Thursday, October 4, 2012

Christina Aguilera, Serial Homicide, and Sex Positivity: What Does "Your Body" Video Mean?

Christina Aguilera's new video "Your Body" premiered last week, and it is . . . interesting. Here, take a look:

The video opens up with Aguilera playing an old video game before getting a report from her online psychic that she's going to have a "killer week." And then she does.

Over the course of the video, she's shown in various outfits that are both sexy and fun, playing off a myriad of tropes ranging from the childish to punk to "white trash." With each persona, she successfully seduces a man for an ostensible one-night stand. What looks on the surface to be a playful look at sex positivity and some of the elements of third-wave feminism takes a bizarre twist when Aguilera subsequently kills each of her potential flings in increasingly violent ways. So . . . what's up with that?

The Aguilera Context

This video makes the most sense when taken into a larger context of Aguilera's work and public persona. She has been a figure of some controversy. Busting on the scene as a teen who was initially indistinguishable from the other pop-starlets of her day, Aguilera did a lot of work to shed her initial image of herself as a "Genie in a Bottle," a young sex fantasy who existed solely to cater to men's sexual desire. 

Once established, though, Aguilera's career moves began to hover more and more toward a message of sex positivity and third-wave feminism. Sexy Feminist cites Aguilera as a modern-day feminist icon, noting that she has--even in her early days--championed female empowerment through her songs:
In Christina’s world, women are never reduced to pining for a man or cowering from his abuse. They’re loud-mouthed, opinionated bitches (a title she owns, Tina Fey-style) who get what they want when they want it. It’s a ballsy message Madonna could get behind. She also has a softer side: Her song “Beautiful” is a powerful celebration of individuality and difference, with a video featuring young people of all genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds, proclaiming their common beauty. No matter how you dress up the package, her message is one of the more feminist in popular music today.
 She's been a source of controversy for her provocative clothing choices, but she's also been directly combative in rejecting the labels of oppression that come with those choices. Consider her lyrics from "Still Dirrty":
If I wanna wear lingerie outside of my clothes/If I wanna be erotic in my own videos/If I want to be provocative well, that ain't a sin/Maybe you're not comfortable in your own skin
And while being a sex symbol is certainly something she embraces in her public persona, she has also been very clear that she's in control of her body. In the song "Slow Down Baby" she addresses the desire she might inspire through her performances:
Slow down baby, and don't act crazy/Don't you know how can look all you want but you just can't touch
So Aguilera has given us a series of empowering songs that celebrate the strength of women. While some take issue with the way that strength is tied up in sex and desire, Aguilera seems to embrace her own sexuality as a part of her and something that she owns. We could certainly debate the patriarchal structures surrounding such a claim, but her catalog of music certainly seems to suggest that's how she approaches her performance.

"Your Body" 

Which brings us to this newest video from her upcoming "rebirth" album. There's certainly plenty of the sex appeal that she's known for, but it's almost a parody of itself. She's clearly playing with clothing, make up, and hairstyles in a way that craft identities for her to inhabit. The demeanor of these personas are playful and light-hearted . . . until they start slaughtering men. 

But even then the tone of the video is light. It opens with this warning:

This reduces the men in the videos to props, which is perhaps a nod to the fact that women are often used in much the same way throughout many mainstream videos, be it as nearly-naked background dancers or mutilated bodies strewn around the room for grotesque effect.

What's going on in this video? How does it fit into Aguilera's larger body of work that promotes a feminist agenda?

