Friday, 22 May 2015

A Gendered Language: a feminist tool

THRILLED to see this piece, originally published in the girls are, now being used as a tool for feminist argument : A2 Media Representation and in a debate on Louder Than War. 

Piece in full, with music videos, at the girls are 


The music video got famous in the Eighties; bands embraced the new technology in a flash, using the opportunity to communicate a strong image and increase their selling power. Characters like Malcolm Maclaren used Vivienne Westwood’s creations to give acts like Bow Wow Wow an animated, colourful appeal, while at the other end of the spectrum Duran Duran began to produce almost mini-films, romantic snapshots of a fantasy high life, which of course included wish fulfilment for the male gaze – sun tanned, bikini clad women.
Cable TV and MTV came next (as a music critic for a National music paper at the time, it pained me to see the apathy of the next generation; happy to lounge like Curt Kobain and Courtney Love, watching music videos ad infinitum.) Since, YouTube, Vimeo and MySpace have ensured the music video becomes an even more powerful and desirable medium, with both major labels and independent acts ensuring that there are music videos of released EP’s, singles and album tracks available at a click.
There is a definite new breed of artist who takes creative control or even directs their music videos, perhaps borne out of financial necessity but also simply because this generation has the knowledge and understanding of multi-media. Californian artist Kreayshwn directed her own music video for the fantastic ‘Gucci Gucci’. A Berkeley Digital Film Institute dropout, Kreayshawn was even paid to direct a video for The Red Hot Chilli Peppers Chilli Ho single, ‘The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie’, although they chose an alternate video cut for release, in the end.
This article celebrates some of the cutting-edge women artists, bands and directors who are representing women in a positive, exciting and original way. It also argues for more collaborations between independent artists and up and coming women directors.
That’s the good news. But it’s “same old” for the bad: it’s hard not to talk about women in music videos without sounding like someone’s gran, particularly in relation to the sex-role stereo-typing and objectification.
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Same old? Some new
The most notable horrors lie in male dominated musical genres such as rap and rock, but those of us who have chosen to stand in the front line should also consider the more subtle overtones present in many a pop video, the re-enforcing of a woman’s role as the victim (broken heart), the object of desire, continuing to perpetuate an inherently female knack for wistfulness and isolation (predictable), or even songs which sing a tune of co-dependency and heterosexuality as a given. Often these emotive tunes are courtesy of beautiful young, clearly intelligent women singer/songwriters, motivated by a DIY ethic and seemingly ticking all the boxes – a huge influence of the new generation of young women.
2011 has been a year for girls with guitars, pianos and tracks full of longing, acts like Birdy, whose UK single, ‘Skinny Love’ made immediate impact with the mainstream DJs, thanks largely to the music video for the single, directed by acclaimed director Sophie Muller. Her rap includes The Jesus and The Mary Chain, collaborations with Sophie Ellis-Bextor, No Doubt, Shakespears Sister, Garbage, Blur, Annie Lennox and Eurythmics. While all my alarm bell’s ring at a cover like ‘Skinny Love’, that makes me feel depressed after I’ve listened to it, (sadly, we know the stats for self-harming in young teenage women), in comparison to the manic, over-sexualised or desperate and alone easily marketable options around, this is a fair representation of women for young women: active, because she plays an instrument, individual, she wears vintage, yet age appropriate clothing, no Barbie doll make up and showing off skill and curiosity.
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Beautiful Hysterics
It’s a fine line: much of feminism is about a celebration of the female form or a re-claiming of the male gaze. The male gaze is a term used by feminist film theorists – the viewer as spectator and as creepy as Freud.
French feminism, in particular the professor of feminist philosophy and playwright Helene Cixous and linguist, philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray, argue a good case for a gendered language which includes a physical language, a connection between female sexuality and creativity.
Any woman who has messed with the sexual taboos should be seen as a positive because they shock and amuse, they open debate – and you know the viewer is not having it all their own way. A few glorious examples: Germaine Greer naked on the cover of the legendary and original cultural magazine, Oz, for who she was a writer at the time; Madonna’s Sex Book; artist Tracey Emin; Lady Gaga and the 21st Century Twitter Queen, Amanda Fucking (her words) Palmer, in particular, reference to her ‘Map of Tasmania’ music video – to quote the girls are writer Lucy Cage: “…a light and ludicrous ditty which manages to combine a paean to unshaven pudenda with a clamorous call to arms…”
