thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Good Girls Gone Mad: Music Videos and the “Problem” of Female Rage – Part 1

In gender on July 12, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Melissa Sexton

[Previously posted on my personal blog]

A few months ago, I wrote a post on my old Livejournal account about women and anger.  Specifically, I was responding to a fascinating article in the New York Times about film depictions of angry women.  In this article, brilliant critic Manohla Dargis argues that, It’s tricky whenever a woman holds a gun on screen, even if the movie is independently produced and the director is female.”  She continues, “I complain about the representations of women, but I’m more offended when in movie after movie there are no real representations to eviscerate, when all or most of the big roles are taken by men, and the only women around are those whose sole function is, essentially, to reassure the audience that the hero isn’t gay. The gun-toting women and girls in this new rash of movies may be performing much the same function for the presumptive male audience: It’s totally “gay” for a guy to watch a chick flick, but if a babe is packing heat — no worries, man!”

Whatever we think of women packing heat, I think it’s safe to say that American media is still really uncomfortable with depictions of genuine female anger.  Giving girls guns may be fine, but don’t let the girls fight male sexual domination; that’s just uncomfortable.  (See this other great NYT article on how Pretty Woman ultimately defeated Thelma and Louise in our cultural history).  Just look at the controversy surrounding Rihanna’s recent “Man Down” video.  After reading all the angry arguments against this video, I was expecting blood, gore, naked bodies, terrifying yet glamorous violence (like Kanye’s recent “Monster” video.  Or Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi”).  But no.  “Man Down” is a fairly tame if emotionally devastating video about a sexual assault and a woman’s revenge.  What, I had to ask myself, made the “Man Down” video so wildly controversial?  I mean, it was in rotation on BET, not PBS; was it really any more violent than the usual rap video fare?  As one smart Twitter comment (quoted in the MTV article linked above) stated, “it’s really ironic how women r always exploited n videos … we watch women be raped & murdered. Now a woman flips the coin & look!”  The only thing, I concluded, that made this video uncomfortable was that it dealt with real female anger and the violence that can result from it.  And it didn’t glamorize sexual violence in any way.  Is violence okay as long as it’s between men?  Is sexual exploitation of women okay as long as it is covered up (barely) with rhinestones or push-up bras?  Unlike many music videos, “Man Down” showed not bravado but instead naked emotional vulnerability – a mix of vengeful anger and frightened regret –

paired with a gritty, unglamorous aesthetic.  Female anger?  Female violence?  That’s scary.  To make it this real, in the words of the Parents’ Television Council, “gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability.”

But while we fear such realistic representations of well-founded female anger, anger is such an important source of cultural bonding for women.  Why is it, I asked, that we swim in a musical sea of songs about broken relationships, betrayal, and unfairness, as well as female retaliation and sexual competitiveness, but few of these songs or their accompanying videos has the power to generate controversy akin to “Man Down”?  Musically speaking, this mix of feelings has become a classic in the form of what I’d like to call the “Angry Woman Anthem.”   By looking at a couple of ‘Angry Woman Anthems,” I think we can see that many pop cultural representations of female anger negotiate female anger in ways both pathologically consistent with heteronormative dismissals or co-optations of feminine rage AND really subversive in their depiction of about anger and revenge.

What Angry Woman Anthems have the danger of doing is pathologizing female emotion – contributing to this stereotypical depiction of women as “too emotional” and hence “crazy bitches.”  But what Angry Women Anthems have the possibility of doing is giving space to this emotion, and helping us all to explore it.  Anger, betrayal, jealousy, and vindictiveness all exist, and not just for mob bosses and thwarted athletes.  Ruined relationships breed real feelings; trying to keep these feelings from existing or appearing has surely driven many of us to our therapists.

This year, the Angry Women Anthem found its way to every college-aged girl’s car stereo with the rise of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to number one in the United States.  Honestly, I’ve been surprised by the song’s popular appeal.  While the song’s themes of revenge, betrayal, and heartbreak are about as universal as you can get, the song’s framing of these topics seems culturally unusual.  Like Rihanna, Adele refuses to transform her confusing mix of anger and sadness into something sexy or exploitable. The music video helps highlight the song’s creepy-pretty-angry quality.

The singer of this song doesn’t respond to her betrayal in typically “feminine” ways.  She does not: a) pretty herself up and go catch a new man (Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable”); b) persuade the betraying lover that he has made a terrible mistake and will live to regret it, while she will move on (again, Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable”); c) commit gratuitous property destruction to re-assert her sense of dominance (Rihanna’s “Breaking Dishes”); or d) assert a retro-active fatalism that would make the Dutch Calvinists proud – there’s no “This was doomed from the start! I should have known, you bastard!” Rather, this song presents a complex reaction to the possibilities of loss. The speaker asserts that “We could have had it all,” and as her voice breaks on the soaring high notes of that line, I believe that this is a person who had a real relationship that could have grown and survived. But – here’s the creepy part that I can’t believe has been so okay with American radio – juxtaposed against this is a hint of revenge: the insistent, breathy chanting in the background of the chorus – “You’re gonna wish you – Never had met me!” is haunting precisely because it is ambiguous. Will the speaker seek violent revenge? Or is the speaker alluding to a sentiment of the (b) category, insinuating that the lover will see for himself why he has made a horrible mistake and live to rue the day? The creepy ambiguity of both of these lines is what the atmospheric, oddly gothic quality of the music video brings to the forefront.

