Gaze and Gender in Music Videos Using Charli XCX’s Boys

© Copyright 2018 Antonella Orlotti Rocha, Ryerson University


In 2017, artist Charlotte Emma Aitchison known professionally as Charli XCX released her music video for Boys which she directed herself, and now has reached over 77 million views, as well as mentions in various articles because of the images in the video. Not even three minutes long, the music video includes a variety of men of all different races and body types, which featured some well known male celebrities like Joe Jonas, Charlie Puth, Brendon Urie, Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dollar $ign, Riz Ahmed,, Jay Park, and many more- rounding off to almost 60 recognizable male celebrities, which worked in the video’s favour to push the message it created.

All the men were posed in ways or doing actions that traditionally women would be doing in music videos as they were being objectified or sexualized. The men brushed their teeth as the female audience watched, they posed in front of a soapy car reminiscent of every car wash scene in a movie with women, they held dogs while shirtless for the female audience’s enjoyment and caricatured many scenes typically found in popular music videos. By having these celebrities visually represent these sexualized images women found themselves in it became a statement as well to highlight the unequal treatment of women in music videos.

The focus of this paper will be on analyzing what these images mean in a broader context by incorporating research done on music videos, gender presentation, and the impact of repeated patterns on viewers. The focus will be on the creation of this music video because of the way it differs from the norm and how the invisible hold televised images have on an audience and influence are often overlooked as television and media become taken for granted (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signoriell, 15). The cultural indicators (Gerbner et. al, 17) found in images are used to cultivate a certain idea about society and people to the audience.

Aitchison, Charlotte Emma, director. Charli XCX – Boys. YouTube, YouTube, 26 July 2017,
Aitchison, Charlotte Emma, director. Charli XCX – Boys. YouTube, YouTube, 26 July 2017,









The Norm

Throughout history, whether it be through movies or music videos, if the dynamic is of a male singer, then there is always the heterosexual and patriarchal pattern of the women being displayed for sex. Patriarchal structure has both pervasively in conscious and unconscious ways influenced film forms (Mulvey 1999), and because of this, it is uncommon to see men as the objectified.

There is pleasure in viewing visual images, especially when they have been coded for the audience’s desires; in most cases the target audience is heterosexual male viewers wanting to view the passive female object (Mulvey 1999). Scopophilia means the pleasure of looking at someone as an erotic object, which at an extreme, this pleasure from gazing becomes a type of voyeurism where the body (in most cases the female body) becomes objectified by the controlling (male) gaze.

The male gaze has become so normalized that viewing a music video with a male artist means many female fans understanding the video will not be coded for them, but instead for the male artist to be a stand in for the male audience. This normalization means that when the opposite occurs, and a female artist instead objectifies men there is something unnatural about it to the audience, and why music videos such as Charli XCX’s Boys becomes a popular topic to discuss.


Gender in Music Videos

Various studies have been conducted on gender and how exposure of the body, gaze, and objectification come together. Even when the main artist is female and not male, the woman would be the one revealing more of her body in the music video than her male counterpart (Aubrey & Frisby 2011). Women were usually involved in a male artist’s video as a ‘decorative’ role, while men were rarely found to be, with a large statistical difference, and in a female artist’s music video it women as decorative roles were also much lower (Aubrey & Frisby 2011). This portrays a power imbalance in music videos that rely heavily on the gender of the artist and who the audience is expected to be and how the video can cater to them. Mainly it is male artists appealing to other men which leaves women in the same repeated role of sexual objectification across genres.

Sexualization of the artist is also a relevant topic, with male artists found to be not at all sexualised in the videos examined (Aubrey & Frisby 2011) than female artists. Women are more coded as provocatively dressed, whether as secondary roles or as the main artist of the music video. Back up dancers in male music videos were always women coded as sexualised, while women were less likely to use back up dancers, but even when they did their male back up dancers were not usually sexualised (Aubrey & Frisby 2011).

