It’s been an ‘interesting’ summer for music videos. You know the ones – semi-nude models silently writhing around fully-clothed men twice their age or starlets fellating household objects, all under the instruction of middle-aged male or, even more disappointingly, female directors. They would argue that they’re being wry, ironic and ‘meta’, that the women are in on the joke and this is what you have to do in the Youtube age to achieve a hit. But somehow, it feels wrong.
These tropes are trite, predictable and tired. It's a cynical formula that's been refined to optimum efficiency. There's no fun, humour or pleasure to be seen in the repetitive sequences of young women mechanically going through the motions of some faux-sexual pantomime. It's a businesslike marketing stunt.
Kathryn Ferguson decided to hold a mirror up to those music videos and show us how skewed pop culture has become. Her camera lingers far longer than is comfortable on the women’s bodies, dissecting them into anonymous pieces of flesh which move in super-slow-motion. The camera’s gaze – our gaze - is cold blooded, almost gynaecological.
Kathryn’s film sits within SHOWstudio’s ‘Punk’ category, which was created to coincide with the Met exhibition ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’. Her interpretation is subtle, but it’s there. Punk means protest – it’s about using art to reclaim a space in the cultural landscape, taking pop culture clichés and subverting them to hammer home your message. The ugly slogans displayed by the dancers come from the same place as riot grrrls scrawling ‘SLUT’ across their stomachs in the ninties – another incarnation of punk’s subversive spirit.
Punk is ultimately about realising that beauty and ugliness are two sides of the same coin – a theme which is at the heart of Kathryn’s film. The human body – the female body in this case – is beautiful, but the eye of the beholder isn’t always benign. Understanding the tension between the subject and the gaze is key to unpicking and addressing pop’s current problem.
The end result is unsettling, even farcical, but only because she’s taken things that little bit further than your average pop video does – and it’s a very small step from one to the other. The women in Kathryn’s film aren’t doing anything unusual – they’re just dancing - but it’s the angles, crops and slow motion editing that highlight the tropes of voyeurism and one-sidedness.
By taking what we've grown used to seeing - all that grinding, humping and thrusting - and exaggerating it, Kathryn shows just how absurd it all is. The cheerleaders in her film look happy because they know they’re turning the tables on convention – they have a consciousness and agency which women in regular music videos aren’t granted.
For Kathryn and other women in the industry, like Caryn Franklin, who have voiced concerns about the hyper-sexualisation of contemporary culture, it’s not about judging women for dressing or behaving in a certain way, it’s about the male gaze and that imbalance of power which is so apparent in music videos in particular. The juxtaposition between fully-clothed men and semi-nude, often very young-looking girls feels awkward and uncomfortable to viewers (even if they’re not comfortable with admitting it, for fear of seeming prudish or humourless!).
We’re not talking about Beyonce in a leotard showing off her strength, beauty, power and control, or Gaga using her body subversively as a canvas for her performance art, but something much more calculated that reinforces a depressingly familiar sexism: ‘I can keep my clothes on, you have to take yours off, because I have the money/power in this situation.’
‘No More Page 3’ campaigner Lucy said on Twitter: ‘I've no problem with nudity, it's the context. Women in their knickers next to fully-clothed, successful men’, adding, ‘Women need to talk about sex. We're having our sexuality presented by another gender.’
This is Kathryn’s problem too – the camera, even when it’s wielded by a woman, feels like a specific kind of male gaze (which isn’t to say that all men view women in this way at all, but some very powerful ones make a good living with this approach).
‘What makes it feel problematic is the camera – this gaze that swoops in and lands on what it wants you to see,’ explains Kathryn. ‘It’s the responsibility of the gaze, that objectification – the process of literally breaking the body down into its composite parts. Maybe fashion films become a catalyst in making people question this stuff – seeing the body actually move makes you more aware. You don’t want to censor it, but when work goes online you can’t control who’s seeing it... It has to be about context – why something exists, who it’s for, where it goes.’
If you work in the fashion or music industries and you voice concerns about how appropriate it is for a middle aged photographer or director to be shooting an underage-looking girl in a state of nudity, you risk being labelled a ‘prude’, someone who simply doesn’t ‘get’ the artist’s message. But Kathryn thinks things are changing.
‘People are scared about going on the record about their problems with this trend – they’re conscious of clients. When you start out, you’re so keen to get work, you put it out without questioning it. It takes a couple of years maybe of working with the female form before it hits you – then you start to see it for what it is. Many female film makers come to see this for themselves – a consciousness starts to rise in your own work, then you start talking to your peers and realising others are gaining that awareness too. That’s why these conversations are so important.’