Gendered Language | Women in Music Videos



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.M. and 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); and Dawn Shadforth (Kylie Minogue, Alison Goldfrapp, Björk, 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 Injury had the chance to work with Laura, She Makes War, for the recording of live sessions with a kinda super group, which included Dana Jade, Kat 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 Babes and 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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  • Push says:

    Really intetesting piece. Of the videos, I especiallly liked the She Makes War vid. You should maybe take a look at the work of Radar Music Videos – – which is a kind of hub for independent artists and video makers. Radar Music is run by Caroline Bottomley (who used to be the promoter at The Leadmill in Sheffield and has worked in film/TV for years) and she has lots of great women (and a few men!) on her team.

    • Ngaire Ruth says:

      Interestingly, Radar were partly responsible for choosing the Panel for the on coming Women in Music Videos conference, which includes our Editor, Annette Barlow. See News. And thank you for your comments.

  • Marianne says:

    Can you recommend any independent band/women director collaborations?

    If all goes forward COUNTRY DIRT & GRAZIANA TESTA – next project: vid for Junk Bond and Infidelphia (song I wrote for Ayaan Hirsi Ali)

    Would you like to see a regular update and review of women directors and related videos in the girls are?

    ummm…. YES!

    Fab vids here and sweet relief to read that women are now becoming influential from behind the camera. Also love this as an answer to the nearly fraudulent promise of DCMS assigned creative class asserting itself into some ICA led, elitist entrepreneurs club … or Tom Fordism made manifest by a giant body of art school grads integrating into well paid in-house designer teams at Samsung etc.

    Please Ma’am, may I have some mo?

    • Ngaire Ruth says:

      Keep us informed! And check out our Girl with Guitar regular feature – you may emphathise or have some top tips.

      • Ngaire Ruth says:

        And thank you for your support Marianne. Would anyone else like to see regular updates of female directers/projects/collaborations in thegirlsare? We already promote great videos with good representation of women in our Video section.

  • Caroline says:

    My all-female band signed to an imprint of Universal Records last year, and one of the members is also responsible for making our videos:
    I asked the record company not to market us as an all-girl band, wanting the music to speak for itself. I thought this ‘novelty factor’ (still!) was one of the reasons they had actually signed us, and was astonished when they agreed to this condition. So as a result, and as we physically do not appear in the videos, our gender is finally secondary to our music…

    • Ngaire Ruth says:

      Thank you for sharing the link with thegirlsare – I think/hope we are going to discover a whole load of bands directed by women/band members who are women.Would you read a regular column?
      So your argument is that a gendered language can cause misrepresentation, e.g. a novelty value. This is a fair point. However, I feel we need to be out there, strutting our stuff (representing for the next generation), and not all creative females belong to fabulous communities of talented folk; they need affirmations/reflections of their actions. I still need people to shout loudly: Look! Girls in bands! Listen! New type of song/music video format! And I think we make great, most gorgeous subjects, just not objects.

      • Caroline says:

        I was not in any way disparaging anything that affirmed female visibility – my apologies if that was the impression I put across! I was just sharing my personal experience really – after many years of playing in various bands of various genres and gender make-ups (we met when I was drummer in Frantic Spiders, btw!) then for me, having the music/videos judged and marketed independently of our gender felt really liberating. Of course pretty much every time we play live, we experience the same old sexisms from soundmen etc, so then it is thrown back into sharp relief…but now I’m veering off-topic!

        Keep up the great work :)

        • Ngaire Ruth says:

          Hey Caroline – we definitely agree on everything and thegirlsare (and I) really appreciate ideas and thoughts which open debate; we are all on the same side here. (By the way, on a personal note, I love it that people I believed in as a young music critic, have exceeded expectations and stayed active and inspired pushing things their way, trying out new ways to run things. Should have known we’d all find eachother at thegirlsare.)

