It’s 7:45am. Driving to campus. I’m listening to the radio and my two year old daughter. Male voice streams into consciousness, “If she ____ing tries to leave again, I’m going to tie her to the bed and set the house on fire.” What? What did the radio just say? Female voice follows, “just going to stand there and watch me burn, thats okay because I like the way it hurts.” These are the lyrics to the number seven song on iTunes- Love The Way You Lie by Eminem Featuring Rihanna. It was the number one song in the United States from July 31st to September 4th. I shut off the radio and start signing Row Row Row Your Boat with my daughter.

I am certainly not the first to say that music and other cultural symbols prescribe gender roles and contribute to or justify, rationalize, or normalize misogyny/patriarchy. So if this isn’t breaking news in your world, I understand. However, I have a clever way of teaching this to students. Have your students deconstruct the gendered messages in the top ten best selling songs on iTunes for that day. Students love this activity because it is current, relevant to their lives, and they typically have a better understanding of pop culture than I do. The best part of this activity is that unless something dramatically changes in pop music, you can rest assured that there always will be explicit gendered messages regardless of when you do it. I have done this for years and the songs/lyrics have never let me down… or they’ve always let me down, so to speak.

To start the activity I typically play the songs as students are coming into the classroom. When class starts I pass out a packet of all the songs lyrics and ask my students to, “think like a conflict theorist”. “Listen to these songs, look at their lyrics, and tell me how they portray women/femininity and men/masculinity.” I typically have the entire class work together to breakdown the first song and then let them work together on the rest.

Don’t do all the work. You’re sure to miss some things anyway.

Try as I might, I will certainly miss one aspect of a song that reinforces stereotypical gender roles. It is also a given, that I won’t get some innuendo or some pop culture reference. The beauty of this activity is that you empower your students to do the deconstruction work. They are certain to see something you didn’t and expose even more gendered messages. Students love that they are able to “do sociology” in a way that even their teacher can’t. I find it’s best to start the ball rolling and get out of their way.

Don’t be a fuddy duddy.

You should be careful when you do this activity with your students. If presented poorly they will think you are just a stereotypical older person who is out of touch with their reality (maybe there is an activity on ageism here). I find the best way of doing this activity is to provide them with the sociological tools and let them provide the critique. If your students think the take home message is “kids these days” or that people who like this music are bad people you will create a barrier and push your students away. If you let them do it themselves they will almost certainly make the same critiques you would make and you can strengthen the connection you have with each of them.

Analysis of this week’s top ten:

I wanted to provide you with a quick analysis of the top ten songs on iTunes as of Friday Sep. 10, 2010 to give you an example of what you could do in your classes. Below are the aspects of this weeks top ten that I would be sure to bring up in class. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I am sure that you and your students will find far more examples of gendered messages.

Love The Way You Lie by Eminem and Rihanna

I would dedicate the most time discussing this Eminem song because it is by far the most explicit in it’s gender stereotyping. The song tells the story of an abusive seemingly codependent relationship that graphically describes scenes of domestic violence. Be sure to watch the music video as it is highly graphic and surely controversial. Here is the video (apologies for the forced commercial):

Note: This video is extremely disturbing and will undoubtedly offend or upset some students. You should preface any public viewing with a warning to your students. I have seen this video on MTV at 8am in the morning, but we must be aware that for some of our students this isn’t just a video. This may be a scene they have lived.

Now you’re getting f___ing sick

Of looking at ’em

You swore you’ve never hit ’em

Never do nothing to hurt ’em

Now you’re in each other’s face

Spewing venom

And these words

When you spit ’em

You push pull each other’s hair

Scratch, claw, bit ’em

Throw ’em down

Pin ’em

So lost in the moments

When you’re in ’em

It’s the rage that took over

It controls you both

The video clearly sexualizes domestic violence. Pleasure and violence were presented as though they are inextricably linked. Most disturbing is the a part of the video that seemed to depict a rape scene. See the still image below:

I imagine my class would be divided on whether or not the song was sympathetic or not toward men who commit domestic battery. One interpretation of the song could be as a long apology to a victimized partner, while others may see the song as a half hearted apology given that Eminem frequently follows his apologies with lyrics describing further abuse. The quote below is by far the most damning evidence to the latter:

Next time I’m pissed

I’ll aim my fist

At the dry wall

Next time

There will be no next time

I apologize

Even though I know it’s lies

I’m tired of the games

I just want her back

I know I’m a liar

If she ever tries to f___ing leave again

I’mma tie her to the bed

And set the house on fire

Rihanna’s chorus where she says she, “likes the way it hurts” and, “loves the way you lie” is controversial to say the least. She is perpetuating the submissive woman archetype and presents the female figure in the song as complicit to the domestic abuse. I would be sure to ask my students to imagine that they are an abusive partner. How would they hear these lyrics? Would it justify their violent behavior or assuage any guilty feelings they have? I would also ask what a pre-teen heterosexual girl would think about these messages?

An interesting sub-plot to this song is that Rihanna is herself a survivor of partner violence. Famously, R&B singer Chris Brown beat and strangled Rihanna. I would share this with your class, who will probably be already aware of the incident, and ask them how this changes their impression of the song. I would also come prepared with some statistics on partner abuse to give the problem scope.

Now for the rest of the songs:

Conflicting Messages:

Be prepared that your students will find messages that seem on the surface to be pro-women or anti-gender binary. For instance look at the #1 song on iTunes Just The Way You Are by Bruno Mars. The song is all about how wonderful and beautiful the singers partner is. But if you read just below the surface it’s plain to see that the song 1) focuses on the aesthetic aspects of the partner and 2) perpetuates the stereotype that women always hate the way they look and rely on their partners to define their value. Here is a sample of the lyrics:

Oh her eyes, her eyes
Make the stars look like they’re not shining
Her hair, her hair
Falls perfectly without her trying
She’s so beautiful
And I tell her every day

Yeah I know, I know
When I compliment her
She wont believe me
And its so, its so
Sad to think she don’t see what I see

But every time she asks me do I look okay I say

When I see your face
There’s not a thing that I would change
Cause you’re amazing
Just the way you are
And when you smile,
The whole world stops and stares for awhile
Cause girl you’re amazing
Just the way you are

Women are not complete without a man

Listening to Teenage Dream by Katy Perry we hear the familiar romance theme of a woman being incomplete until she finds herself a man.

Before you met me
I was a wreck
But things were kinda heavy
You brought me to life

I finally found you
My missing puzzle piece
I’m complete

Some Other Overarching Messages:

  • Heterosexuality rules the day. None of the songs mentioned the LGTBQ community at all.
  • Both men and women spend a lot of time, “in the club”.
  • Almost half the songs spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the male gaze.
  • Men enjoy cheating on their partners. See this line from –I Like It by Enrique Iglesias featureing Pit Bull:

    “Tiger Woods times Jesse James equals Pit Bull all night long”


Messages about women:

Women as sex objects

I’ma get your heart racing/
In my skin-tight jeans/
Be your teenage dream tonight/
Let you put your hands on me/
In my skin-tight jeans/
Be your teenage dream tonight/

Female empowerment is gained through being sexual.
Women are obsessed with their appearance and their value as a human being is directly associated with their physical appearance.–>