But here’s the thing: artists such as Amanda Palmer confuse me, and not always in a good way. One comment on this video says: “Adult women have body hair. Get over it.” A recent live review of her in another on line music magazine, Collapseboard, included the video link ‘Map of Tasmania’; later proudly reporting the piece as, overwhelmingly, the most read that week. (It made me go “urgh” which deflected from the vital, shining piece of writing which reviewed it.)
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Let’s just call all the shots; it’s quicker that way
It’s been said before and we’ll keep saying it: you can critique the form using film feminist theory, or just good instinct, with an exhaustive passion but maybe the real answer is with women music video directors.
An interview in by Carla Hay explains that there are increasing numbers of women artists and producers yet very few directors. She quotes American directors Valerie Faris and Liz Friedlander who argue that becoming a director is hard, whatever your gender. The credible list of indie band names whom they can claim to have directed include for the former, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Smashing Pumpkins and for the latter, R.E.Mand Alanis Morrssette.
An article in The Independent ‘It’s Time for Women to Call the Music Video Shots’, by Emma Love (12 March, 2010) deals with the representation of women artists by women directors, and interviews six of the better known women music directors:  Trudy Bellinger (Girls Aloud, Pixie Lott, The Saturdays, Sophie Ellis Bextor); Kinga Burza (Katy Perry, Kate Nash, Marina and the Diamonds); Elisha Smith-Leverock (Bombay Bicycle Club); Tabitha Denholm (Florence and the Machine, co-directed with Tom Beard); Sarah Chatfield (Lily Allen, Kid Sister, Filthy Dukes); andDawn Shadforth (Kylie Minogue, Alison Goldfrapp, Bj√∂rk, Florence and the Machine).
In this feature Sarah Chatfield was quoted as saying that until her big break came to work with Lily Allen, at the time one of the biggest, most popular new artists, she had “only ever worked with little indie bands”. Perhaps this is a reference to having previously only worked for peanuts, because that and a packet of crisps to share is sometimes all independent artist’s can afford. Veteran film director Caroline Richards is still directing low-fi edgy music pop videos, because she chooses to work with low-fi, edgy bands, taking inspiration from them (New Royal Family). (See also The Guardian.)
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Reasons to be cheerful
It’s time to shout loudly about “the little indie bands” – they’re out there making the big differences, with regard to the representation of women in music videos, because thanks to technology and savvy they are not so little anymore. Even better, they’re often unsigned and free to self-promote on YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and others – able to enter competitions and take part in specialised events and festivals.  Trailblazers are undoubtedly bands like Le Tigre.Bikini Kill founder and quintessential Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna formed Le Tigre, another bold, feminist-oriented trio, with filmmaker Sadie Benning and zine creator Johanna Fateman in 1998. The group also added multimedia and performance art elements to their live shows. Another forerunner in positive women in music videos is Gina Birch, who makes music videos, when not performing in The Raincoats.
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Laura Kidd, She Makes War
Laura Kidd aka. She Makes War is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist from the UK. She has released two album’s “Disarm” and ‘Little Battles’, encouraging fans to pay for individual tracks, or “pay what you think it’s worth”.
She Makes War is more of a project for Laura than a band; the visuals being a way of conveying another aspect of the atmosphere created in the music, often giving another version of the song story and using an analogue rather than digital camera.
For the featured video, ‘Slow Puncture’ she set up a treasure hunt around her favourite pieces of street art in East London and cycled from one location to the next. The idea was that a creature from a previous video, “Let This Be”, had set up the trail of clues to teach her a lesson, giving her the opportunity to realize the value of the things, as opposed to focusing everything being just perfect. Laura is a fan of “letting things happen”, accrediting the raindrops and gazes from passers-by as “happy accidents”.
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The Hysterical Injury
Annie Gardiner, singer/songwriter and bass player of the girls are fave The Hysterical Injuryhad the chance to work with Laura, She Makes War, for the recording of live sessions with a kinda super group, which included Dana JadeKat Arney and Milly McGregor and talks of how conscious Laura was about how they should all be depicted as women in them.
Annie and Lee Stone (the drummer at the time) directed their own music video for the vital, ‘Three’. High energy, noisy bass, driving drums and slick and clever video – no satisfaction of the gaze,  only singer/songwriter and bass player Annie’s legs and feet tap, tap, tapping, the video has huge impact. ‘Three’ was an early release for this fast-growing duo.  It actually happened as part of the genesis of the song – the song and video were made together. Annie edited the footage.
