The Pornification of Popular Culture

The Pornification of Popular Culture: The Normalization of Sex through Popular Music and Social Media

By: Lisa Myers, Fourth Year, Media Studies; American Studies


Introduction of the Problem

Feeling like an animal with these cameras all in my grill,

Flashing lights, flashing lights.

You got me faded, baby I want you

Can’t keep your eyes off my fatty, daddy, I want you. [1]

These are the lyrics that iconic pop star Beyoncé just a few short lines into her 2013 song “Drunk In Love.” She slides her body in the sand and sways with the smoke that gathers around her on a beach. Her golden skin is lit only by the moonlight as she walks toward the camera, holding a trophy in one hand and using her other hand to ruffle her hair and caress her own skin. A see-through veil is wrapped over three tiny triangular pieces of black fabric: one that covers her lower half as a swimsuit might, and the other two covering less than 30 percent of her chest. She is alone. And yet, she is simultaneously in the spotlight as millions of eyes – at least 149 million according to the view count on the official YouTube music video – lean in to watch her perform.

Over the past century, popular culture, defined by Dick Hebdige as “society’s total way of life” that marries “language, experience, and reality” has become infused with sexualized images and ideas.[2] While pornography is explicitly labeled as such, the realm of popular culture has become more heavily penetrated by the sexualized philosophies found in pornography in such a way that removes sex from its previously sacred context and re-labels it under the heading of “the popular.” By placing ideas and images about sexual activities under this new framework, sex itself has become part of the commercial mainstream, and the previously private relations between two individuals have developed into an event where two actors perform for the masses to attend, evaluate, and critique. In order to understand how the normalization of pornography in popular culture has occurred, it is important to first look at the transformation of youth culture in the postmodern era. After evaluating the overlapping themes that youth culture, popular culture, and postmodernity exude, which incidentally confirms a collapse of public and private spheres and a flattening of the world into a homogenized commercial atmosphere, it is necessary to analyze specific texts that the average American is consuming, both on an active level and a subconscious level. Once those ideas are worked out, it is possible to connect the sexualized images displayed on the screen to the resurfacing of those same ideas within social media, where users are provided a platform to construct identities based on the ideologies they learn from popular culture forms.

When seeking to address the pornification of popular culture in a postmodern world, there are a number of postfeminist defenses that propose a challenge. Many of these scholars state that, rather than categorizing this normalization as a problem, the sexualized body on display actually offers women a space to take control and convey themselves as strong, independent beings empowered by the ability to exhibit themselves to the public. These empowerment arguments that are prevalent in much of the current scholarship on feminism and sex have challenged me to approach the discussion of pornification from a distinct angle in my own research. The conservative pushbacks of sexualized displays of women in the media often fall short in expressing the poor consequences of sex exposed in public, commercialized formats. To combat this, I hope to demonstrate that the pornification of popular culture is not negative because sex in public is unsafe for children’s eyes, or because sex is, in general, bad or dangerous. Rather, the reason the normalization of pornographic images is a problem is because placing sex under the markers of the “popular” removes what I argue to be an innately sacred art from its exclusive context of marriage. The displacement of sex, which is biologically set apart as an activity involving only two people, complicates understandings of self and others.

When represented within a commercialized culture, these pornographic images produce negative repercussions such as the desensitization of sex through exploitation, the continued crisis of femininity, and the growth of a self-directed society. Because the current media environment is one that shares everything publically – thoughts, images, sounds, videos, and arguments – my research must begin by approaching this problem from a step back. Therefore, I begin by evaluating youth subculture and ideas of postmodernity, including the collapse of public and private spheres, language crises, and lack of authority, origin, or absolute truth, all of which are integrated and promoted in the pornification of popular culture.

Understanding Youth Culture and Postmodernity

Youth Subculture to Popular Culture to the Postmodern

“It’s our party we can do what we want. It’s our party we can say what we want. It’s our party we can love who we want, we can kiss who we want, we can sing what we want,” Miley Cyrus encourages her audience in her song, “We Can’t Stop.”[3] The video, released in June 2013, broke the record for “fastest video to reach 100 million views on VEVO platforms”, and currently has over 397 million views on its VEVO YouTube channel.[4] These phrases declare a distinct group mentality of youth culture, a dismissal of external authority, an argument for relative truth, and a justification of experimentation and irresponsibility. Cyrus is one of many pop icons that exemplifies America’s progression into a stage of postmodernity, characterized in culture by blurred boundaries, a lack of authority and origin, and a shift from absolute to relative truth. These three traits are moments that develop out of youth subculture, which has been implemented into, and facilitated the fluid structure of, popular culture. The meshing of youth culture and popular culture has shaped the postmodern stage, resulting in a crisis of language and a crisis of femininity.

