Why The UK Government Are Trying To Restrict Music Videos

Setting an age restriction on music videos rather than addressing the content directly is merely putting a plaster over a deep cut.

Dec 3 2013, 11:00am

The debate about the sexual content of music videos is not new, and has been running since Abba first pulled on their best pair of lycra trousers. But this year, the hype has intensified, driven by the many graphic, sexual portrayals of women. Proposals for an age-ratings system have floated around from time to time, mostly driven by overly-concerned parents groups determined to stop the spread of “causal sex and violence”, because that obviously doesn’t sound like a great Saturday night. So far, they’ve never had any effect. But now – in tandem with their war on porn – the government has made a ratings system a priority, and it looks set to come into effect next year.

Music videos are unusual amongst media forms for their lack of regulation; films have age ratings, there’s the 9pm watershed on TV, and recently video games started being licenced too (I’m looking at you GTA). As David Austen, assistant director and head of policy at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), told me, music videos have only escaped classification so far “because the content has evolved and the law has failed to catch up”. But, luckily, from next year music videos physically sold in shops will have to be age rated. Whilst I’m sure this will devastate the 47 year old man in Wolverhampton who still buys Cheryl Cole videos in HMV, it does seem a bit out of touch for regulators to be spending time and money on making sure under-18 year olds can’t buy music videos in shops. Cos, y’know, they haven’t been doing that for the past decade.

But, Austen has also said that “The government has told the music industry that it wants to see age ratings for online music videos”. The BBFC are working on a potential pilot, which should be tested next year. Ratings will be applied on the same grounds as those for films: swearing, graphic imagery, depiction of sexual acts and so on.

As a response to the sexualised content of music video, a campaign called “Rewind&Reframe” has been launched by various women’s organisations to petition for such a law. Sarah Green, one of the campaign managers, told me that “This isn’t some kind of moral crusade against sexually explicit stuff. It’s the way that it’s done, and the way that women are portrayed in an extremely sexualised manner”. Look at the video for Pitbull’s “Hotel Room Service”, for example, and you see the same tired old tropes being repeated over and over again. There’s just one guy – Pitbull – but LOADS of women, because obviously one woman could never be enough for one guy.That would be like they were equals, or something. And the women crowd round Pitbull, like giving him sexual satisfaction is all they want in life. There’s a whole load of academic vocabulary – objectification, misogyny, sexism – that could be applied to the music videos. But what it really boils down to is: it makes women look like they should be sexually available to any man, and that the most interesting thing about them is their bodies, and that men are the ones with power and charisma beyond just their physical selves. And, I mean, pining after Pitbull?…Jesus eff.

There’s also an uncomfortable element of race involved; black women’s bodies in particular are presented as available and highly sexual in an animalistic way. In Calvin Harris’ “Drinking from the Bottle", you don’t even see the women’s faces; they are just body parts, completely dehumanised. And these are two pretty random examples – there are so many more I could have talked about, and I haven’t even mentioned Robin Thicke.

Often the response to criticisms like this is “oh, but the women in the video are having fun, and they’re being paid, so there’s no problem blah blah blah”. But the issue lies, not with the people who make it, but the people who view it. And the vast majority of these are young. The videos may be short, but they do have a cultural impact. Even if you don’t seek them out yourself, when a new, controversial music video comes out, Facebook and Twitter immediately explode with commentary and links to the offending article. It’s obviously hard to assess exactly how music videos affect people, but – like magazine’s portrayal of women as needing to be stick thin and beautiful – it seems fair to speculate that repeated images of women as little more than sexualised bodies doesn’t do much for the feminist cause.

But, despite all this, the idea of a proposed age-ratings system is problematic. There are the obvious technological issues: the problem of how to put age-ratings on online content is one that is troubling a lot of government bodies at the moment and there’s still no finite way to ID someone over the internet. The problem was summed up very aptly by a Guardian article on the subject: “A filter has to be simple enough for technologically feeble adults but difficult enough to stop a tech-savvy 17-year-old working out how to bypass it. Arguably, no such filter exists”.

Realistically we know the majority of teenagers are very well-versed in changing passwords, using alternative service providers and generally accessing content that they aren’t meant to be accessing. I mean, who hasn't had to set up all their mum's online passwords? Besides, there are the obvious political issues associated with giving the government control of internet censorship, even on the current “opt out” basis. There are few things I’d be happy to let ham-fisted politicians mess with, and the internet isn’t one of them.

The bigger problem is more subtle, but equally disconcerting. By slapping age ratings on things, you give the impression that the content is acceptable, but just not suitable for children. That’s very distinct from saying that the content is inherently unacceptable. The problem is not with the graphic sexual nature of the images, but the way that they are used to portray this misogynistic image of women. Perhaps the two are inherently interlinked – women’s sexuality having a long history in being used for their oppression – but the sexual imagery is not itself problematic. Racist, sexist tropes have no place in hugely popular music videos. It’s not just the case that children shouldn’t be exposed to these images – it’s that this kind of content transgresses the boundary of acceptability.

When I asked Sarah Green about this, she argued that it isn’t just about child protection, but that “The age ratings system is one of the most practical ways society has as a whole for setting a basic standard for what is deemed acceptable viewing for those who are younger and more likely to be harmed by discriminatory or offensive material”. There should clearly be measures in place to stop children from viewing sexual imagery, and one of the most important parts of the Rewind&Reframe campaign is the attention they draw to how ubiquitous music videos are; they are shown in lots of public places, from coffee shops to hairdressers, and that needs to be addressed. But the whole point of sexism is there no age at which it becomes OK. And what is the point of protecting children from the reality of cultural misogyny in this one instance, when there are so many others around them?

The trouble with age-ratings, and the campaign against music videos in general, is that it risks showing us a simplified view of the world and the many roots of sexism. It's tempting to point to external sources because it makes the high levels of sexism and violence still prevalent in society easier to cope with. Messages like objectification become something imposed on society from the outside, rather than something that is actually within it. But, even if music videos do have some effect on how young people view sexual violence, they cannot be seen as the main culprit. A better sex education system, a legal framework that punishes rapists rather than victims, and so many other things can easily combat any messages teenagers are learning from music videos. I'd, at the very least, be happy to see the music industry stop treating women’s sexuality as something profitable. But putting up filters and slapping on age-ratings is a perfect example of just sticking a plaster on a deep cut. What's the point of only addressing the symptoms rather than the root causes of misogyny?

Follow Ruth on Twitter @ruthhardy22

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