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tUnE-yArDs / Mimi Cave
tUnE-yArDs ‘Bizness’ music video was Mimi Cave’s first experience of directing. An occasional dancer for tUnE-yArDs Merrill, she took the opportunity to explain an idea for a music video which had been brewing in her head. The rest is herstory: a mish-mash of enthusiastic, creative people working for free towards making the ideas a reality and Mimi Cave up for a Young Music Video Director Award. In this instance, it was her experience as a performer and dancer which gave the edge, but the difference came in her bravery and self-belief, along with Merrill being open to embracing the suggestion and her record company being 4AD, a label with a legacy of positively encouraging that sort of collaborative behaviour – the band’s rosta proves it usually results in something amazing.
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Lucy Thane (otherwise known as Lucy Red Shoes)
Lucy would not regard herself as a music video director, more of a hands-on everything.
At present film making is on the back-burner as she takes “a long and winding journey through dance and performance and live art.”
“I utterly consider the representation of women or anyone in my video or anyone in any other medium. Why would you represent anyone in an unconsidered way? Lazy artists should go get a real job.”
She explains that her approach is to film the reality she see’s, mostly she’s impressed and excited. She looks for strength and innovation in complicated or oppressive circumstances, facing things with creativity, chutzpah, humour, hard work, cooperation, collaboration – find ways through to honesty, community and self-realisation
“I also don’t see the problems with women’s representation as only a women’s problem, rather a relation between men and women problem or indeed a nation’s problem. How countries treat different kinds of immigrants, religious problems, problematic relations between children and adults, a money marketing advertising late Capitalism problem. Everything is connected… whatever country we were born from it was inside a woman we first grew, we are all women, how we treat women is how we treat ourselves, compassion for all.. and yes I do think that these thoughts can be present in everything we do.” Her video made with The Deptford Beach Babesand Friends is a perfect example of this.
[vimeo 11803149]
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The Duloks / Alex di Campi
Made on a mere £100 on short ends and borrowed studio time, making the music video for  ‘The Lighthouse’ is just the sort of challenge which would appeal to female director, Alex di Campi, previously from a background in comic writing.
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The Great Malarkey / Laura Le-Anne Henry
The Great Malarkey chose Laura Le-Anne Henry to direct the music video for their first single, ‘Merry Profits’.
“I had a great deal of fun with the Malarkey video, explains Laura Henry. “Alex has a wonderful androgyny which was key to the playful nature of the video, a mischievous wink to music hall and silent film, and a pastiche of influences too numerous to mention here. It was imperative for me that our central character was gutsy and fun, not a gyration in sight, and so much sexier for it. She is simultaneously the storyteller and perhaps an incarnation of the young boy with a debt around his neck, the concept was born from many conversations with Alex herself and an understanding of the darker elements to the lyric, at blissful odds with the melody.”
Laura graduated from The University of The Arts (LCC) in 2006, with a BA Hons Graphic & Media Design (Moving image). She worked with body>data>space between 2007-2009 on live video and production of video materials for live events, such as the large scale production for the Leftfield Tent at the Glastonbury Festival in 2007 as well as post production, documentation, archiving, promotional graphic design and DVD authorship. She works in the animation field producing pieces that have been screened at the ICA and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She produces visuals for recording artists and events as well as music videos, photography and artist promotional material. For Laura strong women characters and representation are paramount.
“I wrote my thesis at university on gender performativity in film, so it is a subject close to my heart and constantly influences my work. I am constantly disheartened with the way women are represented in music videos, though sadly never surprised.”
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Independent acts don’t have the background money of a major label to employ a Sophie Muller but if a good music video is all about effective collaboration between the artist and the director, then surely this is the ideal environment for the all-thinking DIY characteristics of indie artists and an up and coming women music video director’s.
Sharpen those creative teeth and bite the apple.
Can you recommend any independent band/women director collaborations?
Would you like to see a regular update and review of women directors and related videos in the girls are?
Ngaire Ruth

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