“Postmodernism emerged like a breath of fresh air allowing cultural critics to shift their gaze away from the search for meaning in the text towards the sociological play between images and between different cultural forms and institutions;” therefore, the ways in which individuals begin to extract meaning from pop culture moments is becoming much more fluid and open, with no set author or origin.[5] Meaning is not lost, but its significance has shifted so that viewers and participants of culture are permitted to have, as Stuart Hall would express, “dominant, negotiated, or oppositional” decoding methods, all of which are accepted.[6] It is evident that youth subculture is characterized by resistance, lack of responsibility, and instability, which comes as no surprise since youth culture is a place where teenagers are experimenting with their identities.

“One of the attractions of subculture [is] precisely that it offers strong subjectivity through the collective meanings that emerge from the distinctive combination of signs, symbols, styles, and other ‘signifying texts’”.[7] McRobbie’s work points to places where this sort of negotiation of the self occurs: social spaces like clubs/raves, female teen magazines, and popular music and film. “At its best, postmodernity invites us to engage in a continual process of disillusionment with the grandiose fantasies that have brought us to the brink of annihilation”.[8] It is in youth culture that new, progressive ideas are granted permission to be explored because it acts as something of a safe space where little to no fault is attached to youth individuals who are attempting to navigate ideas about the world. “Youth cultures, in whatever shape they take, stake out an investment in society” and seamlessly “become part of a wider popular culture which is continually looking to the innovative elements in youth culture in order to claim dynamism for itself.”[9] Youth culture is a place of investigation and limited responsibility, but the content is not the only thing in this realm that is picked up by popular culture. The structure of youth culture itself has become popularized. McRobbie again expresses this, stating, “to ignore the intense activity of cultural production as well as its strongly aesthetic dimension is to miss a key part of the creation of a whole way of life.”[10] This way of life – the irresponsibility, freedom, and de-emphasis of authority – is what has been adopted by the popular. Arguments about the importance of context have been aired, noting that the “rigid isolated object (of art)…is of no use whatsoever. It must be inserted into the context of living social relations,” but postmodernism allows fragmentation to not only exist but thrive.[11] The discrediting of authoritative structures and the unstable role of a finite producer has resulted in an inability to hold either performer or producer accountable.

The concepts of youth culture, popular culture, and the postmodern are converging, and, while it is “important to draw the line between youth culture and pop culture, crediting the former with a form of symbolic class authenticity and the latter with all the marks of the consumer culture, in reality the two are always merged, involved in an ongoing relationship.”[12] It is clear that, while the “dislocation…experiences of fragmentation, and crises of identity were as much a part of the experience of modernity as they are now,” the postmodernism age offers encouragement and acceptance of these disjointed philosophies.[13] Rather than noting the brokenness, individuals are blind to the negative consequences by this new placement of pornography, defined as the “elaborate and detailed depictions of body parts, bodily motions and bodily fluids” into the mainstream. Pornography is labeled as popular without recollection of its intrinsic setting (within a marriage) and is classified instead as a decontextualized, detached, and commercial activity.[14]

