“Boys” — A deep insight into pop culture

In July 2017, Charli XCX released the music video Boys on YouTube. The music video features male artists including Will.i.am, Wiz Khalifa, G-Easy, Diplo, Charlie Puth, Jay Park, and Joe Jonas. Boys was directed and edited by Charli XCX, and it received a lot of attention from the public and critics. In an interview with BBC Radio, Charlie XCX shared the meaning behind the video and addressed the typical gender role representation: “They’re basically doing all the sexy things that girls usually do in videos, […] I just want to flip the male gaze on its head and have the guys do the sexy stuff.” Other than the innovation concept, the music video seems to be appealing to the younger audience as most of teen fandoms gathered to see their favorite male stars.

Boys can be seen as a slide show of multitude male artists portrayed to be sexy, which is usually done by women on screen. However, unlike usual on-screen female portrayals, these artists are not anonymous props for the music video. Instead, they are featured in the video, and they represent alternative tropes of masculinity in different races, body types, and styles. Each of the artists does this through basic tasks like brushing their teeth, playing in a small pool with a plastic duck, cuddling dogs, eating pancakes, reading books, etc. The music video acts as an artist statement that there exists no standard to which a man is expected to be or act in order to be considered masculine. More than that, the video breaks through the trivial definition of masculinity and claims its own place in the popular culture, in general, and in the music industry, in specific. Thus, the music video is not just a dreamy mellow song about a girl daydreaming about boys, but rather it is a statement from a female artist calling everyone to embrace all beauty and support body positivity amongst males.

The fact that the music video is posted on YouTube is a vital fact in understanding formation and promotion of popular culture via the platform. YouTube’s business model works by offering a free platform for users to create and upload their content, while YouTube monetizes these contents with advertising intervals based on users’ information and preference. YouTube’s unique theme has successfully recruited and supported the formation of participatory culture amongst its young audience. According to Burgees & Greens (2018), “participatory culture” is YouTube’s core business. With this interdependence between content creators, platform manager, and users, the public subconsciously promote certain ideology through interactions. The more users view, like, and subscribe, the more revenue is generated for that channel from the advertisements. Data are also drawn from those interactions on a massive scale to create a pattern. Thus, statistics of users crowding in certain types of contents will automatically promote such contents and the message following it. Understanding the connection between YouTube’s popular culture formation and monetizing paves a way to further understand the artifact being analyzed, considering consumers’ gender and preference.

For decades, perspectives of women have been portrayed distortedly in the subconscious of society, forming a dangerous mindset and stereotype amongst the current and future generations. Objectification of women and misogyny have, then, been indirectly promoted and become an inseparable part of the popular culture thanks to the rise of technology and the entertainment industry. Specifically, in the movie industry or the music industry, women are not the leading work force. According to Lauzen (2018), women only account for 2 percent of producers, 19 percent of executive producers, 16 percent of editors, 11 percent of writers, 11 percent of directors, and 4 percent of cinematographers. The fact that men are overrepresented in the industry affirms that most main characters are male, and they appeal exclusively to the straight male audience. Thus, focusing on masculinity and ways in which it is represented in the music video will gain deep understanding of “the female gaze” and ways to which it challenges and affirms traditional definition of masculinity.

The concept “the male gaze” has been put forth by a British film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975 to explain the objectification of women in the Western media. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey puts forth the idea that women are constantly portrayed as sexual objects and, thus, holds a strong visual impact on males (p. 808, 809). This idea holds accurate to a certain extent because “the male gaze” does not necessarily connect with objectifying women, but rather it means that the frame is being taken from a male’s perspectives. In a broader context, the “gaze” is not only portrayed by how cinematographers aim to certain parts of bodies in a frame to mimic one gender group’s psychological cognition, but it is also portrayed through how one gender group sees another. Moreover, the “gaze” also describes how a gender group sees and portrays themselves. Although filmmakers sometimes try to dismiss “the male gaze” by giving female characters complex backstories, the male gaze is still the norm.

While there is something called the “female gaze”, it is not made popular or familiarized to the public yet. “The female gaze” applies to female producers who try to assert the female gaze on the main character, but it is believed to base off of the characteristics of “the male gaze”. For example, the movie Magic Mike seems to put male characters into submission by presenting male strippers appealing to women audience, but it still utilizes “the male gaze” when all the strippers carry bodily traits that portray traditional masculinity , considering the film producer is also a man.

Masculinity and femininity exist in a paradox throughout history. However, the definition for both tropes are narrow and, occasionally, vague. The definition tends to put weight on physical traits, to which Dyer (1982) states that “Muscularity is a key term in appraising men’s body […] Muscularity is the sign of power — natural, achieved, phallic.” (67, 68) This holds true until the present day when the media is flushed with muscular men in movies and advertisements. On the contrary, Millet (1970) elaborates that physical traits are generally a class factor since the middle and lower class tend to have muscular physics due to manual labor. This concept meshes with Marxism ideology mentioned by Barker (2012), “People’s attitudes and beliefs are held to be systematically and structurally related to the material conditions of existence” (63) in a way that the definition of masculinity and femininity are impacted by the temporary society. On a deeper level, masculinity and male superiority are based the possession of the penis. As Laura Mulvey puts forth, “women connote something that the look usually circles around but disavow: her lack of penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure” (811). The visual difference enhances the definition of masculinity and femininity in a way that women’s bodies are believed to actively provoke curiosity and ambivalence out of men with her bodily difference. The negotiation goes on as Messerschmidt (1993) points out, “Masculinity is never a static or a finished product. Rather, men construct masculinity in specific social situations” (31). The music video Boys relates to this statement in a way that it presents different types of masculinity under different settings and styles.