Boys does a different take on the usual performance of gender in music videos by role switching the accepted feminine and masculine divide in media. The images in the music video include men objectified and sexualized for what seems like ridiculous reasons, such as washing the dishes or licking off a milk moustache. Yet that is exactly what women in music videos are treated as, passive sex objects easily interchanged with the next mostly nude woman.

As if to further push how exciting or new the idea of focusing on the female gaze can be, while most music videos that objectify women have nameless or unrecognisable women in it, Boys has a very wide list of known celebrities that wanted to partake in this gender role reversal. Boys does a role reversal not only gender wise, by having the male celebrities act out these female coded sexual actions with the pink gloves, background, clothes, money, or flower patterned, shirts, wallpaper and roses on the floor, but also because it takes something that is inherently male- the controlled gaze of the audience- and shifts the perspective to make it that the power imbalance has now made the female audience the one with power in their gaze.


The Relevance of Music Videos

Since music videos started becoming more popular in the 80s, the 90s and early 2000s meant that researchers became more interested in what mainstream ideas were being viewed by children and began by criticizing MTV for catering to young men in its portrayal of gender stereotypes, how they debased women, and the limited roles women were allowed to play in the music videos (Wallis 2010). The number of video viewing platforms means that these music videos are not only easily accessible, but they are seen by a wide range of audiences even globally. This means many can rightfully criticize what message about society and the women in it is being broadcasted out to be viewed by millions. Music videos are not only a form of entertainment but advertising for artists who wish to sell their work, and sexual content has always been an easy way to sell a product. Music videos are used by media to provide acceptable notions of masculinity and femininity to the audience (Wallis 2010) which then shapes their understanding and acceptance of gender presentation and roles.

Music videos as a medium are a relevant topic because of the influence they have on young people in expressing salient images of the norms of gender and sexuality in society (Aubrey & Frisby 2011). While music videos are meant to be entertainment, the messages they portray can be dangerous when there are common images being produced regarding women. Music videos endorse the idea that women are first and foremost valued for their bodies and appearance (Aubrey & Frisby 2011).

The discussion of why music videos are an important realm of focus to analyse are because of the effects the visual images can have on the viewers. The repeated visual images that show women in limited roles, sexualised, and objected have a negative impact on mental, emotional, and sexual health of youth, especially young girls (Wallis 2010). Media images of women depicted in such a way even impact more tolerance towards sexual harassment toward young girls (Wallis 2010).

Since the women in music videos are usually voiceless, the nonverbal gestures or depiction of their action, by set up of angle shot, colour scheme, and attire all send a message. The awareness of this oversexualization of mundane everyday tasks women do is what makes the Boys music video so relevant in a sea of over-saturation objectified women. Boys mocks these stereotypes in the imagery by using male actors instead of female, all the while still keeping the visual set up that calls back to femininity and the common tropes women are objectified doing; pink and floral settings, bright colours, close up shots of the male actors when sexualization is being coded to the viewer, yet implicitly calling to the female (heterosexual) viewer.

Music videos are created to seem homogeneous, the patterns repeated through visual cues are normalised despite being stereotypes or cultivating a fantasy. When a music video like Boys challenges this dynamic, it might not do much to the overall power imbalance, but it disrupts the normalisation the other images presents by setting up a contradictory framework that uses the tools and groundwork of usual videos but twisting it to become something both familiar and unnatural.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.


Works Cited

Aitchison, Charlotte Emma, director. Charli XCX – Boys. YouTube, YouTube, 26 July 2017,

Aubrey, Jennifer S., and Cynthia M. Frisby. “Sexual Objectification in Music Videos: A Content    Analysis Comparing Gender and Genre.” Mass Communication and Society, vol. 14, no. 4, 2011, pp. 475.

Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1986). Living with television: The dynamics of the cultivation process. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.), Perspectives on media effects (pp. 17-40). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism:  Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP,1999:  833-44

Wallis, Cara. “Performing Gender: A Content Analysis of Gender Display in Music Videos.” Sex Roles, vol. 64, no. 3, 2011, pp. 160-172.