Collapse of Public and Private Spheres

Spring break, bachelor parties, New Year’s Eve. Each of these are events in which a “what happens in Vegas” mentality overwhelms the masses, allowing particular actions otherwise considered distasteful to ensue. Miley Cyrus suggests this mentality within the setting of the MTV Video Music Awards, declaring it as a place where she feels free to “go for it” in order to “celebrat[e] your videos.”[15] “It’s supposed to be a silly night,” Cyrus qualifies, and Alan Carr concurs: “Like you said, that’s what you do at the VMAs…That’s where you do it.”[16] When the private act of sex is extended into widespread media, the distinctions of public and private collapse, and boundaries are blurred. While the integration of new media in the home has prompted this in drastic ways by providing the masses with access to sexualized images online, the shift into postmodernism has spurred this breakdown as well by considering the public and the popular an appropriate place to experiment, and a place to encourage individuals to test their identities without responsibility. The accessibility and presence of sexualized images in public spaces has displaced sex in a way that complicates how youth come to understand it as an expression, an entertainment, and an indulgence. Because “sexuality, previously confined to the private sphere…has gradually entered into all quarters of the public sphere,” there are no clear-cut margins to distinguish what is genuine versus joke, real versus fantastic, or subject versus object.[17] Miley Cyrus again capitalizes on these blurred lines and misunderstandings as she further navigates questions about her VMA performance. “I’m coming out in pigtails looking like a giant adult baby basically, but doing really naughty stuff. That’s obviously funny. If I really wanted to come out and do, like, a raunchy sex show, I wouldn’t be dressed as a damn bear.”[18] This attempt to remove sex from its place of sanctity and detach it to make it performable as a joke is a distinct display of postmodernism. The problem arises in the fact that sex itself is valuable and cannot, even by its placement in the public sector, lose its value. “The superficial does not necessarily represent a decline into meaninglessness or valuelessness in culture,” rather the normalization process creates multiple crises because the value of sex is not lost, but disoriented in a complex way.[19] The tragedy of the postmodern situation is thus expressed through this collapse of public and private spheres as individuals are left with an inability to distinguish between what is sincere and what is sarcasm.

The fragmented pieces that signify sex within music video performances suggest an “era of simulation” that is bound up in postmodernity – an era that “substitute[s] the signs of the real for the real” which “threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ or ‘real’ and ‘imaginary.’”[20] In addition, a crisis of intimacy is introduced as multiple viewers become privy to the sexual expressions that are created and intended for a man and a woman to participate in alone, which is biologically evident through the “presence” and the “lack” of the male and female bodies respectively.[21] The establishment of a viewer does not devalue sex, but changes how it is understood, creating a public intimacy in which all is shared and all is performed with the consciousness of subjectivity, scrutiny, and the “gaze” (or an “awareness of being viewed”).[22] This is manifest in numerous popular culture realms, and is especially noticeable in popular music videos. Because we “live in a world of moving boundaries…a world in which borders are crossed…a world in which new sub-nationalism and trans-nationalism are embraced,” there is a lack of push back against pornographic images entering into the public.[23] The postmodernist encourages a fluid society in which sex is not feared and is used as a platform to empower, embrace, and control. Any attempt to create rigid boundaries is complicated because there is not a line that can be drawn for what pornography is and is not since pornography is defined by the unique responses of individuals, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Crisis of Language

The necessity to use the public, popular sphere in order to demand fearlessness toward sexual ideas indicates a failure of language surrounding sex. In particular, over-sexualized music videos flourish because they allow individuals to view a construct of their imagination, fantasies, and desires in a shameless fashion. That which is presented in the mainstream arena is acceptable because it is open to the gaze of the masses and is therefore justified. This need to defend the desire for sex, and to use popular culture as the outlet to do so, proves that no outlet currently exists to discuss the longings for sex as natural or pure because it has been labeled as bad, or even dangerous. One example of this is through the “SafeSearch” filter on Google Image searches. These default settings are programmed to remove images that “contain pornography, explicit sexual content, profanity, and other types of hate content.”[24] While this could be understood as a way to protect sex from gaining a place in the public sphere, the result is that it connotes sex as something that needs to be put in a box, sealed up tight, and never mentioned – something to be feared. “The phrasing equates sexually explicit images with hate”, while the notion of needing safety and protection portrays sex as risky and dangerous.[25] However, this is not an accurate depiction since sex and purity, though numerous arguments refer to them as oppositional, are in fact, united. The question in a postmodern society then is how to resituate sex as something that is pure, without the baggage of shame or exploitation of it to define identity, power, or control. Its current placement in the public sphere has caused humiliation and egocentricity to the previously wholesome display of affection for another individual, which is clear by the way the normalization of sex is praised and encouraged as a guilt-free way to explore sex without labeling the viewership as indulging in pornography. There is no doubt that sex sells and sells well, which indicates that sex is a legitimate desire that cannot be ignored. However, there is presently no space to dialogue about it that allows for it to maintain its virtue, which is why consumers hold onto and praise its placement into the popular region of culture. Also, to phrase the desire of sex as something that “sells,” (which is frequently expressed in the media) also detaches it from affection and restructures it as a transactional process – a service provided in exchange for something else rather than freely offered out of love. Sex taps into a primal curiosity inherent in every human, but inserting the visual discourse of sex in music videos for the masses to gaze at disorients the posture by which individuals approach it. Its resurfacing through music videos and social media relays the message that sex is suitable to experience in whatever format – motivated by or removed from love, within or outside of marriage, with or without the presence of another human, and through acknowledgement or fragmentation of the body.

