Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Meaning Creating Audience: Some Reflections on Kanye West's "Monster" Video and Social Responsibility

(Warning: This post contains graphic descriptions and imagery of violence against women, sexualization, and fetishization of murder victims.) (Another warning: I had a lot to say about this, so this is really, really long.) 

Adios Barbie published a year-end review of social media activism successes. As I've written before, I firmly believe in our power as consumers to influence the market, be that by buying free-range eggs or refusing to buy products with sexist marketing. This is not the same as censorship, and I realize that the lines of ethical consumption get blurry when we throw questions of artistic value into the mix. 

On Adios Barbie's list, I first heard about the controversy surrounding Kanye West's video "Monster" (which I hadn't seen). I'm a Kanye West fan, and I think that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the album that includes "Monster") is excellent. However, this video deeply disturbed me, and it took some unpacking to figure out just where the parameters of that disturbance lie. 

The video, which I'm not going to embed, can be viewed here (WARNING: this video contains excessive violence, fetishized images of dead women, and disturbing sexualization). I am including a screen shot to give you a sense of the tone and imagery. 

You can read some other feminist criticism of this video here or here. It doesn't take a well-trained analytical eye to see why people would be disturbed. The video shows scores of naked or near-naked women being beaten, hung, decapitated, molested after death, and strewn around the room like decor. Almost all of the violence is men against women, though there are two zombie women who are shown dragging away a man's body. Then there is rapper Nicki Minaj who is shown torturing a woman under a hood, who turns out to be an alter-ego of herself. This disturbing exchange between the two Nickis is the only violence that seems to have any emotion behind it; the rest is detached, cold, and calculated. 

The reason that this ended up on the Adios Barbie list is because there was a petition to stop its release. MTV did not air it (though they say it wasn't banned, but they were awaiting "edits" to make it suitable for their "decency standards" (like what? a total screen blackout?). VH1 also refused to air it, allowing the petitioners to call for victory

So, here I am, months later, watching this video for the first time. When I first saw it, I was disgusted. Why? I've seen graphic images before. I've read and watched Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho, which deals with similar brutality and fetishization of women and violence. I've watched graphic horror films ranging from the campy (Death Proof) to the macabre (Antichrist) that show women's bodies being twisted, deformed, violated. I've seen media representations of rape. I've watched women parade around scantily clad in music videos as props for the men at their center. Sometimes these media have left me disappointed, sometimes I appreciated them as art, but I had never reacted so viscerally as I did with "Monster." 

What's different?

I went to look for defenses of the video because I can understand (and I realize that many people will disagree) that even the misogynistic and disturbing can have a deeper meaning and message. I'll even go so far as to grant that I think this video does have a deeper message. I just don't think the message justifies the content. Here were some of the arguments I found in defense of the video:

  • Jonathan Fields on Fresh Xpress argues that "Mr. West brought us a narrative on the exploitation of Black bodies by the same tool that’s being used by these purported liberation advocates and/or “feminists”–whiteness." While he makes some interesting points that demonstrate how West is using the disturbing images of female bodies to draw parallels (and thus attention) to racism, his premise is flawed. He begins his argument by claiming that "You will see the only “dead” women are white women (I put dead in quotations because this is an artistic representation and no one is *actually* dead). The women of color who are represented in this video are all zombie-esque." But this isn't true. The second woman that's shown hanging from the ceiling appears to be a woman of color. She's not "zombie-esque." She's dead, murdered, and treated with utter disregard just like her white counterparts. As is the black woman who's displayed dead on a table as a man holding a chainsaw closes the door. 
  • Latoya Peterson makes a similar argument in her very interesting article on the subject for Racialicious. She explains that people are outraged over Kanye's video because "Kanye violated the norms of the usual amount of misogyny by making the women two things: (1) dead and (2) white." She goes on to analyze the tension between race and gender in the video, ultimately concluding: 
"But the segregation of treatment contributes to a final note, where Kanye is also upholding the ideals of white supremacy. Even in death, white women are worthy of love, tenderness, and a starring role in male fantasies. Brown women are relegated to the background, left to their own monstrous devices, shadow creatures performing their roles. Neither depiction is great for women – it’s essentially a loss all the way around. But I do wonder, if the video was full of the corpses of black women, would it have provoked such an outcry? I would certainly hope so "
Aside from the fact that I think the premise is flawed in both of these arguments because I think there are women of color portrayed as dead, I also think that this argument doesn't do enough to assuage my concerns. Yes, I see how this could be a powerful way to get across a message about racism, and yes (as I hope I've made clear in previous writing) I believe that messages exposing and denouncing racism are essential to societal and ethical progress. Racism is a horrendous scar on our society that is not (and shows no signs of becoming) relegated to the past. We don't have to look very far to be reminded that racism is present in our media, in ways overt and subtle.

From here

 But the suggestion that the use of white women's bodies ups the shock value in a way that makes this message more powerful is problematic to me. I think that--just as there are a disturbing amount of media representations of racism--there are also disturbing amounts of media representation of women (of all races) being fetishized, victimized, and violated in the name of "entertainment" and profit. 

Consider ads like Dolce and Gabbana's "gang rape" image:

Or this Belgian promotion for organ donation as "the only chance to get inside her":

See more disturbing images of sexism in advertising at NOW's Not Cool site. Also, check out this entry on "Drop Dead Gorgeous," the media trope of the sexy dead woman

All that to say, I just don't see that this tactic as groundbreaking in the way that it would have to be to legitimize attempts to draw attention to racism through sexism. Both racism and sexism are so casually accepted in the media and systems of oppression are so closely tied together philosophically that--while I may understand the connection--I can't let it excuse the propagation of one (or, as Peterson pointed out above, inadvertently both) to draw attention to the other. It's too close to fighting the oppression wars, and it's counterproductive for all involved. 

