As we end 2014 in our post-everything society, there are many who say sexism and machismo are dead—and have been for years. Women have the same legal rights as men, so goes the rationale, ergo sexism is a thing of the past—an argument that ignores the cultural residue of centuries of oppression.
Artistically speaking, women are free to express themselves in whatever way they want, but it’s still sex that sells, and sex equals women’s bodies. Pop music in particular uses the female body to sell anything and everything—often the artists themselves. In 2013, Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake paraded writhing nude women through their Internet-only videos. And today videos for Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and Jennifer Lopez’s aptly-titled “Booty” feature a jaw-dropping succession of gyrating haunches covered in oil. Is this what it looks like when women reclaim their right to speak about what they want? Even Beyoncé—arguably the biggest star on the planet—sends a schizophrenic message, dancing in a leotard in front of the word “Feminist” or singing songs like “(Girls) Rule the World” and “Pretty Hurts,” all while scantily clad and flawless. The message: you can be successful and a feminist, but you’d better be sexy while you do it.
But there are always women who talk back. Chile’s Ana Tijoux—woman, rapper, mother, activist—discusses these points in continuation of the Walker Art Center’s Artist Op-Eds series. Not pretending to have solutions, Tijoux stresses the importance of discussing the impact these images have on our youth and their role in perpetuating machismo in our society. It’s a conversation that is far from over.
There’s no avoiding the stomach convulsions, the wrenching shiver. It invades the most hidden spaces. It appears with every piece of over-information on TV, the nonstop visions of human flesh on display in those farcical displays we call music videos.
We can’t hold off the bodily violence, can’t prevent it from invading our irises. Nor can we avoid the unremitting discomfort that floods us when we see those feminine silhouettes, the way every inch of their bodies is presented to us, avid and eager to provoke and excite.
Eyes drift to the corners of the screen, lips are licked, and even the shyest pixels blush to the rhythm of a schizophrenic beat. Desire lights beacons in the shadows, and the far-flung fantasizing opens the way for an endless tide of ardent women, anxious to be touched, as they parade through pop songs that have been eviscerated of their beauty, songs that could have made the heart and soul tremble.
This is not about music. It’s not about composition or verses, nor is it about art; it’s not about a perfect dance along furious chords, or harmonious interpretations. It’s not about courageous songs or compositions of sounds that can make us ride the storm of our emotions. This is about visual punches: it’s about snatching away the very beauty of women. It’s about a bubblegum format now ingrained in our brains, with that strange capacity to make us sing along and chew on choruses under the influence of the drug of a music industry that has made good use of repetition.
We are living in an era when the speed of the world doesn’t leave any room to savor the minutes of a beautiful song. We are living in an epoch when everything is fast, everything is immediate, everything is right now this very instant, where we must rush along, running to catch up with time, and the hands of the clock race around an interminable track, running at a perverse pace.
We shouldn’t think, but we must go forward. We don’t really know toward what, but we have to acquiesce to that deafening passage of time. We must be young and desirable; we must be new and defiant; we must touch the yearned-for success with our fingertips; and we must, no matter what, follow the pattern of the times, whatever the cost.
And music is not exempt from this new modus operandi of the worldwide clock; rather, music has to fulfill the dominant and uncompromising mission not only of accompanying our days, but also of pushing our bodies into compliance with the order of this unequivocal speed.
Mainstream popular music and its faces—like a campaign face—must devour us whole, excite us to the extreme, swallow our innocence, kill our hope, obliterate the magic of the senses, asphyxiate clarity, and drive us into the arms of these new accelerated times.
We must be frozen, mute before the imminent blows of a music industry that no longer wants to stimulate. Their arts do not question; they reproduce proven musical formulas in which the very temporality of the songs lasts only three minutes, as if assuming our ears have been worn out by “la cultura de la basura,” or garbage culture, as the band Los Prisioneros put it.
The master keys are repetition and constant reproduction, keys that open all the doors of a market anxious to transform human beings as much as possible into machines of production.
Music videos are a clear example of this situation. Bodies are not bodies, faces are not faces, smiles are not smiles but merely lips smeared with oil. Thighs are muscles the camera lens exaggerates, conflating the woman’s body with that of an animal in heat.
These bodies melt into a single mass, distorting each other in the process. Girls are not girls. Women are not women: they are girls with a dual stance, little girls made up like grown-ups, overexaggerated in every wink of their eyes, forced into the role of “adult little girls.” The question is, who can put out the most provocative video, who can swivel their hips most nimbly, who can grind their haunches against the wall with the most sexuality, all the while gazing provocatively into our eyes?