It is necessary to develop a vocabulary that allows youth subcultures to ask questions without being dismissed but also provides them with an awareness of the destruction that can arise when sex is simulated through pornographic images, creating a “hyperreal” state that dislocates it from “origin or reality.”[26] The language ascribed to pornography as taking place on the Internet, in a “virtual reality” suggests that “reality may be multiple or take many forms” creating a culture that is “increasingly simulational.”[27] By complying with the hyperreality presented on the screen, the finite characteristics of sex become unstable, “transforming the identity of the [real].”[28] In order to avoid this, ideas like power and freedom need to be aptly qualified, and a discussion about where men and women are able to exert their unique strengths, without exploiting the purity of sex, must be established. The pornification of popular culture through music videos has led to a sex-positive environment; however, sex-positive has come to take on a dynamic meaning, enabling sex to be considered appropriate under a variety of fluid circumstances.

Crisis of Femininity

The ambiguity created by sexual displacement and pornography in the public has led to a crisis of femininity within popular culture. Sex is exploited both by men and women who use it as a space to exert power. “[Girls] do not want to be represented in a humiliating way,” so to counter the oppression of women within a patriarchal society, the postfeminist woman uses her body to demonstrate her dominance, resulting in continued exploitation of sex as she reworks it into a performance.[29] Jennifer Lopez depicts this in the music video for her 2014 single, “I Luh Ya, Papi.” The video presents a role reversal for men and women, and is used as an outlet for her to represent women as the leaders who impose power over the objectified, vulnerable men. “It was all part of that trying to…flip the roles and have [the men] feel what it was like to be on the other side of that objectification,” Lopez stated behind the scenes of the music video.[30] She expressed that making the video was exciting because it was “a lot of fun” to see the males in that subjugated position; however, she neglected to disclose why she chose to continue to position herself in an objectified role: the video shows her dressed in revealing clothing and continuing to act as the primary spectacle for the audience’s gaze.[31] Rather than solving the problem, the sexual interactions between men and women become centered on the fight for power. Through the pornification of music videos, sex has become a place for people to demonstrate independence. Dependency, though, is a fundamental part of sex, evident in the basic biology of the distinct bodies of males and females; therefore, a crisis of femininity occurs when people are led to a misunderstanding of how to participate in sexual acts through negotiating what it means to control or be controlled by another. These balances are skewed as both sexes compete for the opportunity to assert authority over the other through visuality, rather than discover unity with one another. The icons of popular music videos teach a young woman to “lavish attention on herself.”[32] McRobbie notes the way postfeminism has transformed women by removing her from the role of “victim of romance.”[33] The postfeminist woman “is no longer a slave to love. She no longer waits miserably outside the cinema knowing that she has been ‘stood up’…There is love and there is sex and there are boys, but the conventionally coded meta-narratives of romance, which…could only create a neurotically dependent female subject, have gone for good.”[34]

In the music video “Timber,” Ke$ha performs actions that attempt to prove her control over her own body, such as grabbing her own breasts or surrounding herself with other seemingly strong women who adorn shirts with the words “It’s Going Down” printed across them.[35] By flaunting these phrases, viewers understand that it is the women who are making the decisions and choosing to act sexually, rather than being manipulated to do so by men. “Do you reckon he’s getting more out of it than you are?” Alan Carr asks Miley Cyrus about her explicit “Wrecking Ball” music video in which she carries a sledge hammer and exudes confidence in her sexuality by swinging on a wrecking ball in full nudity.[36] Cyrus simply laughs at this statement and does not provide an answer. The fact that the woman’s body remains the “site for sex” prevents women from regaining the power they so aspire to exercise, and the purity of sex continues to be exploited. By “construct[ing] herself exactly along this axis of all body” and “by placing her body…as something that can and does give pleasure…the image of [the female] is disruptive. The “commercial machine” of popular culture continues to emphasize sexuality in a way that “equates woman with body” in a destructive manner.[37] In addition, the popular video of today not only demonstrates but also emboldens the role of the spectator, and changes the way he or she understands sex.

