Isn't it Ironic? No, it's Sexism.

TW: reference to abuse but no graphic details.

Popular media comes in many forms - TV and film, advertising, trailers, magazines, books, music video, social media - and with the rise of the internet and streaming services, these forms are becoming less distinct from each other. Young people look to media - especially music media - for information on sex, gender and relationships, on how to act and who to be. And over the last couple of decades, there has been increasing concern about the sexualisation of popular culture, especially music videos, and the impact on young viewers.

Sexualised images in media have been described as “a wallpaper to our lives, all pervasive but hardly noticed”[1]. Typical representations show women as submissive, sexually-available objects, whilst depicting masculinity as aggressive, forceful and dominant, and these stereotypes are so prominent in all forms of media that we barely notice or question their presence. There are concerns that these repeated messages maintain gender inequality by commodifying the female body, asserting a narrow definition of physical attractiveness as the primary goal for girls and women and teaching them to seek empowerment through self-sexualisation and submission. Conversely, sexualised media tells us that anger and aggression are the only appropriate forms of expression for men, that sexual relationships are adversarial by nature and that violence against women is acceptable. It isn’t surprising that sexualised media has been linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, body image issues, eating disorders and risky sexual behaviour in young people, primarily girls.

[1] P.41, Bailey (2011)

What is this advertising?

Sexualised messages frequently feature in music video and are amplified by the short running time, lack of narrative context and quick cutting between visuals. Super-fast internet on portable devices has facilitated access to millions of videos on platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. Consequently, creators need to make their product stand out from the rest and sex, violence and disturbing imagery can ensure likes, views and shares. As society has become more aware and less tolerant of blatant images of misogyny or sexual violence, artists and creators have had to adapt the ways they use sex to sell their work.

Ironic sexism

Ironic sexism – or 'retro' sexism – describes the sexualisation or demeaning of women through humour, irreverence or satire. It has been called the ‘return of a patriarchal gaze’ and is seen as part of a backlash against feminism, designed to make it look unnecessary, outdated and unfashionable to younger generations[2]. Ironically sexist messages are apparent in magazines (especially ‘lad’s mags’), advertising and music video – the use of a ‘knowing wink’ to sell products. Ironic sexism also has a clever inbuilt survival mechanism, as its irreverent nature means that any concerns about the underlying hostility can be written off as prudish, humourless and uptight, or a threat to free speech.

So what does ironic sexism look like in music video? Female artists and performers often incorporate images of sexual availability alongside statements of empowerment and autonomy, in order to be powerful, inspirational or ‘edgy’. Acts like The Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child sang of girl power, independent women and survivorship whilst sexually framing their bodies through dance, clothing and the ‘male gaze’ of the camera.

[2] p.6, Blloshmi (2013)

It is a difficult double-bind for female artists. As the ‘language of sexiness is also the language of sexism’, female empowerment is often diluted or lost through the replication and perpetuation of the sexist images being critiqued[3].

[3] p.140, Perry (2003)


To complicate things further, ironic sexism often overlaps with cultural appropriation and racist imagery. Lily Allen’s video for Hard Out Here satirises sexism and body image expectations whilst simultaneously belittling women (women of colour, specifically): "I don’t need to shake my ass for you 'cos I got a brain" Allen sings, whilst standing over twerking dancers. Taylor Swift’s anthem of free expression, Shake It Off, shows her using black female dancers as props for her freedom. Miley Cyrus is known for her sexualised performances and again, for using black dancers as objects to exploit. These are not fringe artists but performers with a lot of cultural capital and influence; they may think they are being edgy or clever but they are part of our sexualised media wallpaper, regardless of their intention.

Of course, it is patronising to assume that we are purely passive recipients of negative messages in media. Many consumers look to alternative genres and artists over the repetitive, patriarchal restrictions of the mainstream, and alternative role models have often been suggested as the ‘solution’ to the sexualisation of popular culture. Yet there has been little analysis of non-mainstream media to see if it does provide counter-messages or if it merely replicates these troubling sexual stereotypes in different packaging. A casual glance at one of the most successful alternative artists is not promising.

Marilyn Manson

As an artist and performer in the alt-rock scene, Marilyn Manson is known for satirising mainstream Western culture and his savage critique of heteronormativity has led some to label him a feminist[4]. Many teenagers have appreciated the dark visuals, morbid sentiments and anti-everything culture present in his work and unlike many of his alt-rock comrades, Manson also presents more fluid representations of gender, sexuality and beauty standards. Yet a quick look at two of his most viewed music videos, Sweet Dreams and Tainted Love, suggests that underneath the gothic aesthetic and death-chic theatricality, Manson adheres to the same old line of compulsory heteronormativity.

[4] See Masterman (2012)

Sweet Dreams appears to subvert the normative sexuality and gender that we are used to seeing in music video. It features images of ‘battered’ masculinity through a voyeuristic camera gaze that pans over the bodies and bare skin of the male performers. The band's gender and sexuality is both explicit and blurry, an ambiguous combination of male and female stereotypes as opposed to traditional rockstar machismo. Sweet Dreams subverts and parodies the male gaze by forcing viewers to look at men in the way they would typically look at women.

However, these 'feminised' representations of men can also be seen as bizarre and outlandish and thus intended to ridicule femininity. As an artist known for shock tactics rather than subtlety, it is hard to overlook the possibility that Manson chose to dress himself and his band as women because it would look weird and fucked up on MTV.

