OTI Online
Winter 1991

"Dreamworlds" How the Media Abuses Women, interview with
Prof. Sut Jhally
by Fred Pelka


It's easy to understand why the executives at MTV wanted to suppress the work of professor Sut Jhally. Jhally, a media critic at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is the creator of a 55 minute video called "Dreamworlds:

Desire/Sex/Power in Rock Video," which examines images from more than 150 rock videos, minus the music. In it he concludes that MTV, especially in its heavy metal videos aimed at adolescent males, systematically uses women's bodies in ways that ultimately help to foster a social context which encourages violence against women.

In "Dreamworlds'" most graphic sequence, Jhally juxtaposes the rape scene from the movie "The Accused," in which a woman is gang-raped on a pool table, with scenes from popular MTV videos like Bryan Adams' "Cuts Like a Knife," in which men shove, pull and wrestle women to the ground, until the viewer is unable to tell where the rape ends and MTV begins.

"It's a powerful sequence," says Jhally, "I wanted to make it an emotional experience."

Since its first broadcast in 1981, MTV has been both a financial mega-success and a cultural influence of extraordinary proportions.

Movies, television, advertising, all have been recast in ways directly attributable to the cable music network.

"Say those three letters," notes Jhally, "and people instantly recognize what you're talking about. It's a cultural esthetic as much as a cable network. The impact has been astonishing."

Jhally is the first to admit that his analysis of MTV is not original, though it may be more systematic than anything previously attempted. And in parts his video may seem overlong and polemical. With its repeated examples of the "dreamworld gaze," in which women's bodies are scanned and undressed and consumed by the camera, the video poses a dilemma often faced by anti-porn activists: How do you illustrate the ways pornography objectifies women without indulging in that same objectification?

How are women used in MTV? What roles do they play? What are the women of "dreamworld" like, what do they desire? Women on MTV are most often used as props, put there to entice male viewers. One frequently used technique is to simply flash images of women's bodies at random while a rock star sings his latest hit. From the way Rod Stewart's face is framed by anonymous female legs (while he jams his microphone up between them), to the manniken-women of David Lee Roth, women are objects, with no identity apart from that bestowed on them by men. Women's sexuality is at once duplicitous and obsessive: Women center their lives around men and are always seeking sex, but they often say no when they really mean yes. Even when women flee this male dreamworld, they hope to be pursued and recaptured—in one video a woman is pinned to a car hood; in another, women are imprisoned in a cage; in yet another, they are wild with sexual desire (for misogynist comic Sam Kinneson, no less).

Jhally ends his video with a discussion of the effect of this dreamworld on the real world. Superimposed over an MTV video of a young woman crawling toward the camera on her hands and knees are a few selected statistics: One in eight college women has been the victim of a rape, one in four the victim of an attempted rape; 84 percent of those raped knew their attackers; 57 percent of the rapes happened on dates; one in four rapes involves multiple attackers; 60 percent of men surveyed believed that women provoke rape by their dress and behavior; 30 percent thought it would do some women good to get raped.

It's no wonder then that MTV has demanded that Jhally recall and destroy all copies of "Dreamworlds," or else.

Sut Jhally earned his Ph.D. in communication from Simon Fraser University in Canada. He is the author of The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society (St. Martin's Press, New York 1987), and co-editor of Cultural Politics in Contemporary America (Routledge, New York 1989), as well as numerous articles on the media and advertising.

What follows are excerpts from a conversation we held this summer, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of MTV.

FP:The dreamworld that you describe seems to resemble, in a lot of aspects, the dreamworld of pornography. The messages about rape, for example, that women enjoy being mistreated, that women can be reduced to their body parts.

<strong>SJ:</strong>A lot of it comes from pornography. And pornography also, I think, doesn't just exist in a vacuum. It also draws upon existing themes within the culture, it draws upon male fantasy, as well as creates it, it doesn't simply reflect it back. But no popular cultural form creates new meaning out of nowhere. Any popular cultural form, to be popular, must, in some way, draw upon values that already exist within the culture. And, in that sense, MTV could look very much like pornography. I normally hesitate to discuss it as the same thing, because I think there is a crucial difference. Pornography, when it's consumed, is consumed consciously, and it's normally a private act. [MTV] images are different, and I think the context of their consumption changes their meaning. The advertising images and the music video images are public, they're in spaces we live in on an everyday basis. They become almost invisible. They become the air we breathe, we don't even notice them, and they work their influence in that sense in an even stronger way than pornography.

