According to J. Lo, the solution to female objectification is simply more universal objectification of everybody.
Objectification of women in music videos: It seems like everybody’s talking about it these days. Last year, it was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and the string of parodies it inspired, followed by Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” and the ensuing race controversy, as well as Shakira’s recent pretend-lesbian shenanigans with Rihanna in “Can’t Remember to Forget You.”
Last week, Jennifer Lopez offered us her own rebuke to a music video industry that’s made itself rich by cashing in on the male gaze. (Does anybody else think she’s an unlikely candidate for doing so?) Her video for the rather revoltingly titled “I Luh Ya Papi” is explicit in turning all the tropes of pop music’s objectification of women on their head.
“Why do men always objectify the women, in every single video?” one of J. Lo’s friends muses in the intro scene. “Why can’t we, for once, objectify the men?”
“The video can start with her on a bed with a bunch of naked guys,” a second friend giggles, “for no reason!”
And that’s exactly what happens: J. Lo appears surrounded by an army of nearly naked hunks of man-bodies, and the next three minutes serve up more of the same. Scene after scene of sculpted male beautifulness packaged in Speedos, on beds, by pools, on yachts, sudsing up and hump-washing a car with their perfect asses—all for your female viewing pleasure.
Callie Beusman at Jezebel classes this as “sharp cultural commentary.” She raves that this is “the most fun—and, blessed be, actually effective—media commentary via music video to emerge from the lurid swamp of pop culture in recent memory.” Over at the Atlantic, Nolan Feeley and Ashley Fetters agree, with a few caveats, that the video “overall makes a point worth making.”
Sharp cultural commentary, my ass. In fact, the word I’d use to describe the intellectual content of this video is dull.
According to J. Lo, the solution to female objectification is simply more universal objectification of everybody. As Ashley Fetters put it, the video implies, “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with bodies being sexualized or objectified as long as it’s not just limited to women’s bodies.”
Um, no, J. Lo. There are reasons that we women have gotten so worked up over objectification, and the fact that this marketing tactic is not a two-way street—that we women don’t get enough chances to see men publicly turned into sex objects, divorced from their humanity or subjectivity—is not one of them.
The crude objectification of women in music videos, advertising, mainstream porn, and Fast and the Furious–type man-fluff movies hurts people. It hurts women—who are bombarded with images of themselves presented as accessories to male power, lacking agency, desirable for their passive beauty and ability to titillate—and causes psychological pressure that can express itself in depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and sexual dysfunction. And objectification also distorts male viewers’ framework of their relationship to femininity, how their “masculinity” is supposed to bounce off that sexualized passivity of ideal womanhood.
Simply changing the lens of objectification from a male to a female one does nothing to address any of these negative effects; that’s just using our female gaze as a weapon. If all female pop stars, filmmakers, and advertisers pick up the gauntlet J. Lo threw down with “I Luh Ya Papi,” we can expect to see (as in fact we are seeing) a dramatic surge in male body image distortions and eating disorders.
I’m sorry, but equality shouldn’t mean that people of any gender are equally likely to develop bulimia. We clearly need a smarter way to approach this issue of gaze and understand its effects on the people portrayed by it, whether male or female.
My partner Migs has a theory about gaze and objectification. He and I have had many screeching, tabletop-thumping arguments on this subject over the 18 months we’ve been together, and it’s not because he is a man and I am a feminist. Migs is a photographer, and not of weddings or babies: He’s an avid producer and consumer of art porn, along the lines of that made famous by Nympho Ninjas and millions of Tumblrs and Flickrs.
I am his work’s biggest critic, and have always maintained that as a male pornographer, he is categorically disqualified from making porn that empowers women because he cannot abandon the maleness of his gaze.
His rejoinder—one that the failure of the J. Lo video seems to vindicate—is that classifying gaze by gender provides very little information about the content of the perspective and its potential effects on viewers. What the J. Lo video has in common with, for instance, portrayals of women in mainstream porn or The Fast and the Furious is that its gaze is primitive—it divorces its subjects from their humanity—not that it is gendered. It is that primitivism that causes damage to people.
I hate losing arguments, but I’m slowly starting to agree with him here. A responsible use of any artistic gaze is one that seeks to capture the depth of human subjectivity of its objects, whether male or female. This doesn’t mean that the gazer will not sometimes misinterpret her subjects or superimpose the tropes of her own perspective, as, for instance, film director Abdellatif Kechiche was accused of doing with his Palme d’Or–winning portrayal of lesbian sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color.
But contrast Kechiche’s take on lesbian sex with how Shakira and Rihanna presented it—as a taboo exploited to titillate a heteronormative audience—in their recent music video collaboration. That is the difference between a nuanced gaze and a primitive one.
So, no, Jezebel, “I Luh Ya Papi” is not “sharp cultural commentary.” If anything, it’s an appalling example of how little we know about how to start wielding our female gaze responsibly.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.