Although Boys is innovative in a sense that it represents different tropes and masculinity, it also promotes certain traditional masculine traits. On YouTube, Boys’ thumbnail is a picture of Cameron Dallas being half-naked while holding a chainsaw. The frame cuts from the pelvis and up, obeying the rule of thirds as Dallas stands in the center of the frame. The mid-shot along with a patterned creamy white background polishes the character by making him the center of attention. The frame conveys masculinity through physical traits by putting an emphasis on Dallas’ body features. The chainsaw represents manual labor and strength. This masculinity portrayal receives some prude interpretation of Dallas that Charli XCX does not necessarily wants the audience to acknowledge. In the video, Dallas is objectified under “the female gaze”, presenting as an object for fetish. It represents the common idea women have of men: strong, assertive, mysterious, and powerful. The image lays a foundation for masculinity, but it also promotes a toxic objectification of men. The thumbnail creates an association with the word “boys”, setting a certain mood to the audience and exerting the connection between boys/males and their definition: muscular and cool-looking. The association might be toxic as it can develop false expectations amongst teen consumers.

Gender roles play an undeniable importance in romance and how it is portrayed. Brendon Urie is featured wearing a red vest while laying on a carpet of red flowers and petals. This image strikes the audience with romantic and sensual feelings as red is the representative for fierce and romantic love. Urie is portrayed as a typical “gentleman” with the vest as it appeals to women materialistically. Vests are believed to be a symbol for class and good manner. The red hue, in the other hand, introduces a more complex interpretation of masculinity. People associate red with love, passion, sex, and romance (Elliot et al., 2010). Moreover, viewing red can make men more sexually attractive to women as they perceive “gentlemen in red” as higher in status (Elliott et al., 2010). The image is appealing to the female audience as it associates the characteristics of Urie with class and assertive romance through the red color.

Because women play a submissive role in romantic relationship because they are tied into traditional gender roles (Heiss, 1991), they are accustomed to the image of a man who represents all the traits that the other gender must possess to accomplish his gender roles. In the scene, the idea of romance and masculinity is put forth: the man assertively offers romance opportunity and the woman is the de-facto objects. Malach Pines (2001) stated, “while men are more influenced by physical attractiveness, women more often seek in a potential mate social and economic status” (96). The scene utilizes “the female gaze” not to emphasize the physical masculinity, but rather it emphasizes economic-and-social-status masculinity; thus, it reflects females’ definition and expectations of masculinity, romance, and how gender roles add up to the tropes portrayed in the video.

Boys also introduces controversial masculinity by representing minorities and styles that are not considered as “true” masculinity. In this case, race is a major factor in re-shaping masculinity. Jay Park, a Korean American artist, is featured half-naked in a pool of plastic balls. In the first scene, he looks at the camera mysteriously, which seems to provoke the audience. Mulvey (1975) touches on scopophilia, which Freud associated with “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (806). Although the video takes place under “the female gaze”, Jay Park as a male is exerting scopophilia on the audience by giving them the pleasure of being stared at curiously and attentively. This conflicts with the stereotype of Asian American masculinity as Asian Americans are stereotyped as socially inept and perpetually foreign (Lin, Kwan, Cheung, & Fiske, 2005). Asian Americans are also believed to be socially and sexually impotent (Huynh & Woo, 2014). These stereotypes about Asian men share the same ground with those are called nerds and geeks.

Nerds and geeks are specifically perceived as “men and boys who are unpopular because of their niche interests or lack of social skills” (Lockhart, 2015, ii). In the video, Flume and A.G. Cook are portrayed as “bookworms”, which represents the culture of nerds and geeks. Although the nerd/geek culture has once been considered as unpopular, the consumption of the nerd/geek culture is on the rise as people start to appreciate the book smart beauty of wealthy “nerds” and “geeks” in Silicon Valley. Lockhart (2015) believes that nerds and geeks are traditionally stereotyped to have “isolation from, lack of understanding toward, or hatred of sports and physical recreation, both as a participant and an observer” (20). This explains the dominant physical traits people often see on and off screen of nerds: skinny or not muscular. Such trait does not fit in with tradition masculinity both physically and socially and, thus, is considered as subordinate masculinity.

The video captured the unpopular definition of masculinity and transformed it into a popular culture artifact. It not only promotes Asian American on screen, but it also promotes the subordinate masculinity that needs support from society, especially from females. Challenging the idea of traditional masculinity, the video stepped out of its comfort zone to make it comfortable for men to embrace their masculinity and originality.

The “female gaze” in this artifact portrays a positive image of masculinity. With pink as the main hue, the video reflects the essence of femininity in masculinity and relates to the audience of all sexuality. Boys has succeeded in re-defining masculinity and gender roles by promoting various styles and portraits of men from different races and backgrounds. By subverting “the male gaze”, the artifact disputes hegemonic masculinity, which is understood as the “pattern of practice (i.e., things done, not just a set of role expectations or an identity) that allowed men’s dominance over women to continue” (Cornell, 2005, p. 832). Through the “female gaze”, the artist also challenges traditional masculinity and female ideals by embracing difference in personal characteristics. It is remarkable to see a pop artist, an elite, promoting subordinate culture that mentally benefits society. In addition, Charli XCX has pierced through the cultural myth of masculinity, making a statement that there should be no boundaries in defining masculinity. As a matter of fact, people develop expectations for real-world situations from observational learning, especially through media consumption; thus, promoting contents like this helps erase the toxic traits of stereotypes created by elite popular culture.


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