The 'wallpaper’ of female sexualisation is very apparent in Tainted Love, as the band watch young women dance and invite us – with outstretched arms, by pushing the women into the camera – to watch them as well. The female dancers perform pornographic poses yet their faces are often obscured by costumes or camera shots, designating them as merely body parts. They sexualise each other through kissing, licking and touching, encouraging female viewers to comply with the male gaze.

Manson holds an undoubtedly male position of power, pushing other men out of his way as the harem of young women move around him, for him. The band are significantly older than teenagers - Manson was 32 at the time - which presents an additional power imbalance to their sexual interactions. Male fantasy is well-represented with strippers, cheerleaders, women kissing women but also through the eroticisation of the ‘other’; the sexualised women have black or coloured hair, dog collars, fishnets, chains, dark make-up and pale skin. The transformation of the virginal school-girl into willing gothic sex object reinforces sexist tropes of pure ‘good’ girls, raunchy ‘bad’ girls and the corruption of female youth and innocence.

It could be argued that this video depicts female empowerment with ‘good’ girls revelling in their newfound sexuality. Pole-dancing and lap-dancing are recent markers of female sexual liberation, yet some argue they are indicators of the commodification of female empowerment: again, the conflict between sexiness and autonomy[5]. Regardless of any satirical intention, the overall message of this video remains the same: to be attractive, girls have to be sexually available and submissive, and boys should dominate women and other men through aggression and power. Videos such as this may be especially damaging to young people who seek out alternative culture in a bid to escape the relentless sexualisation of the mainstream and do not realise that they are consuming the same toxic messages.

[5]  See Coy & Garner (2010)

In line with ironic sexism, Tainted Love contains a number of racist tropes. The band arrive in a bouncing, lowered car with a ‘goth thug’ number plate. They are dressed in flashy jewellery and bandanas and Manson wears a grill on his teeth. The female goth dancers ‘twerk’ yet there are no women of colour in the video – it is unclear whether the intention is to emulate black culture, to mock it or to satirise its appropriation by white music. But as Manson occupies a position of white, heterosexual, middle-class male power, his privilege problematises any ‘otherness’ he chooses to present; he can dabble in gender, sexuality and racial stereotypes but he can also return to social acceptability in a way that those from oppressed and minority groups cannot.

In the era of #MeToo and TIME’S UP, critical attention has focused on more than the artist's product. Accusations of sexism and suggestions of abuse by Manson have come to light. Jessicka, of alt-rock outfit Jack off Jill, recently disclosed years of physical and sexual abuse during her relationship with Manson’s bassist, Twiggy Ramirez. To their fans, Jessicka and Ramirez were a Burtonesque fairy-tale couple with their matching kinderwhore aesthetic but Jessicka has since claimed that Ramirez co-opted her style and clothes as a means of exerting control and erasing her identity (which suggests a new analysis is needed of his feminised appearance in Sweet Dreams). Debates as to whether an artist can or should be separated from their art will rage on (see Polanksi and Allen as volatile examples) and it is likely that many similar stories about artists will continue to emerge and cause us to rethink their products within the context of their attitudes to gender, equality and violence. Satirical or ironic sexualised messages must be looked at critically, and the artist as an area of influential context cannot be overlooked.

Thankfully, alternative and progressive messages of gender and sexuality do exist in modern media and more platforms are emerging to support non-normative voices and perspectives. Conversely, artists such as Queen, Nirvana and The Cure show us that sexualised imagery is not a requirement of success, despite its proliferation in the media. Music video – especially from alternative genres - can be an incisive medium for satirising or subverting stereotypes but the danger is in whether viewers will see the irony rather than a continuation of male privilege, the commodification of female bodies and racial appropriation dressed up as white, heterosexual entertainment. Whether they like it or not, artists and creators, mainstream and alternative, are role models and their visible platform brings responsibility for the messages they create - and the actions they take - regardless of intention.


Bailey, R. (2011) Letting Children be Children – Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood. Department of Education: London.

Blloshmi, A. (2013). Advertising in Post-Feminism: The Return of Sexism in Visual Culture? Journal of Promotional Communications, 1, 1, 4-28.

Coy, M. (2014) 'Pornographic Performances': A Review of Research on Sexualisation and Racism in Music Videos. Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU), London Metropolitan University: London, UK.

Coy, M. and Garner, M. (2010) Glamour modelling and the marketing of self-sexualization: Critical reflections, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13, 657-75.

Goldman, R. (1992) Reading Ads Socially, Routledge: London.

Masterman, B. P. (2012) “It’s All Me… In One Way or Another”: Transgressive Queer Embodiment in the Music Videos of Marilyn Manson, MA Thesis: University of Pittsburgh.

Perry, I. (2003) Who(se) am I? The Identity and Image of Women in Hip-Hop. In G. Dines & J. M. Humez (Eds) Gender, Race, and Class in Media (2nd Ed.), Sage: USA.

Whelehan, I. (2000) Overloaded: Popular Culture and the Future of Feminism, The Women’s Press: UK.

Williamson, J. (2003) ‘Sexism with an alibi’ Saturday May 31, 2003 The Guardian at Guardian Unlimited. Accessed 13.06.2017. Available at

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