I read another interesting article in defense of the video:

  • Brandon Soderberg writes in SPIN that West is grappling with themes too complex for his still-developing intellectual grasp of them. Essentially, Soderberg argues that West is trying to address the misogyny he sees in hip hop culture by turning the implicit into the explicit, throwing it so far down our throats that we can't help but see it. Ultimately, Soderberg thinks he's missed the mark because he lacks the maturity and understanding to handle it correctly:
"Kanye, the self-aware, sensitive rapper has crafted a surreal response to hip-hop misogyny making the implicit violence of in-the-club videos, well, extremely explicit. Women tend to pose stoically in rap videos, so here they're frozen (thanks to rigor mortis) and dolled up without agency. It's a pitch-black comedy of rap-video excess and though it's far too much of a primal purge to rise to the level of satire, it's a knowing provocation. If Kanye were more mature and not still figuring all this stuff out, he'd create some kind of corrective; but he's lost and awkwardly working his way through it, and as a result, the best he can do is vomit it up something even more horrifying."
You know what? I buy that. I but that argument because I don't think that Kanye West (and whoever else was responsible for the creative process behind this video) sat around thinking of ways to victimize women for fun. I know that there are some who want to demonize him for doing so, but I truly do think this video was meant to make a statement. But, like Soderberg, I think that it failed, and I think that West has a responsibility to recognize when something this important is failing. Finally, I think that we--as consumers--have a responsibility to manage the promotion of material like this when it is created. And that's exactly what the petition did. The petition didn't say that West couldn't make this video. The petition didn't say that West couldn't explore themes of misogyny and racism and where they intersect.

It just said that it shouldn't be aired on MTV and VH1, spaces where viewership might not be willing to put the analytical effort into determining the intent of the video or any hidden meanings it may hold, spaces where a dead woman's fetishized body will be played right next to a live woman's fetishized body in the previous video and the viewers might not take the time to notice the contrast. They might just watch it and absorb it. They might just see bodies as playthings.

Soderberg ultimately concludes that:
"it's not like Kanye is given a media grace period to break down what he intended with the video or that such a self-analysis wouldn't be chopped up and distorted. Who's to say Kanye could even begin to explain "Monster"? He probably wouldn't have to make this video, or album after album about all this stuff if he could just explain it in an interview."
And there's the important thing. Material like this requires contextualization. It requires explanation. It requires intellectualization. What did Kanye give us? A 30-word disclaimer at the beginning of the video:
The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any group of people. It is an art piece and shall be taken as such.
This, to me, is the greatest failing of all. This means that West recognized that he had some responsibility to contextualize this piece and that he refused to do so. He simply threw it out into the world and walked away from it. He took the stance that his art was his to dictate and that it "shall be taken as such."

First of all "as such" what? What are we supposed to take it as? "Art" is not a good enough description. There are lots of kinds of art. This disclaimer recognizes that the author's intention might be misinterpreted, but it doesn't do anything to explain what that intention is.

And, finally--and most importantly--it ignores the fact that messages are not created in one-way paths. The writer does not simply put ideas into the reader's mind. Reader's are equally responsible for creating meaning, and they do so by contextualizing the texts that they view. Viewers approach this work with all of those sexist and racist ads (that have often been given the societal stamp of approval) in the back of their minds. Many viewers (especially those on MTV and VH1, where this video could have aired) approach this text with entertainment in mind. West refuses to take responsibility for the fact that he has an audience--an audience that has made him wildly successful and very rich, an audience to which he has responsibility whether he wants it or not. The artist can intend all he wants, but the message's receipt has to be considered.

Kanye West would be wise to learn the lesson taught in Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, Percival Everett's novel Erasure, and Dave Chappelle's experience with Chappelle's Show. Your audience--especially if you are producing pop culture--is amorphous and sometimes unpredictable. While you are not fully responsible for what they do with your message, an intelligent, effective artist who wants to make a statement knows that this relationship must be managed with finesse, finesse that is not present in "Monster."


  1. I think this is a well stated and formulated piece. I'm a HUGE fan of Kanye West so I always cringe a bit when I hear criticisms of him. But I think that you and Soderber are right on in saying that Yeezy just missed his mark with this video. I myself have only viewed the video once because, unlike his other works, I found myself not being disturbed by the images but finding them rather pointless. I had faith Ye was attempting to convey some sort of message but it went right over my head. I also noticed the clip of the hanging black woman so I, apparently subconciously, racial issues in the video, even though the authors arguing this point above made some good connections. I just wanted to say thank you for the clarification. It pleases me to know that while "Monster" lacks the finesse of past videos like "All Falls Down" and "Jesus Walks", there is definitely still something to it, or at least there was meant to be something to it.

  2. Sorry, I clicked Publish instead of Preview.

    I meant "I also noticed the clip of the hanging black woman so I, apparently subconciously, [looked over instances of] racial issues in the video, even though the authors arguing this point above made some good connections.

  3. I didn't know about this and it's really disturbing. Even in the name of 'artistic license', how does one justify such imagery? And Kanye is so mainstream that you know young men and women are consuming these images.
    In case you haven't seen this, check out There's a documentary done on the sexual images in popular culture and its impact.