Sex Positivity

Without a doubt, this is a sex positive song. The lyrics suggest that there is no shame in female desire and that the empowered woman will own her own wants. Some of the very first lines make this clear
So open the box [subtle, huh?]/Don't need no key, I'm unlocked/And I won't tell you to stop  
She establishes herself as the one with the agency. She's in control and she could say stop if she wanted to, but she doesn't, so she won't. The lyrics continue to promote an agenda of sexual pleasure.
So don't even tell me your name/All I need to know is whose place . . . It's true what you heard/I'm a freak, I'm disturbed
She knows the social stigma attached to a woman so openly seeking her own sexual pleasure, and she admits that she's a "freak" and "disturbed" for it, but she's happily pursuing it anyway. The men in the picture are truly interchangeable as this is a song about lust, not love, and her own sexual pleasure is the primary goal. In case you had any doubts of that, she gives us this lyric:
If you don't know where to go/I'll finish off on my own  
So the lyrics fit in with her overall sex positive image that's been developing for more than decade. But the images of the video don't quite match this, and it complicates the message.

Body Policing

Why is Aguilera murdering these men? The one clue that we get in the video is that she's inspired by the cartoons she's watching that are full of humorous violence. 

This is further supported by the fact that the murders themselves are cartoonish. Instead of blood and gore, we're confronted with blue goo and glitter spurting from the men's bodies as she kills them. 

Perhaps this is an allusion that Aguilera does not view these men as human. She sees killing them as fun and games, just as the cartoon characters treat death on the television screen. Furthermore, this narrative of treating the men as less-than-human fits in with an analysis that compares this video to more traditional music videos where women are frequently the ones reduced to props.

Another clue that this interpretation may be intentional is the shirt that Aguilera is wearing as she walks away from the car she just blew up with a man inside:

Her shirt says "Fuck the Paparazzi." Aguilera has been a frequent victim of cruel body policing by the media who have scrutinized every pound she gained and every piece of clothing she put on. Perhaps this casual dismissal of men's bodies is a sort of reversal of roles, demonstrating just how callous it would be if men were treated as dispensable and inhumanely as women frequently are. 


There are a couple of things in the video that I'm not sure what to do with. For one, I think there are some pretty clear allusions to Lady Gaga and Beyonce's "Telephone," another video that takes a somewhat straightforward song about female empowerment and turns it into a bizarre celebration of brazen sexuality set to a backdrop of violent criminality. (A video that is itself rife with allusions to  Kill Bill and Thelma and Louise, films that likewise champion female criminals for their unconventional strength.)

Finally, the very last scene of "Your Body" is our protagonist changing the channel from the violent cartoons and turning to a show featuring Lucille Ball. 

This final scene suggests that the entire video may exist as a self-reflexive commentary on the state of female role models. Since Aguilera's murder spree was sparked by her consumption of violent cartoons, what potential influence does watching Lucille Ball--a woman who boldly broke gender barriers in her own time--have? Is she suggesting that women are left with very few options on how to become the heroines of their own stories? If sexuality is the primary way that we are allowed screen time, what does that leave us? I think it's even more telling that--while the song suggests she is having a one-night stand to meet her own sexual needs--the video shows her never finishing a sexual act. She seduces the men with promises of sex, but she always kills them before following through. Can the video really be a sex positive message if it doesn't contain any sex?

In the end, I think that this video is extremely interesting, and I think that Aguilera has definitely placed some commentary on the state of media and feminism within it. I can't say that I'm 100% sure of how that commentary is supposed to operate, but I suspect that she's turning a critical eye on the narrow roles that women are allowed to play and the frequency with which our bodies are turned into props--often with our enthusiastic participation. How this fits in with her larger narrative of sexual freedom and third wave feminism is certainly not without complications.

What do you think? Is Aguilera making a statement about women and the media? Is she telling us to find better role models and, if so, is she including herself in the role models to avoid?


  1. Love this! Great post :-) Can't watch the video atm, so am reduced to commenting on your commentary and the stills, thus the only thing I can add is this: Is it unreasonable to see the blue goo as a reference to the blue liquid used in sanitary towel ads? A nod to the unrealistic nature of the whole thing, the tongue-in-cheek reference to a fantasy life (like in the video game), and to the propensity to show blood as blue but only when it's menstrual blood and so linked to femininity rather than the masculine blood of murder?