Masculine eyebrows rise, cheeks turn red, and the eyes gazing at the woman become bullets of lustful desire. The woman is not a woman, but the object of lascivious greed. And as women we swallow this pervasive pattern, convinced that this way of dialoging with the world is the language we must adopt in our own interactions.
The general agitation accelerates the collective palpitation, the open legs of the female singers surrendered on the floor, and the clichés of women reduced to being things, like the luxury cars we see onscreen. This is not just a modus operandi, it is totally accepted in everyday society. This is the new era of violence against the body.
Every female singer must compete in an infinite game of provocation. Now nothing is enough, and nothing is too much, the goal is to put everything on display, always setting a new challenge with a higher bar: who can show more and more, who can achieve the most extreme contortions in the most acrobatic way, who is the most desirable, and who has the highest ability to annul the most beautiful femininity, to transform it into something and not someone.
Where are the songs and videos showing a woman in her role as sister—or a woman in her role as protector, or economic head of family, or devoted daughter, or grandmother dignified in her old age, the little girl reflecting on the world, the exemplary worker, or the peasant organizing the community? Where are they? Where are the women in these videos? Where is your sister? Where is your mother? Do we recognize ourselves? Do we find ourselves in the other? And ultimately this box of illusions, this square of superimposed images, accumulates more and more of these repetitive videos in a mockery of reality.
It is overly violent, overwhelming, and heart-rending to see how our image has been hatcheted, how they have robbed us of the right to grow older, as if wrinkles were a contagious disease. They have taken away the joy of the passage of time on our faces.
We don’t have the right to grow old, nor do we have the right to feel the magnificence of time in our bodies, to bear the passage of time in a humanized body that coexists with the condition and the right of a person to be.
We are mothers and we are daughters. We are sisters and neighbors. We are your companion and your friend. We are women.
The violence in the way we are disfigured, distorted, and presented to the world is a silent, accepted violence, a permitted violence, a repeated and shattering violence.
We live amid a generalized social abuse where the terrorism of the media has laid a deadly trap for the female being. One shouldn’t express too many opinions, or sing very loudly, for fear that our ideas may expand like a harvest of reflections that would lead to an imminent awakening of awareness of our condition.
Sexism in the media is one of the most capitalist ways of controlling the emancipation of women. An emancipated woman is a dangerous woman, one who threatens an entire system with all its distortions that manage to keep the possibility of real freedom in check. Because there is nothing more capitalist than sexism. It is the capital of man before woman. The masculine body is power, domination, colonization. It is that which denigrates and subjugates. Women, on the other hand, must follow orders, comply with physical expectations, and, in a form of bipolar disorder, also adhere to conservative moral expectations.
Facing this is a daily task, interweaving all of women’s roles—to remember, reflect, question, and debate this normalization of violence. Understanding that education is not carried out only in classrooms, but that all platforms of public space can be educational.
Singers have the imperative task of bringing about a shift through our songs and lyrics. We have to bring the issue to the fore, awaken critical thought, remember with beautiful responsibility the reason for our voices. We must assume the radiance of the passage of time in our melodies and in the way we compose. To give the tremendous elixir of filling every space with public dialogue, and be rocked in the arms of creativity.
The arts must question, they must think, they must feel and speak with the world. Art without constant dialogue lives with the critical danger of falling into the pit of advertising. Music must be free in its totality, and be free of itself, free of patterns, and free of funds and forms.
This is why it is of tremendous importance that our creations break away from us, and that they achieve a dialogue with the universe, and that the marvelous calling of singing, as Victor Jara said, always has “meaning and reason.”
Born in France to parents exiled from their native Chile by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Ana Tijoux returned to Santiago in 1993 and by the late 1990s was well known throughout Latin America as MC of the hip-hip band Makiza. A solo artist since 2006, she has thrilled audiences internationally with her politically hard-hitting lyrics and signature flow, earning the title of “South America’s answer to Lauryn Hill” (New York Times). This year she has traveled throughout the US—performing at Austin City Limits and SXSW, among others, while making time for interviews on programs such as Democracy Now!—in support of her latest album, Vengo (2014).
Foreword and translation by Megan McDowell.
“This is not about music. It’s not about composition or verses, nor is it about art. This is about visual punches: it’s about snatching away the very beauty of women.”
“Where are the songs and videos showing a woman in her role as sister—or a woman in her role as protector, or economic head of family, or devoted daughter, or grandmother dignified in her old age?”