Part of the fascination of Adele’s video, for me, is the way that it uses the physical space of a house to map out the conflicting emotions of betrayal.  At the video’s opening, Adele sits alone in a room full of covered furniture, tarps and plastic sheeting dangling from the walls.

It looks as though the house is mid-renovation, presenting a vision of a haunted domesticity.  If we imagine romantic relationships as being comfortable places – a place to be “at home” – then the halfway completed house is a perfect place for a wronged lover to wrestle with the ghosts of a relationship. The haunted house is full of strange, evocative things – a room full of quivering glasses;

a faceless drummer pounding away under the stairs, while a light flashes above him;

a pile of accumulating broken dishes, thrown by no one and repetitively hitting a screen;

and a samurai figure, standing in another abandoned room:

Oh, the ninja dancer. Everyone I watched this video with was captivated by the dancing ninja.  In a world of torso-baring, pelvis-thrusting backup dancers (which, don’t get me wrong, I adore!), this sensuous yet completely veiled figure is an unusual accompaniment to a female pop star.  The dancer’s room is riddled with powder and the walls are draped with tarps, continuing the deconstructed feeling.  And the figure itself!  The dancer combines ballet and martial arts, a feminine grace with aggressive sword thrusts and angled kicks:

The dancer is so ambiguously gendered and unidentifiable.  Is it a representation of the accused lover?  Or a representation of some inner part of the speaker herself?

What the video does so fascinatingly, by juxtaposing these various scenes within the house, is dissociate the singer from her anger.  The singer-Adele is not an overtly threatening figure; she is contained within a room, a central presence within a house of many feelings; her lack of eye contact with the camera suggests that she is not talking to us, but instead remains fully enveloped in this other world.  Anger is palpable here, but it’s always as mysteriously double as the dancing ninja figure – graceful and contained one moment, threateningly militant in another.  All the anger is implied – in the intensity of Adele’s gaze.  But like the ambiguous, chanted lines of the chorus, we don’t know if these scenes signify potential retribution or just an acute form of regret.

This mysterious world, where anger is aestheticized rather than anesthetized, is not, say, the world of anger  in Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm.”  While the figure of Adele never shows anger in her video and the anger is all implied by the escalating destruction in her half-finished house, the figure of Beyonce manifests anger in her own sexy-yet-crazy body:

(I can’t embed the video to “Ring the Alarm,” but here’s a link to it.)  These two depictions of female anger show some different strategies for containing that anger, coding it in a way that makes it safe.  Both videos depict domestic space and both spatialize the central woman’s anger, making it into a building populated with other people.  But, as I’ve argued, Adele’s video removes the anger from the speaker herself and translates it into objects and ambiguously gendered individuals.  Beyonce’s world, by contrast, is populated by clearly male figures of authority who attempt to subordinate her.

And even while she’s lashing out at these male figures, defying their authority, she does so in a way that is clearly sexualized.

In this scene, she is on display for the male figures of authority, dancing in the one-way mirrors of the interrogation room.  The video codes the singer’s anger in ways that are more culturally comfortable – the militaristic, claustrophobic interrogation center; the female figure who continues to be provocative even while denouncing male betrayal.  And, unlike the central figure of “Man Down,” the singer of this song is not lashing out at men, despite her betrayal; her rage is against the threat of another woman who will take over her “chinchilla coats” if she relinquishes the relationships.  If “Man Down” threatens to undermine heteronormative relationships in favor of female independence, “Ring the Alarm” couches female agency in terms of heternormative and capitalist acquisition – getting and keeping men and things.

Adele and Beyonce also make female aggression acceptable by keeping it in interior, claustrophobic spaces.  The violence of “Man Down” feels realistic, run rampant on the street; it is narrative, telling the story of something that happens and making that anger have a history.  Both “Rolling in the Deep” and “Ring the Alarm” make anger symbolic; in each of these videos, the spaces and the anger depicted could be representations of interior states, not necessarily actual external acts of violence or anger.


I’m not trying to argue that any one of these videos is a “better” way of dealing with female anger.  Nor am I trying to argue that any of these artists are more complicit with or defiant of popular culture and standard cultural norms about femininity, anger, and violence.  Rather, I think it’s important to start recognizing that there are a lot of artists out there trying to say something interesting about complex feelings that tend to be used to either sexualize or dismiss women.  This is only scratching the surface!  I hope to follow this up soon by writing about Nicki Minaj and Pink videos, showing how some music videos mix humor and anger as a way of talking about female aggression.

  1. […] love this video for its bravery. I’ve written before about how this video stirred up significant controversy, but I don’t think it’s that […]

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