Summer Session Course Examines Race, Gender and Sexuality in Music Videos

June 13, 2011 — Beyoncé. Lady Gaga. Weird Al Yankovic. Sound like a Saturday afternoon of entertainment? Try summer school.

The University of Virginia students enrolled in Matt Jones' "Gender, Sexuality, and Race in Music Videos" class during the "Maymester" term revived the music video as a topic of academic study.

Jones, a doctoral student in music in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, said his class tried to look at what's at stake in the medium. Since music and television began to intersect in the 1950s with variety programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show," and that intersection took on major cultural currency with the 1981 birth of MTV, musical videos have influenced how people perceive certain body types and behaviors.

"As with film and television, it's very easy to be swayed by spectacular content," Jones said.

The class, cross-listed in several departments, drew students from Studies in Women and Gender, African-American and African studies, and the music department, among other disciplines. Originally inspired by a gender and music video class Jones took during his master's course work at the University of Georgia, Jones added race and sexuality components in consultation with Fred Maus, director of graduate programs in the McIntire Department of Music, to better explore how these social questions are "hopelessly intertwined."

"Our department really strives for interdisciplinarity," Jones added.

Through in-class debate and small-group projects, the students learned to critically analyze videos and probe how camera angles and characterization portray couplings of white and black, male and female. They also discussed how these visuals influence stereotypes to the present day.

One student likened the conflicted nature of the issues to a chicken-and-egg debate: Did society shape music videos, or did music videos shape society?

Jones said he wanted to help students see that art is never neutral, and that every video production and editing decision stems from some cultural intent. For example, a music video in which women are only shown through shots of their legs denies women agency. As he told his class, "One of my goals is to make you all very skeptical of what you're looking at."

Fourth-year College student Chenay Newton said taking the class made her watch music videos from a different perspective and prompted her to think about different aspects that go into making the videos and what the producers want the viewer to see.

By combining scholarly articles with class viewings and discussion of music videos posted on YouTube, Jones prompted students to probe intellectually and personally challenging material such as the portrayal of women, sexual violence and racism that persist today. During a week devoted to representations of nonwhite people, the class studied R&B artist Beyoncé, and in particular how her black femininity was represented.

"Even though she is a very popular artist, the ways in which she stages what it means to be a black woman in the 21st century are not without problems," Jones said.

Third-year Curry and College student Ariel Cornett said that by analyzing videos on the basis of each component, she was able to hone in on underlying opinions she held about race, gender and sexuality that she didn't know were there.

"Now I can pick out different issues [like the] male gaze and see female objectification in different lights," Cornett said.

Despite covering serious topics, the course often took innovative and fun approaches to learning. In one session, the class put Lady Gaga on trial for crimes against authenticity, on the accusation that her entire career was based on musical and visual borrowing. She was let off on a copyright law technicality.

Other lessons included a day devoted to Michael Jackson and the Jackson family; a day on Madonna; a day on parody artists, such as Weird Al Yankovic; and a day on music videos having to do with HIV and AIDS, such as TLC's "Waterfalls" and the videos made by Queen around the time lead singer Freddie Mercury died of the disease.

In the end, the class had something to offer everyone. Said Woody Granger, a fourth-year music and history major, "I will remember this as the least musical of any music class I have ever taken, but the most important to a liberal arts education."

Jones hopes to offer the course during the regular academic year during the next year or two.

— By Kate Colwell

Media Contact

Rebecca P. Arrington

Assistant Director of Media Relations Office of University Communications