    Or, and I only thought this as I came to write it, the aristocratic connections to blue blood? I'm thinking of the class implications of something like the 'Telephone' video, plus your reference to some of her outfits as "white trash" and to the class commentary implicit in the consumption of stars like Aguilera and Britney Spears?

    I may well be reading too much into this - but I can't pretend to be sorry, I'm a literature phd after all!

    1. Those are great observations! I wouldn't have thought of the blue blood on the sanitary napkins, but now that you mention it, I think they're definitely using them in the same way. And a "feminine" murder matches the other murder scenes, too, with their glitter and sparkle.

      And--as someone who also studies English--there's no such thing as reading too much into it!

  2. That you females don't react with a sick feeling in your stomach the first you watch this video disturbs me greatly. My immediate gut impression on watching this was revulsion. Murdering some innocent body because they want to have sex with you and getting off on that to boot is the territory of serial sex killers, not women, let alone feminist women, I would have thought. But then the world is changing and maybe I'm not keeping up. Is this what "Third-wave Feminism" is all about??. Thank God then that I am not long for this world.

    Can you name anything like this video, where the gender roles are reversed that anybody has described as "funny" or "light-hearted"?

    FYI,(since you have never been a man), it is possible to have sex with somebody you barely know (as many man desire to do and some do do) yet still respect, even love that person as a woman/man and fellow human being. Without hate, and without shame-filled ideas that one is a "freak" or "disturbed". And certainly without any centilla of a smidgen of a desire to murder the other person.


    It does cross my mind to label you "S*CK". But I'll practice forbearance and forgiveness and just hope that too many years of academic study has temporarily robbed you of your native humanity and that someday soon some epiphany will bring it back to you again. Maybe children might do it.

    And if you don't want to allow my comment to stand because it isn't the sort of thing you would like to hear at any "dinner party" of yours, I will perfectly understand.

    1. No. This is definitely the kind of comment that can stand at my dinner party. I mainly just hate the ones that give me death threats and call me a bunch of profane names. Everything else is pretty cool.

      I'm interested in what makes you think that I'm approving of the violence in the video. I didn't find it "funny" or "light-hearted," though I did say that it's clear that the video is trying to create a playful tone from its very opening scene. I did call it "cartoonish" (which I think it clearly is), but I don't think that cartoons are exempt from social commentary.

      In fact, the whole point of my choosing to examine this video is because I don't find it funny or light-hearted. I saw it, and it disturbed me, so I tried to pick it apart to see what might be going on with it, especially since Christina Aguilera is someone who I had found to give very positive messages in the past (which is why I included some of her previous work in this post). The negativity of this message shocked me.

      I can think of several times where I've seen such violence with the gender roles reversed. One was another video I reviewed (Kanye West's "Monster"). I was very critical of his treatment of women's bodies, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt (as I do here with Aguilera) that he was trying to use that violence to make some kind of commentary. (You can see that post here. In that case, I think that his artistic endeavor (whatever it may have been) fell short, and he ultimately crafted a work that left us with very realistic depictions of women's bodies being mutilated for pleasure.

      I do think that, because we live in a patriarchal society, there is a difference in the gendering of these bodies, though. We are used to seeing women's bodies used as props, especially in advertisements. Some female artists (Nicki Minaj does this to some extent to, as does Lady) seem to be playing with a role reversal in a way that I think draws attention to the problem of objectifying anyone.

      Merely looking at the way that those moves operate rhetorically doesn't mean that I think they are positive messages. I certainly don't think it's okay to treat men as expendable, and I certainly don't think that killing or committing violence against anyone is okay. In fact, that's precisely why I want to figure out why we're using it so often in media. I don't want to just let murdering people become a backdrop on which we play pop songs.

    2. Oh, and I forgot to add, I don't speak for "you females." I am one person. Me.

  3. what is the cartoon at the end of 'Your body'?

  4. The laughing wolves before she switches to Lucille Ball? I'm not sure, but it looks like Looney Toons or some Tex Avery animation.