Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Don't Laugh! I Think LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It" is a Feminist Video

First, if you haven't already, watch this (for what it's worth, it's rated "Mature Content" on YouTube):

Self-described "party rock" artists LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It" video appears to be light-hearted, even silly. That certainly fits with their overall image, but after looking at it a couple of times, I'm not so sure. 

Step 1: Subverting the Male Gaze
Both the lyrics and the overall premise of the video deal with the group's objectification. "When I walk in the spot, this is what I see/Everybody stops and they staring at me."

While this attention is not entirely unwanted (as he later says "this is how I roll/come on ladies it's time to go"), he does express some annoyance and discomfort: "When I'm at the mall, security just can't fight 'em off/When I'm at the beach, I'm in a speedo trying to tan my cheeks"

These lines indicate that, though the speaker may now have embraced his status as objectified sex object, it was a somewhat forced decision. He can't go shopping or even just lounge on the beach without becoming the center of female attention. He could either continue to fight off the unwanted attention or give into it. 

Ellen Huet (proving I'm not alone in my feminist interpretation), writes about this as well:
The harsh looks of both men and women soon drive the rapper to complete literally what is already being done in the eyes of others: he rips his pants off, leaving the star more exposed and vulnerable than before.
Huet argues that the song "speaks to the struggles of objectified women everywhere" going so far as to say that :
Even when stripped of their clothes, they feel they must beg for female attention in order to feel validated, specifically pointing out their physical attributes."Girl, look at that body," they plead repeatedly, mirroring the Sisyphean plight of women seeking to be noticed in a patriarchal society. "I work out."
For Huet, the video seems to show men stepping into the role of the objectified and thus becoming victims of objectification in the way that women have so often become.

A post over at But Seriously takes the same premise but comes to a different conclusion:

According to the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” Tell that to the pecs and speedo-clad cocks wiggling in LMFAO’s new video for their hit, Sexy And I Know It. 
Keep this in mind the next time a certain type of feminist tries to skew the gender dialogue to imply that women are solely, or vastly more objectified, than men.
The author goes on to explain further in the comments, which are worth a read, if you're interested.

While I definitely agree that the video begins with the premise of subverting the Male Gaze in a way that demonstrates the objectification of men (perhaps to highlight that men are objectified, too or perhaps to draw attention to the objectification of women through role reversal), but I arrive at a different conclusion.

Step 2: Competition for Sexiness-
As soon as the speaker rips off his pants and wiggles his penis, he makes the declaration, "I'm sexy and I know it."

At this point, he has fully accepted the reality of his objectification and decided to identify with it. This is immediately met with disapproving looks from other men, who now see him as either a threat or a joke (or such a threat that he must be dismissed as a joke). One man covers the woman he's with eyes so that she cannot see this display of sexiness. A pair of body builders shake their heads dismissively, as their bodies represent the hyper-masculine and our speaker's does not. His version of "sexy" seems diametrically opposed to theirs. 

His confidence is seen as a the most immediate threat, however, by these guys:

They then take it upon themselves to reassert their physical sexuality as superior. It is as if the declaration of  the speaker's body (which is clearly not as muscular and doesn't adhere as closely to the societal standard for masculinity) as sexy directly challenges their own status as sexy. They cannot both have sexy bodies; it is one or the other. 

This, too, parallels women's perceptions of beauty and competition. Consider, for example, the response to Beth Ditto's nude cover for NME. Here's a woman who is fat (the term she prefers, as she says "overweight" sets standards for others and she doesn't want to do that). Her confidence in the pose and in doing the cover itself makes the same declaration: "I'm sexy and I know it." Many women see this as a direct threat. If she gets to be sexy, then what am I? They seem to ask. (For more specific examples of women getting angry over her claim to sexy, look at the comments on this post, but be warned, they're mean.)

So, how do you settle a dispute over whose body gets to be sexy? With a wiggle-off, obviously. The two sets of men meet in a bar and duel, a literal battle over who will have the right to claim "sexy."

In this way, the video has demonstrated the detrimental outcome of objectification. When people are reduced to sexualized objects, they can often overvalue their role as object. As such, other people's confidence in their own identities becomes a threat. Insecurity runs rampant and causes splintering and conflict. But this is where things get interesting . . . 

Step 3: Reconciliation
While the bar scene starts out as a battle for the title of "sexy" it ends very differently. Men and women of various races sporting different body types and clothing styles take their turn in the sexy spotlight. 

The final message, then, is that we can all be sexy. It doesn't have to be a battle. Someone else's declaration of their own confidence isn't a challenge to yours. That's a very body-positive, inclusive, and optimistic conclusion to a story that started with objectification. So how did we get there?

Conclusion: Objectification and Ownership
While I absolutely believe that male bodies can be objectified and I firmly believe that men are subjected to images and pressures that champion a particular body type as superior (see this video on how it's done in Disney, for instance), I still think that patriarchal privilege gives men an advantage--even when they're potentially objectified. 