FP:There's also a difference in intent, isn't there? Pornography is its own product, while MTV is trying to entice the viewer to buy something else, a record or tape or CD?

<strong>SJ:</strong> I think that may be true as well. Actually, you wouldn't find pornography like MTV, for the simple reason that, as you said, they're selling different things. If you were going to sell a videotape on sex, you wouldn't use MTV techniques. What MTV does is use sex to sell something else, which is why the images of sexuality are so fleeting. One of the things I focused on was how the camera consumes women's bodies, moves up and down, etc. But even those are fairly brief shots, and their purpose basically is to keep you watching. If they made the whole video like that, you would watch in a different way. That's what advertising does so well. The sex is fragmentary, the sex is there in concentrated bursts, and you look at it, and it hits you, and it's gone. It's a strategy to make you watch harder, to make sure that they've got your attention, so they can sell you whatever it is they're trying to sell you. Pornography doesn't have to do that, because you've already bought it; the video is the product. That's why pornography, I think, is actually so boring, because they have to fill up the time, and there's so little imagination on how to fill it out, so that it becomes mechanical bodies.

FP:How did you decide to use the rape scene from "The Accused," and what went into that decision?

<strong>SJ:</strong>The video is something that emerged over a period of four or five years. I used to put stuff together just so I could talk about it in my class. And it went through a number of different decisions. The first time, I just stuck some videos together, a minute from here, a minute from another one, and I left the music on. I found that the students sang along with the music, and missed the images totally. And so the first thing I did to de-contextualize it was to take that music off, and to put other dreary music on, to get people to pay attention to the images in front of them. The rest just emerged over time. I edited more carefully. Then I put in a narrative because my students still didn't get it. They did not have the tools to deconstruct the images even when I put them together in a way where I thought the meaning was obvious. At that point it was still without the rape scene.

People are not trained, they're not media literate, and the tape is an attempt to get people to be literate about the images with which they surround themselves. So, the decision to use the rape scene was a decision to make this experience not simply an intellectual one but an emotional one. I thought this was the only way to really get through to the consumers of these images.

FP: What's been the response to the video? How do your students react?

<strong>SJ:</strong>The response now is the response I want, which is to say, "I never thought about these images, and now they've been highlighted, I have a new way to think about them. The next time I watch MTV, and advertising, and see these images, I'll have a different way to understand them." Someone once said, "I'm not too sure who discovered water, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a fish." And I think we're in a similar situation with regard to media images now. They've become such a part of our world that we don't even notice them. The videotape is an attempt to get people to pay attention to the water they live in.

The other response I get, largely from women, but also from some men, and this was mostly unintentional, is that it highlights the issue of date rape. They have to think seriously about it, and a lot of people, a lot of men especially, never realized that it was such a problem. It wasn't something they even thought about, they didn't realize that the statistics were so bad.

FP:You have a warning on the video. <strong>SJ:</strong>I want to give fair warning to people. The first time I showed it to my class in its present form, I didn't give a strong enough warning. I said there's some stuff on here that people may not like, and it could be very disturbing, and they shouldn't stay if they don't want to. But I guess I wasn't clear enough that this was a voluntary activity. There was one woman who came to me afterwards, totally shaken, and said that she had lived through this, she did not need to be reminded of it. So I'm very careful now to really stress that this is a voluntary activity, that people know the extent of the images. The interesting thing is it depends what you think the violent images are. Because the rape scene from "The Accused" is one thing, but all the other images, of course, are what is on the media. They're normal. And to the extent that you can actually make them problematic, then the video works to the extent that these videos which are seen as normal become extraordinary.

FP:What kinds of connections do you see between the growth of the music video industry, and the rise over the past 10 years in violence against women?

SJ There's not a simple, causal model. Behaviors and attitudes are focused within a particular environment; if you want to look at behaviors and attitudes, you need to look at what's in the environment. These images are a significant part of the lives of young people, and part of their function is to sell records, which they do really effectively. But another function is to provide models for behavior, not explicitly of course, but by legitimizing certain attitudes, by saying, "Look, here is how the world works." That will obviously have some impact on how people, young people especially, think about themselves, their own identity, and what it means to interact with other people. Again, it depends on what else is in the environment; it's not going to have the same effect on everyone. It depends on family background, it depends on what kinds of relationships we've had with women and men in the past, etc. But these images reflect a very consistent theme within popular culture. It's in slasher movies, it's in advertising. I use MTV to talk about the culture in general. If it were just MTV, who cares? But the question is not just MTV, it's MTV within the context of other popular cultural forms that reinforce the same perceptions.

