positioned rose*.
Meanwhile on our side of the pond, today will see the publication of the Department of Education’s report into the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood. Written by Reg Bailey, CEO of the Mother’s Union, leaks suggest its headline suggestion will be the introduction of film-style age ratings for music videos.
As suggestive content continues its migration from the top shelf to day-time TV and mobile devices, this is a welcome recommendation.
Sex surrounds children and pressurises parents. Popping out to buy a teddy bear vest, a mother may well find the item displayed next to honey-I-shrunk-the-adult mini-bras, lacy camisoles, hotpants and mini-skirts. If it’s football season, you’ll probably find “Future Wag” and “Marry me, Mr Giggs” tops on discount. FCUK, Top Shop and Next have both been criticised for selling such items; only concerted parental activism has tempered their marketing efforts.
I’m not one myself but I know many parents who are deeply uncomfortable with what their young children are exposed to. They don’t like the clobber on retailers’ shelves, the raunchiness of the X-factor or Bratz dolls equipped with the latest makeup compact and accompanying air of moral flexibility. They are up for protecting their children from certain of society’s modern influences, a bit of cotton wool is their request.
At first glance, this seems an odd argument for a young progressive to be backing: all a bit retired Colonel, a bit Midsommer Murders, a bit… Daily Mail. But it’s not, and here’s why.
As progressives that place communities and healthy social relationships at the core of our politics, we need to fight forces that either seek to undermine those values or do so inadvertently. The sexualisation of music videos is in the second category.
Reg Bailey has been a tireless campaigner against premature sexualisation. His report will tighten regulations on sexualised music videos and provide a single portal for parents to complain about products that are inappropriate for children. Mr Bailey is expected to recommend that the retail, advertising and video industries get 18 months to clean up their acts or face tougher regulation.
Compared with times prior to the new media revolution, today’s children have less room to develop independent from media influences. They are increasingly squeezed by an ever increasing array of media sources and devices. Music heavily influences childhood. Looking at their role-models, it is no wonder that so many young teenagers choose paths that ruin their futures.
Lads flick on MTV and are entranced by the lifestyle of rappers who glorify violence and drugs; girls see a strong correlation between success and size 6 thighs.
It is not hard to see why teenagers, who feel they have few other options, opt to dedicate their teenage years to becoming the next member of So Solid Crew or the next Lady Gaga.
A female teacher friend of mine recently described how it was standard amongst the Sixth Form girls at her school to have a “boopsie“, a boy whom they are not in a relationship with but that will give them money. For what, exactly, is hard to pin down but it is unlikely to be a frank exchange of views.
My friend thought this was nuts. It is nuts. But these girls didn’t think so. They were shocked that ‘miss’ didn’t have a similar arrangement. For teenagers both female and male such commodotisation of relationships between the sexes is common. They have become normalised to it. It is what they expect.
Is it any surprise then that by the time they are teenagers, 900,000 girls in this country have feelings of worthlessness and depression, according to a recent Demos report.
None of these girls really chose “boopsie”: it is a norm created by their cultural influences. In this case, the school was in South London, the predominant musical influences from the West-Indian Raga and Dancehall scenes with their screamingly misogynistic lyrics. As the Sugar Spice n Things Not Nice blog points out:
While an example of this is easy to find in almost every dancehall song whether it is popular or not, Vybz Kartel’s latest single called “Tun Up The Fuck” (Turn up the Fuck). Here the lyrics consist of him saying “Ayy yuh tight pum pum gal, Mi love when yuh skin out fi mi fuck yuh” (Hey you tight p*ssy girl, I love when you spread it out for me to f*ck you).
The rest of the song consists of him bragging about his sexual stamina (without the use of viagra) and the ways in which he plans to make her orgasm.
Closer to home, the streets of London have produced the much acclaimed soul/ hip-hop artist Plan B. Whilst now more commercial and mainstream, his 2006 album contained songs told from the perspective of murderers, rapists and other violent agents. Citing European film, Plan B argues that he should be treated in the same way as film directors and writers: as a storyteller and narrator of disturbing events, not as a glamourising confessor.
His point is valid: talking is not the same as doing. His artistic right of expression needs to be balanced against the rights of parents to protect their children when they are young and vulnerable.
So, where to draw the line?
The Rolling Stones’ song, Brown Sugar, is a national treasure. X Factor contestants and soft drink advertisers fall over themselves to use it. But the song is also a narrative of a slave owner’s pleasure at raping and beating his black female slave. A sensible combination of softly-softly legislation in the form of age ratings for music videos couple with a strong incentive for the media to self-regulate is a good start**.
Society has a responsibility to collectively protect our children and allow them to develop relationships with each other based on mutual respect and an understanding of one another’s worth. Such judgements take a whole childhood and adolescence to form and we need to shield children from influences that push them in the direction of objectifying and commoditising other members of their communities.
Daniel Bamford is Young Fabian Networks Officer.
*I’ve not been able to contact Rihanna’s office for comment but if she’s interested I would happily discuss this article with her over a bottle of wine. I would tell her that she’s gob-smackingly talented enough not to need to go down the crotch/ rose route. If she still doesn’t want to lose the rose, like Robbie and Kylie, she should not mind doing it for the kids.
** Good next steps will likely come out of the Young Fabian’s Communities Policy Commission.