Turning Inward

“Got that hourglass for you, baby, look at these legs,” sings Jenifer Lopez as she struts in front of half-naked men with her entourage wearing a white, skin-tight leotard.[38] She phrases this concept in two parts: first, she acknowledges the viewer’s focus, and immediately after, demands that viewer to direct his/her attention to her own body. Lopez is able to direct the masculine gaze according to her own agenda, while simultaneously revealing that agenda as a longing for attention. This combination stems from the normalization of pornography. Popular music videos not only demonstrate but also encourage the third-person gaze of pornography, made manifest by the collapse of public and private boundaries. Consumers of popular culture gain an understanding of sex from a viewer’s perspective, watching from the periphery rather than engaging intimately in a one-on-one setting. How individuals learn about sex transforms the way they will act on it as they are confronted with sexual moments; therefore, when that education develops out of viewership, sex becomes a stage to perform and construct the self.

Popular music videos invite audience members to do what they cannot: they are asked to participate, yet they are unable to fully engage because of the distance set in place by the screen between themselves and the performers. When pop stars piece together moments of nudity, movement, and facial expressions, they indicate that sex is something that can be performed, acted, and displayed for an audience, dismembered from its context of origin. Popular culture insinuates that sex can be simplified into those splintered bits, without acknowledging the intentionality, physicality, or personal and emotional interactions involved when coming into contact with another individual. In addition from this detachment suggested by pornography in the mainstream, the woman’s body is recreated as a site of scrutiny, offered up for observation by men and women, and for self-centered critique by women. “Women are simultaneously looked at and displayed;” thus women viewers are placed in a complex situation as they identify with both the male stance (directed by the camera) and with the female being watched.[39] This dual gaze paired with the post-feminist themes of empowerment though performing sex turns the focus of female youth inward on themselves, and subsequently construct an identity rooted in becoming the object of gaze.

In’s 2013 video “Feelin’ Myself,” featuring French Montana, Miley Cyrus, and Wiz Khalifa, Cyrus sings, “I’m looking at the mirror, the mirror look at me. The mirror be like, baby, god dammit, you the shit.”[40] While the women in music videos display their bodies to prove their power, they also continue to direct their bodies to encourage the audience gaze and, when that gaze is met, the female considers herself “empowered.” In actuality, she proceeds to succumb to the demands of the masculine eye. One of the most current songs that exemplifies the philosophies of a me-centered culture is the Chainsmokers’ 2014 hit, “Selfie.” The video, which currently has over 93 million views on YouTube, offers layers upon layers of a scrutinized self, fabricated for an imagined audience. The primary woman in the video uses the camera as her mirror, leaning in and contemplating her hair, lips, and overall image in front of the public viewfinder. “When Jason was at the table, I kept on seeing him look at me when he was with that other girl. Do you think he was just doing that to make me jealous?” asks the brunette within the first ten seconds of the video.[41] This video as a cultural artifact proposes that the postmodern society is one entirely based on performance, visuality, and an assembled self involving hidden agendas that manipulate the thoughts of another person. The girl feels a pressure to compete against the other women at the club in order to catch the eye of this boy. To do so, she must build an identity out of her physical appearance, which she hopes will place her at the center of his masculine gaze. Her confidence is based upon his approval, which, rather than taking place in person, will occur through the online setting of Instagram. As the narrative of the video progresses, he “likes” the selfie she posts, which registers as a mark of acknowledgement and approval for her outward construction.

The first mention of the word “selfie” came out of a 2002 ABC Online forum posting, where an Australian man defended the blurriness of a photo taken at a friend’s house while drunk by commenting, “sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”[42] Since then, the official definition, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to “an image of oneself using a digital camera especially for posting on social networks.”[43] By linking the word by definition with the online social experience, the speculation around social media connected with an inward facing society is made apparent. By providing this stage commercially through the commonality of the sexy music video, pop culture invites observers to continue their watchful “participation” without actually being able to participate due to the detachment of the physical elements hindered by the screen. Sex is simplified to an assemblage of erotic fragments and is transformed into a site for people to manufacture and gain approval of themselves. The postmodern culture interprets sex as a me-centered apparatus.