  • Caroline says:

    Absolutely! And it is infuriating to see intelligent younger women today debate the point of feminism, whilst at the same time reaping the benefits of the hard worn battles fought before them. But ultimately I personally like to see art independent of the personalities that created it, and the preconceptions that go with those – gender included. And also challenge – why are all-girl bands still a novelty in this day and age?

    Yes, we are on the same page for sure – the challenging of gender focus will never subjugate the celebrating of it :)

  • Hey, it was lovely to be mentioned, thanks! Fun to see friends’ bands (NRF, Deptford Beach Babes) from the London circuit mentioned too.

    I’ve done a lot of collaborative works with female acts (including Amanda Palmer, I shot her “Leeds United” video which you might find interesting when compared to the “Map of Tasmania” video)… just did a fairly big budget (for me) video for The Puppini Sisters (“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and I have an ongoing collaboration with Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld where he basically convinces me to go to the ends of the earth for a pint of lager and a packet of crisps: , for example.

    Just finishing up two videos for Grand Duchy (Frank Black + Violet Clark) which have really been driven as collaborations with Violet.

    I think one of the things a female director brings to a shoot with a female act (or indeed any act) is an expression of sexuality that is often uncomfortable or unusual in the context of the genre — if not more confident and powerful, at least very aware of being looked at/objectified and playing with that image.

    This actually carries over into shoots with only men in them — I got a lot of feedback on the “Yowser” video I shot for Gyratory System ( ) which said male viewers (presumably straight ones) were very uncomfortable watching a man writhe around in pain, but it would have been OK/sexy if it were a woman. Yeah, um, but…

    Videos are fun. Wish they paid more so I could live off them, but alas I was born too late.



    • Ngaire Ruth says:

      You found us! Fantastic. Perhaps we can talk to you at a later date? I wasn’t able to trace every one I wanted to write about in the time frame – thegirlsare are fans Alex.If anything, this article has shown how interested people are in who is behind the camera and how they appreciate the work you’re doing – and all the artists and directors. The comments too have made us think, e.g. Caroline’s comments. We’d never had discovered her music had this piece not driven her to comment. Please keep us up to date on what you’re doing, when you have the time. Go to Contacts on Home.

      • Ngaire Ruth says:

        Forgot to add thanks for the links Alex – very, very interesting, especially the difference in the Amanda Palmer video. And ha ha re ” I work for a pint of lager and a packet of crisps!” I think I said this – but thought it would also stretch to a packet of peanuts as well. x

  • What a thoughtful, and thought provoking article; thanks. I have just given myself numerous new titles to work into my life alongside the ones that are more familiar to me!
    …As the mother to a young female singer songwriter, I found myself with the task of editing about 4 hours of digital footage with the aim of creating what would eventually be my first pop video edit – complete with lip-sync (having never shot footage, or seen a film editing programme before). That was about 3 years ago, and now I have edited/shot/directed several videos, a short film, and have been on a steady and steep learning curve ever since.
    My most recent video ‘Far From Here – Alice Jemima’ was made using Super 8 footage; some shot last summer, some vintage footage purchased for pennies at local car boot sales… and a tiny bit of digital film made to look like super 8 footage in an ipad app. Super 8 is by far my favourite medium to work in – to my mind it is like dressmaking with the finest silk velvet. The footage is sparse (usually due to costs!) and unlike with digital footage, the need to shoot, edit and create must be thoughtfully crafted and meticulously edited.
    The video for ‘The Woman – Alice Jemima’ was filmed using just one reel of Super 8 footage (£17) developed at home, and slowed down until there was enough of it to make the video…
    Anyway, thanks again for a great article, I loved all the links, and have really enjoyed the diverse range of work out there by female artists.

    Jo Lucy Davies

    • Ngaire Ruth says:

      I recommend thegirlsare readers click on Jo Lucy Davies video links – your style reminds us of Laura Kidd. (I have personally popped it on my FB wall and please keep thegirlsare informed of live shows and releases.) The issue of representation of the female artist when you’re the mother must be such a responsibility but talk about “good DIY creative ethic modelling”. Amazing. If we had thegirlsare gold star stickers – you’d be getting one.