Women who claim their sexiness are often labeled "sluts" and shamed for it, even if they (like the speaker in this song) are only doing so because they've already been objectified and are simply trying to claim ownership of their own identities. Men, however, are rarely subjected to the same ridicule. When a man who is not considered "sexy" by societal standards tries to claim himself to be sexy, it is often seen as humorous, not shameful. Men are able to joke about sexual prowess and their bodies in a way that women seldom can pull off. While I think that being ridiculed for confidence in one's appearance is horrible and degrading, I still think that the ability to fall back on humor has a shielding effect, a shielding effect that women often don't receive. 

And, in the case of this video, perhaps it is that shield that allows the uplifting conclusion. It is a process, for sure, and the video goes through multiple steps to show how that process occurs. By ultimately allowing everyone to claim ownership over their own appearance and know that they are sexy, we create a tool against objectification.


  1. Wonderful article. I honestly would never have looked at anything done by LMFAO in a serious way, but you bring up many, many good points.

    One thing I'd like to add, though, is that I do think that our culture turns "women who claim to be sexy" into humor a lot. I think that only when white, heteronormative, conventionally "sexy" women own their sexiness are they made to feel shameful about it. But with fat women or older women or "frumpy" women, it's a joke. See Melissa McCarthy's character in "Bridesmaids," or any number of jokes based on an older or even elderly woman winking at a much younger man. Even on the show "Big Bang Theory," the character of Amy - who does not dress sexy and is not in any other way conventionally sexy - is a highly sexual being, whose desire for intimacy is a running gag on the show.

    Thank you for making me think with this piece. I never would have realized all that I just said without it!

  2. Great point, Meredith--especially the Melissa McCarthy example. While certainly a comedic element for viewers, it seemed to me that her character was sincere in her claim to sexiness--that she wasn't laughing at herself, even if other people may have been laughing at her. I'm not sure where I'm going with that, but it's got me thinking, so thanks!

    I wonder if women and men are equally able to participate in self-deprecating humor when it comes to body image (as it seems men are much more able to claim fart jokes, jokes about their genitalia, etc. than women can)? Can men use that humor (even if its self deprecating) to shield themselves from some of the judgment? Or does it all amount to the same thing?

    1. altho things R still far from equal, women R much more able 2 laff @ ourselves than in the past---& we can all thank roseanne barr 4 that

  3. Good question!

    I'm not an expert on anything, but it seems to me that in our society we are all expected to downplay our qualities. For example, look how I just started that sentence. ;-D I don't know where it comes from: Puritan foundations, post-modern irony, or what, but I think that whenever we have someone - a celebrity or fictional character - who thinks too highly of him or herself, even if they are *right*, they set themselves up for mockery. I'm just writing off the cuff here, but it seems to me like there's a fine line in our culture between healthy self-esteem, which is pushed on everyone, and being conceited - and the judgement of which is which falls to the audience, not the person in question. But no one is ever punished for putting themselves down, and that makes it easy. Better to wait for others to confirm your sexiness/brilliance/kindness than to claim it yourself and risk being mocked.

  4. One more thing that just occurred to me, and I think you touched on this point in your post.

    About 90% of sexiness (in my highly scientific opinion) is confidence, is *knowing* that you are sexy and acting like it. But if you are confident in yourself, then you don't need external validation...and for some reason that upsets people. "What do you mean, you don't require my opinion???"

  5. I like your point about how the conceited/confident line is determined by the audience, and I definitely agree that sexiness is mostly confidence, so the two are intertwined. The problem with that can be that audience is always changing in ways you can't predict or control. If you tie your identity up in your confidence, and the audience shifts (either because you're around new people or because the people you've always been around have switched perspectives for some reason), you risk losing a large part of your identity.

  6. Hey - came to this piece via Feministe. I saw the video for the first time last week having heard of the infamous 'wiggle' and my first thought was that the video was actually quite... refreshing? Great points! But what are your thoughts on the inclusion of Ron Jeremy in the video?

  7. Yeah. . . I didn't really know what to do with Ron Jeremy. I do think it's interesting that--when we first see him--he's the only man that doesn't seem threatened and therefore confrontational to the group. When they first rip off their pants, the rest of the men are staring or glaring, but Jeremy is on the sidelines dancing along with them, which seems to exude a certain level of confidence and acceptance. Of course, Jeremy (while certainly part of an industry that objectifies women, and I really don't know how to fit that into this analysis) has also been objectified and identified primarily through the size of his penis, so maybe he sympathizes with the objectification of our speaker.

  8. hahahahaha wow.... relax

  9. I knew this LMFAO video was feminist but I didn't know why. Thanks for deconstructing it and validating my opinion. :-)

  10. just noticed this article, lol :)