Society that demands instant gratification

The detachment of mind and body continues to play a role in the visual imagery of popular music videos, which leads to immediate, yet brief and therefore incomplete, gratification of desires. Visual elements for songs such as Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Jason DeRulo’s “Talk Dirty” are just two of many examples that display sexuality as detachable from love and accessible to all. The women performing in Thicke’s video act as signifiers of innocence and playfulness, while DeRulo splinters mind from body through his crude lyrics, confessing that he “don’t speak the language, but your booty don’t need explaining” because “all I really need to understand is when you talk dirty to me.”[44] The heightened sense of arousal that stems from the display of particular private spaces in the public sphere is a characteristic specific to pornography. “Encounters with porn involve moments of proximity where one is moved by images and becomes conscious of the power that they hold,” hence the visual images of a body revealed in specific postures can incite a corporal reaction from the spectator. These visualities provoke a power connection to that which is vulnerably displayed, but no predominant emotional response is guaranteed.[45] It is precisely this detachment that commercialized sex plays with that results in an imbalance of the real and the construction. “Pornographic images and videos involve a complex interplay between authenticity and artifice, the indexical and the hyperbolic, immediacy and distance,” which, as sex is normalized, becomes more difficult to separate.[46] Easy access to pornography results in the ability to be instantly pleased, but at a cost. Individuals allow the simulation of sex to temporarily fulfill their desires for intimacy rather than seeking out long-term fulfillment. Music videos provide an extraordinary arena, mixing more than one sense to simulate sexual expressions, but this art form is highly divided, as is clear by the lip-synching, costumes, theatricality, and camera, which primarily composes a focused shot on specific female body parts –lips, hair, or aggressive and stimulating features of the body. To be sure, it is not simply an issue of mistaken reality by the observer that leads to this. “One can live with the idea of distorted truth,” which is where the popularity of pornography rests.[47] Those watching recognize that what is displayed is a constructed performance; however, the postmodern, simulated world has moved to accept these images as they are, allowing them to satisfy their carnal desires. Enabling the online simulation and deconstruction of sex to act as a model for the real results in misperception; thus “the duplication suffices to render both artificial.”[48]

Online Performance and Identity Theory

The invitation we have received to the privatized space of sexual intimacy from music videos in the postmodern era has led us to become more concerned with the construction of our own identities. “Electronic communication technologies significantly enhance these postmodern possibilities,” and youths use those postmodern tools as instable foundations to build identities upon.[49] The overflow of this is made manifest, not in popular music videos themselves, but in the world of social media, where people, especially teenagers, are given a canvas to express and construct themselves using the framework of sex. Popular culture’s sexual iconography has influenced the ways individuals seek to promote their bodies in a pornographic way, fueled by the encouragement they gain from the public. Music videos online, which is the most predominant place individuals watch them, allow viewers to comment on what they have just witnessed, which is one way that social media and pop music videos are tied together. Also, the linking characteristics of the Internet allow the spread of music videos from one site to another, expanding their spectatorship exponentially. The more dominant they become, the more widespread the performed sexualities become. Users’ ability to respond directly to the sights they are seeing provides a crucial dynamic to the construction of identity on social media sites as well.

“Young people…seem to be at the forefront of exploring and inventing these categories [of identity], often within the language of popular music,” explains Gilroy. “New identities show signs of endless diversity and intensive cultural crossover,” including the crossover between pornography and popular culture.[50] These “hybridic identities” are functions of a deeper-rooted identity crisis of the female youth especially.[51] A number of psychoanalysts have offered ways of understanding concepts of visuality and identity composition, and their theories provide insight into how one might be provoked to establish themselves online, as influenced by popular media. Cooley explains that the question of the self is never resolved and fixed and is therefore always open to change, transformation, and realignment. Though writing in 1902, he seems to emphasize a particularly postmodern concept of fluidity. Not only is there an impulse to mold to that which we see and deem acceptable or desirable, people shape their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them.[52] Society is an interwoven entity of “mental selves,” which are made manifest in social media sites like Facebook and Instagram today. Another psychoanalytic concept that plays a part in the discussion of the sexually constructed identity is Cooley’s establishment of the “social self.” He reports that the “words ‘me’ and ‘self’ designate ‘all things which have the power to produce in a stream of consciousness excitement of a certain peculiar sort.’”[53] Consequently, to declare some object or thing as ‘mine’ is a way for me to better understand myself. Sex in a postmodern world is a moment where the male and the female both fight to gain control, and the demand for power becomes a way to define the two participants. When creating a lens into the sexual experience by posting photos to online forums, the concept of the social self is put into practice and is opened up to an increasing degree due to the power of the comment box, where viewers see and respond to what is visually provided. Those who post images are privy to another’s mind through the response capabilities, which was previously an imagined aspect of the social self. “The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves,” or that which a mirror could provide, “but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind,” which is no longer imagined but presented publically online as people reply to others’ performed identities.[54]

