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The Female Gaze According to JLO

by | Mar 22, 2023 | Review

Self-awareness and criticism are closely connected, but considerably distinct from each other. The music video for “I Luh Ya Papi” by Jennifer Lopez is an example of media that confuses the two and ends up harming women’s empowerment in a postfeminist context. The issue is that the women in the video directly acknowledge and condemn “the male gaze” apparent in most music videos, but fail to apply their criticism in a meaningful way, opting instead to satirize the male gaze while still catering to it. The video appears to promote a radical ideological shift and achievement (the ability of the video to exist), but the solution it totes (the “female gaze”) only reinforces ideological norms informed by generations of patriarchal society attempting to subsume and quell feminism.

The start of the video puts the women in a position of control: the three women in the scene outnumber the one man, Danny, who they initially ignore as they laugh amongst themselves. He presents them with ideas for the “I Luh Ya Papi” that they are free to reject and even mock. The clothes they wear aren’t intended to be sexually provocative, but are more colorful than Danny who wears all black. He is also seated far away from the women, and rarely shares the camera with them: he is often outside the frame of the women and the women are often outside the frame of the man. However, part of Danny or Lopez’ head is visible in each frame to indicate whose point of view we are looking from. 

This is all to say that the first (and last) section of the video does confront viewers with an interesting dilemma. The three women are overpowering and excluding a man who seeks their approval – he is the one surveying himself and they are the surveyors. This relates to what John Berger writes about the physical presence of a man: “A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence… a man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you” (198). Danny’s presence, in this sense, is disparagingly small in comparison to Lopez and her friends. As communicated by the framing that separates them, the lighting that illuminates the environment and eradicates any sense of danger or power he might hold over the women, the difference in clothes that they wear, and the nature of their relationships with one another, Danny is completely powerless and the women are completely powerful. They are the ones who are capable of doing something to or for Danny, subverting Berger’s idea of a man’s presence and promise of power to that of women. The larger argument this section of the video might make is that men can work harder to earn the acceptance of women, whether professionally or socially.   

The messaging of the video begins to shift once Lopez’ friends point out that the music video ideas that Danny presents are based on Lopez being a woman. They claim every music video has men objectifying women, and then they describe what a music video might look like if women objectified men instead, transitioning into the body of the music video. The problem is that the music video they dream of still serves a male spectator. Lopez, in the first shot of the mansion music video, wears high-heels and a jacket that emphasizes her cleavage. Then the video transitions to a shot where Lopez and her two friends lean on a massive black car while dressed in provocative denim shorts and shirts, their legs contrasting brightly against the shadows of the driveway. Although the women talk about a video objectifying men, so far, Lopez and her friends are being objectified by the camera the most. The majority of the male-centered shots closely resemble imagery in cologne and underwear advertisements aimed at male audiences, so they are most likely already familiar with these visuals. Shots of mens’ abdominal and pectoral muscles are frequent examples, and the one shot of a man in a pool looking directly into the camera can easily be mistaken for a Calvin Klein commercial. Most of these shots are brief, and the very few that might be offensive to male viewers are even briefer. In one instance, Lopez pulls on a man’s shorts and pours her drink onto his genitalia with her tongue out. This imagery can arguably elicit a stronger reaction in most viewers than many of the other shots, but it’s shown for a total of 8 frames, or a third of a second. And for a music video that presents as disapproving of the objectification of women, there is one moment in which Lopez’ friend is on the floor on all fours while rapper French Montana towers above her. 

Lopez and her friends dress and dance in a way to achieve “desirability in a heterosexual context.” That desirability is “presented as something done for [oneself], not in order to please a man,” but it fails to address how “socially-constructed, mass-mediated ideals of beauty are internalized and made [one’s] own” (Gill, 140-141). Lopez and her friends are included in a grouping of women that are allowed to exercise sexual agency and overpower men, unlike older and fatter women. Gill writes:

“The objectifying male gaze is internalized to form a new disciplinary regime. In this regime, power is not imposed from above or the outside, but constructs our very subjectivity. Girls and women are invited to become a particular kind of self, and are endowed with agency on condition that it is used to construct oneself as a subject closely resembling the heterosexual male fantasy found in pornography” (139).

This is not to say that there’s a problem with Lopez and her friends exercising their sexual autonomy over men. The issue lies in the way the video perpetuates ideas about the women who are allowed to exercise that agency. And that being objectified as a woman is alright so long as women can “objectify” men back. 

Incidentally, the lyrics of the song don’t push against ideas of the gaze either. Most of the lyrics convey the speaker’s desire to be objectified by her male lover. Some of these lyrics include: “I put it down for a brother like you / Give it to you right in the car… Got that hourglass for you, baby, look at these legs… If you wanna hear your name, I shout it.” The lyrics almost directly contradict the premise of the video where she is presented as an unattached, pleasure-seeking bachelorette. The speaker in the song dedicates herself to a singular man who she tries to appeal to with her body, sex, and subservience. French Montana’s lines also objectify the main speaker: “Take the pants out here, drop to her knees / Oh my, I’m a don like Omar.” These lyrics are from the man’s perspective, and describe how he feels like a “Don” after it is implied that the main speaker falls onto her knees and gives him some sexual favor.  

Instead of examining and criticizing the roots of the gaze, the “I Luh Yuh Papi” music video tries to use irony to be feminist within the confines of patriarchal society. Gill writes, “Irony is also used as a way of establishing a safe distance between oneself and particular sentiments or beliefs at a time when being passionate about anything or appearing to care too much seems to be ‘uncool’” (144). By choosing to use irony, they essentially say nothing to address the gaze or the way women are treated in the music industry. It safely retains its appeal to male audiences while many female viewers will walk away feeling that some form of justice has been served even though the status quo remains.  Perhaps the music video was not meant to make a strong social statement. Perhaps the decision to swap the roles of the genders was based on an amusing observation of trends in music videos. Regardless of intention, the video published gives the illusion of progress where there is very little, which can inadvertently normalize the idea that we’ve reached an age where feminism is no longer needed in Western society, and that the ideals that define women’s equality should continue to go unquestioned. Instead of suggesting an alternative to the objectification of women, the video essentially goes for an “eye for an eye” approach, perpetuating the battle of the sexes when it could’ve sought to mend broader social inequalities. In any case, the “I Luh Yuh Papi” music video is a legitimate response to the male gaze that helps us define what attitudes celebrity women like Jenifer Lopez might have had towards the gaze at the time it was created. At the very least, it helps us assess how audio-visual and narrative elements should and shouldn’t be used to address the downplay of feminism and social change.