The thing we can't forget is that these images are fun. They're images of pleasure, for both women and men, and I think young women are just as likely to buy into them as young men. Although it's directed at men, much of the female dreamworld also looks the same. Open up Vogue. It would be very difficult, at some points, to tell the difference between Vogue and pornography. The job of the advertising industry is to figure out the secret of desire, especially visual desire, and use it to sell products. The issue is not lecturing people on how they shouldn't like this stuff. I want to recognize how we can find this material pleasurable, and yet at the same time be caught up in structures of power over which we have no control. And to talk about pleasure and power as the same experience, not necessarily separate experiences. To say, this is not about my version of sex is better than your version of sex, but pointing out that these images, which are highly pleasurable, are also very dangerous. For me the issue is always the system of images, and sometimes that gets lost in the video, because it's very complicated at that point.

So it's not a causal connection, but there is a connection between these images and violence against women, and it comes from how important these images are in terms of the environment within which we live, within which we learn about ourselves and the world.

FP: I understand MTV is not terribly happy with what you're doing.

<strong>SJ:</strong> Yes. I got a letter from them telling me to cease and desist from what I was doing, to destroy all the videotapes I had, to recall everything I'd sent out. They said, if you don't do this within seven days they would consider taking "appropriate legal and equitable remedies." They were threatening to sue me. My response was to send out a press release. The press coverage has been terrific, in the sense that the press has focused on this as an issue of censorship, rather than as a trademark violation, which is how MTV wanted to frame it.

FP: Which is ironic, isn't it, considering the history of pornographers defending what they do on the basis of the First Amendment?

<strong>SJ:</strong> Yes, and MTV has been running a campaign on the First Amendment, freedom of speech and anti-censorship, so it's highly ironic. I wrote them a letter saying, "I note with much interest your recent stress on freedom of expression and anti-censorship, and hoped you would want to support discussing these issues as fully as possible." That was my veiled threat, which I then followed through on by sending those press releases. I figured that was the only weapon I had, because normally this stuff works in private. They put on pressure and most people cave in, because most of the time the material is being used for commercial purposes. I've been very careful in the way I put this together to make sure I don't benefit financially at all. I've set up a non-profit foundation, which will be making other videotapes and doing other kinds of research. I'm selling this videotape for $ 100 for institutions, $50 for individuals, except if people can't afford it. Then I give it away. I gave one away the other day to a woman from the Boston [Area] Rape Crisis Center, so I'll give them away to the good guys. My interest is not in making money, my interest is in getting the message out.

MTV has backed off. The only thing they can do, as far as I can see, is ride out the media storm, which is what I think they're doing.

FP:Looking at MTV, and heavy metal videos especially, it seems as though the dreamworld you're talking about is the only version of sex it's willing to offer. Sex is either portrayed in a way that objectifies women, or it isn't portrayed at all.

<strong>SJ:</strong>I think that's exactly the case. And so it's really about the narrowness of the discussion of sexuality. I've had fundamentalists write to me to support what I'm doing, and I get sort of horrified when that happens. There was a very nasty review in The New York Times, by the music critic there, basically saying that I had a puritanical view of sex. He reviewed it in the same article that he reviewed the tape by the Parents Music Resource Center (a conservative lobbying group): "Rising to the Challenge," which is about Satanism and all that kind of stuff. They lumped me in with that, which is very easy to do, because once you start talking about sex in this culture lots of things get confused. A progressive critique of sexuality often gets tied up with a regressive critique, which is the same strange logic that puts Andrea Dworkin on the same side as Jerry Falwell. But my problem is not that there's too much discussion of sex, but that there's not enough. I want to see more discussion of sexuality by different voices. I want to see discussion by feminists, gays, African - Americans.

It's not about morality, it's about politics. It's about diversity. If we want to live in a democratic culture, then we have to have a democratic cultural space, and I don't think we have that. That's why I say that the problem, as I see it, is the commercial monopoly of sex. For information on how to obtain a copy of "Dreamworlds," write: The Foundation for Media Education P.O. Box 2008 Amherst, MA 01004

 

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