Saturday, April 14, 2012

One Direction and subtle misogyny

As if it weren't bad enough that boy bands are back with a vengeance, these are the sort of lyrics that they're giving us:
You're insecure
Don't know what for
You're turning heads when you walk through the door
Don't need make-up
To cover up
Being the way that you are is enough
Everyone else in the room can see it
Everyone else but you
This is from One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful", by the way. And this opening verse seems pretty innocuous, as if they're saying that the "you" should be more confident. Even the part about not needing make-up isn't necessarily judgmental, and could actually be a compliment that isn't saying anything specifically about make-up or what it signifies.

But, no, a subtly nefarious judgment does creep in, in the chorus:
If only you saw what I can see
You'll understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I'm looking at you and I can't believe
You don't know
Oh oh
You don't know you're beautiful
Oh oh
That what makes you beautiful
Because, as it turns out, the girl is beautiful precisely because she doesn't know that she's beautiful. That's the catch, and that's what makes those seemingly harmless lines about make-up a great deal more loaded than they first appear. A girl who doesn't wear make-up is, presumably, unaware and ignorant of her sexuality (ie. she's still pure and innocent) while one who does is comparatively world-weary and, ostensibly, has been around the block a few times.

So, that insecurity that they were complaining about in the opening line? That wasn't actually a complaint. It was actually a precondition for finding her desirable. And confidence? Well, if she should have it, it's clear that it should only come from the affirmation that the singer offers. And, by extension, that a girl's confidence only ever comes from guys. Which means that girls who are already confident and self-aware - the kind who wear make-up? Well, they must have gained that "knowledge" from other boys, and this, of course, means that they're not innocent and not actually beautiful.

One last bit on the logic of beauty, according to One Direction. Hilariously/disturbingly, the lyric holds that a girl can never actually know that she, herself, is beautiful. If unawareness of one's beauty is what makes them beautiful, then someone who is aware of their beauty would, ironically, no longer be beautiful. The only options are ignorance and self-deception. Super.

[These lyrics also reminded me of a story about a male high school student near Toronto who was suspended for distributing a letter that celebrated girls' "inner-beauty". Which he did, unfortunately, by not-so-subtly excluding the girls who "dress in revealing clothing". Who, clearly, couldn't possibly possess inner-beauty.]


Anonymous said...

definetly was just complaining about this the other day when i heard it on the radio. like its not okay to love your body. you can only have self esteem if it comes from a man. Ellen being a spokesperson deserves our outrage, guys. but teaching little girls that you have to be submissive and dependent seems okay to me, ya know.

Anonymous said...

Totally spot on.

Madeleine said...

Hm, interesting how things can be interpreted in so many different ways! Can't say I'm a One Direction fan, but I've heard the song, and the lyrics make me think that the boys want shy insecure girls to know they are beautiful, and that they don't need make up to prove it. That doesn't necessarily mean (in my mind) that girls who wear makeup are secretly insecure about their looks. I think the line about being beautiful because you don't know it is about how modesty can be a really attractive quality. Again, I didn't take it that girls who like the way they look are necessarily self centered and not beautiful, just that girls who maybe don't always see that (like me) can still be beautiful. At least in One Direction's eyes. Guess I took it more that they are saying that other kinds of girls (shy, insecure ones) can be beautiful too, but I didn't think that necessitated them thinking confident, outgoing girls are not beautiful.

neilshyminsky said...


I'm overstating my case (just a bit!) to make the point, so I'll pull back a bit to admit that I think you've read their intent correctly. I don't think that One Direction means to be misogynist, and I think that they *do* want to reassure insecure girls. It's certainly preferable to their boy band contemporaries and songs like "I'm Glad You Came".

Returning to my point, though, they're still participating in a particular (and old) economy of patriarchally-defined femininity that values a certain kind of woman - a young, inexperienced, insecure, putatively "innocent" girl - and accordingly devalues its ostensible opposite - experienced, knowing, and confident. It's the virgin-whore binary - whose logic dictates that every woman is one or the other, and there's nothing in between - and it's been around forever.

While One Direction doesn't actually say anything about other kinds of girls, it's difficult to mention the one without evoking (even if only implicitly) the other.

(Thanks for dropping by to comment, by the way! How did you find the blog?)

Madeleine said...

That's fair, just thought it was interesting how your interpretation seemed very different than mine! And I do get what you are saying, as well as the first comment here.

As for finding the blog, your lovely wife was my professor this semester, and she shared the link to your blog!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you wrote this. I thought I was the only one who caught it. It's the line "That's what makes you beautiful" that sends it over the top. If the line was something like "But I think you're beautiful" then at least it would be just one guy saying he likes her even if she doesn't know how she affects him (standard crush). Her lack of awareness and low self-esteem shouldn't be what MAKES her beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I was just fuming about this! Thank you for putting it so eloquently!