This is how users of social media understand sex as they are placed in a spectator role on the set of the intimate scene: the attention during sex in a postmodern world is focused not on the other person, but more frequently on how one imagines the other individual is perceiving him/herself. A self-looking individual, molded by the fast-paced commercial culture that strives to sell commodified ideas conveniently and instantly, is an unstable individual who lacks a balanced understanding of power. Additionally, this postmodern individual is perverted by the disintegrated ideas of misplaced and displaced sex.

Albert Bandura discusses how the comments that friends and followers on social networking sites can impact people. “The individual notices something external and after repetition begins to internalize and mimic it. If the individual receives external rewards for this behavior, the learning will be internalized.”[55] The first statement Bandura makes speaks to the way youths digest the ideologies infused in mainstream music videos and recreate them in their own profiles. The second statement suggests that the nods of approval and acknowledgement gained via the “like” button or the comment boxes reinforce behavior and provoke the continual posting of similar images. These general concepts of learned behaviors are not inherently negative, and can certainly act in positive ways to reinforce appropriate behavior. The problem, nevertheless, is that, due to the fluidity, lack of authority, and deconstructed boundaries of postmodernity, “appropriate” is a relative term that has come to encompass sexualized images removed from their privatized, intimate context. While scanning the Internet, the comments that are displayed include phrases such as “you’re so hot,” “those lips tho,” “git it,” and “damn baby girls.”[56] These responses combined with an enormous number of “likes” (often over 100) have become just as normalized as the degrading photos of the selfie displaying cleavage or accentuated lips to which they responding, resulting in a cycle of the social learning theory around pornography.


After analyzing a multitude of popular music videos from recent years and evaluating both the academic and online discourse of sex, it is evident that sexuality in a postmodern world is a point of crisis. In addition to the collapse of public and private spheres and the lack of authority and origin prevalent after the shift from absolute to relative truth, individuals struggle to find a language to understand sex as pure and, in the chaos of searching for one, are confronted with visual media that displays identity in a number of ways. The visualities of music videos go primarily unchallenged within the postmodern world of instability. In fact, the images of women in specific are often praised, both by the male and female gaze, and are hence recreated by youth in social media as they navigate how to construct their identity based on sexual ideologies, self-seeking motives, and instant gratification. The pornification of popular culture removes sex from its intimate location and, in doing so, complicates how individuals can understand the value of sex from the complex position of commercial spectator.

Works Cited:

[1] Beyoncé Knowles featuring Jay-Z, Drunk in Love. By Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Noel Fisher, Andre Eric Proctor, Rasool Diaz, Brian Soko, TimbalandJerome Harmon, and Boots. Columbia Records. 17 Dec. 2013. VEVO.

[2] Dick Hebdige, Subculture the meaning of style. Taylor & Francis e-Library ed. London: Routledge, 2002. Print. (10)

[3] Miley Cyrus, We Can’t Stop. By Mike L. Williams II, Pierre Ramon Slaughter, Timothy Thomas, Theron Thomas, Miley Cyrus, Douglas Davis, Rickey Walters. RCA. 3 June 2013. VEVO

[4] Jason Lipshutz, “Miley Cyrus’ ‘We Can’t Stop’ Video Breaks VEVO Record.”Billboard. N.p., 29 July 2013. Web. 5 May 2014. 

[5] Angela McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print. (4)

[6] Stuart Hall, Encoding and decoding in the television discourse. Birmingham [England: Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1973. Print.

[7] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 169

[8] Jane Flax, The end of innocence, in J.Butler and J.W.Scott (eds)

Feminists Theorise the Political, London: Routledge, 1992. pp. 445–64.

[9] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 151

[10] Ibid., 156

[11] Walter Bejamin, Understanding Brecht, London: NLB. 1970.

[12] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 16

[13] Ibid., 62

[14] Susanna Paasonen, Carnal resonance affect and online pornography. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011. Print.

[15] Miley Cyrus, Interview by Alan Carr.Alan Carr: Chattyman. BBC Entertainment. BAFTA, London, UK: 13 July 2013. Television.

[16] Cyrus by Carr, 2013

[17] Susanne V. Knudsen, Generation P? youth, gender and pornography. Copenhagen: Danish School of Education Press, 2008. Print. (47)

[18] Miley; The Movement. Dir. Paul Bozymowski. Perf. Miley Cyrus. MTV. 2013.

[19] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 4

[20] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

[21] Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, The psychopathology of everyday life. New York: Norton, 19661965. Print.

[22] Jacques Lacan and Anthony Wilden. The language of the self; the function of language in psychoanalysis, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968. Print.

[23] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 65

[24] Paasonen, Carnal resonance, 32

[25] Ibdi., 32

[26] Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation, 1

[27] Mark Poster, The mode of information: poststructuralism and social context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print. (538).

[28] Poster, The mode of information, 538

[29] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 159

[30] “Jennifer Lopez Premieres New Single ‘I Luh Ya Papi'”MTV News UKViacom International Media Networks. March 6, 2004. Retrieved March 6, 2014.

[31] “Jennifer Lopez Premieres New Single ‘I Luh Ya Papi'”MTV News UKViacom International Media Networks. March 6, 2004. Retrieved March 6, 2014.

[32] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 160

[33] Ibid., 159

[34] Ibid., 159

[35] Pitbull, featuring Ke$ha. Timber. By Kesha Sebert, Armando C. Perez, Lukasz Gottwald, Priscilla Hamilton, Jamie Sanderson, Breyan Stanley Isaac, Henry Walter, Pebe Sebert, Lee Oskar, Keri Oskar, Greg Errico. Polo Grounds, RCA. 7 Oct. 2013. VEVO.

[36] Alan Carr Miley Cyrus interview citation (part 2 video)

[37] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 67

[38] Jennifer Lopez featuring French Montana. I Luh Ya, Papi. By Jennifer Lopez, Noel Fisher, Andre Proctor, Karim Kharbouch. 2101 Capitol. 11 Mar. 2014. VEVO.

[39] Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 62

[40] featuring Miley Cyrus, French Montana, Wiz Khalifa, and DJ Mustad. Feelin’ Myself. By William Adams, Jean Baptiste, Dijon McFarlane, Karim Kharbouch, Mikely Adam, Cameron Jibril Thomaz. Interscope. 26 Nov. 2013. VEVO.

[41] The Chainsmokers. Selfie. By Andrew Taggart. 604 Records, Dim Mak. 29 Jan. 2014. VEVO.

[42] The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is… | OxfordWords blog.”OxfordWords blog. N.p., 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 3 May 2014. <>.

[43] “Selfie.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 5 May 2014. <;.

[44] Jason Derulo featuring 2 Chainz. Talk Dirty. By Jason Derulo, 2 Chainz, Eric Frederic, Jason Evigan, Sean Douglas, Ori Kaplan, Tamir Muskat, Tomer Yosef. Beluga Heights, Warner Bros. 2 Aug. 2013. VEVO.

[45] Paasonen, Carnal resonance, 13

[46] Ibid. 17

[47] Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation, 5

[48] Ibid., 9

[49] Poster, The mode of information, 534

[50] McRobbie, Postmodernism and popular culture, 187

[51] Paul Gilroy, Between Afro-centrism and Euro-centrism: youth culture and the problem of hybridity. Young: Nordic Journal of Youth Research 1, 2 (May): 2–13.

[52] Charles Horton Cooley, Human nature and the social order. New York: Scribner, 1902. Print.

[53] Ibid., 138

[54] Ibid., 152

[55] Linda Holtzman, Media messages: what film, television, and popular music teach us about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. Print. (18)

[56] Facebook.