The Objectification of Women in
Album Cover Art:
The Gaze That Won't Go Away
The community, culture, and art of a society are all vital factors in shaping the fabric of our life’s experiences. How we live, work, and contribute creatively within our culture provides enrichment, appreciation, and a sense of fulfillment for ourselves and the people we come in contact with in our community. The noted cultural historian Raymond Williams defines culture as “the body of intellectual and imaginative work” in which our human experiences are recorded. The creation of things is art, and art, put simply, is the “principal means of communicating ideas and emotional meanings from one person to another” and it is the symbolization of human experiences into art form. In this sense, and in its contemporary definition, art is everything, and “Art is as broad as human experience. All of art comes out of life, and is bound up with life. Art is meaningful, but meaningful in ways that differ from society to society, from time to time, and from person to person.” Thus, art is a means of communication and language, and, art communicates to us thru specific signs, symbols, patterns, and marks that “may assist in interpreting some meanings” from what we are observing.
The experience of interpreting these messages that we find in whatever forms of art we may be engaged with is a completely subjective process that takes place in the mind, and how we each gauge, judge, or take away meaning from the experience is based on our own individual cultural backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, and values. People are affected differently by art, so that even when they may share many of these same characteristics, their opinions can be radically different from one another when they are presented with certain forms of art. I would like you to examine this with me, and I would like us to consider one contemporary form of art that we are all familiar with: that of the album cover. Album covers for recorded music have been around in various forms for over a century, and I am sure that we can agree that album cover art certainly qualifies as a form of art. It is also certainly true that we will have different views about what we think is artful in album cover art: some will be noteworthy, some will not, and some we like and appreciate, and some we will find completely dismissible and unqualified in our thoughts as being an object of art.
About these objects of art, there are decidedly different opinions about what we see on these covers: some will seen as quite plain, or generic, while others will be seen as rather risqué or playful, and still others will be seen as quite affecting displays that really say something to us, either positively or negatively. Specifically, I’d like to examine how the issue of the objectification of women in album cover art is considered in our contemporary culture. Objectification is generally understood and defined as “seeing a person as a sexual object and emphasizing their sexual attributes and physical attractiveness, while de-emphasizing their existence as a living person with emotions and feelings of their own.” Going further, it is has certainly been agreed that the objectification of the sexes in artwork has been a theme in art throughout history, and since the female nude “is one of the most important themes in art history of the last two centuries, it is argued that in painted representations women’s bodies have often been objectified through male desires and fantasies” and that these depictions have “been developed mostly by male artists, and (broadly speaking) have been identified as constructing images of women’s bodies to satisfy male pleasure.” Feminist film critic, Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay concerning the “social and psychic processes” that occur “when men and women look at each other”, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, offers her theory that “the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly”, and thus, this ‘male gaze’ is “seen as the structuring principle for the representation of women.”
An example of this kind of ‘male gaze’ structuring principle can be seen in the representations offered in Paul-Joseph Jamin’s 1893 painting, “Brenn and His Share of the Spoils” (aka: "Brenn and His Share of the Plunder"), which “invites an erotic voyeurism on the part of the male spectator.” The naked women depicted in this painting are shown as captured and tied up, with their “bodies shown from different angles, thus encouraging (possibly violent) male sexual fantasies.” A male spectator of this painting may thus be considered as a voyeur to this scene, and he is “invited to project his own sexual fantasy on to the image, to see—and to control—these women’s bodies as objects of desire.”
It is also true, that, while the female nude may be painted simply to respectfully convey beauty, innocence, or sexuality in an effort to portray a purely “romantic glorification of the female body”, there also exists an abundance of art that is considered to be “most derogatory and degrading” in how it depicts the female form. Indeed, the entire focus of female sexuality as represented in art is, as John Berger says in “Ways of Seeing”, has nothing to do with the sexuality of the female portrayed. Berger states that “Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture, and that the picture is “made to appeal to his sexuality” alone, because “Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.”
It seems that any determination of objectification occurring in art, whether it is seen present in any depiction of nudity, from the benign to the violently extreme, must be left to the eye of the beholder, because each viewer will form his or her own opinion about what they consider to be objectifying. “The female nude, in all the possible permutations of sensuality or oppression, from passive reclining beauties to scenes of torture, dismemberment, violence, and rape populate numerous museums and galleries of the world. They are seen on public display, available to both young and adult populations, continuously providing visual standards and visual literacy for adolescents and adults.”
In our contemporary culture, the artwork presented on album covers are on public display almost everywhere, we don’t have to go to museums to find albums or compact disc covers. Adults and children are constantly exposed to advertisements for new music albums through the media (newspapers, music magazines, billboards, the internet, etc…), and we also see them in the myriad of places where, as consumers, we go to shop. There are many people and groups alike that have argued long and hard, especially since the late 1960’s, that the objectification of women is easily recognized as being present on many of these album covers, and they do not appreciate the fact that many of these album covers are in the marketplace and accessible to the eyes, and thus the imaginations, of adolescents or children. Some individuals and groups have mounted campaigns, with varying degrees of success, to protest against the producing and selling of album covers that use artwork that they deem inappropriate in its depiction, or objectification, of women. Stores like Wal-Mart, have at times heeded their protests and actually removed the ‘offending’ albums from their shelves.
Additionally, in 1985, Tipper Gore spearheaded the Parent’s Music Resource Center organization specifically to protest and to lobby to Congress that restrictions, if not outright banning, be instituted to curtail what they believed to be a proliferation of objectionable and offensive material being sold in the music industry. These objections were not limited to album artwork, but also included the lyrical content, and other forms of performance and expression that were related to the products and the artists of within the music community. They were met with strong opposition from free speech advocates, historians, and scholars that vehemently disagreed with their agenda. Music artists Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and even John Denver testified before Congress at the same hearings to oppose the efforts of the PMRC. The hearings were basically an exercise in futility however, as no serious attempt by any legal body was ever really considered, although, a small battle was considered won by the PMRC when some of the major players and labels within the music industry agreed to begin a program to sticker some albums with warning labels to identify albums that may have offensive lyrical content.
It can also be said that the PRMC’s efforts contributed to the actions of stores, like Wal-Mart, that decided to refuse certain music albums due to their visual or lyrical content. Retailers have, at times, barred certain album covers, and have even barred entire artist’s catalogues (for lyrics and images), from being sold in their stores, while other merchandisers have used various methods to obscure, cover, or replace the ‘offending’ album art. Some have wrapped the entire product over with a generic covering, while some stores choose to place stickers or partial coverings over particular areas of the images shown, and still other retailers may insist that new, replacement cover art must be used on certain albums in order to have the product sold in their stores. These methods do keep a segment of the population away from seeing some of the more controversial album covers in public, but it is also true, that, if anything significant was accomplished by these actions, it was that the banning or covering of album covers has most certainly contributed to the overall sales and popularity (notoriety) that the artists in question enjoy.
Despite the occasional backlash against album cover art and music content, the artist’s rights to freedom of expression and speech have basically been unaffected by any efforts to restrict what may or may not be produced and sold in the marketplace. In this sense, they enjoy the same privileges that artists working in all forms of art have been afforded in our society. Again, the opinions that one may have about what they find to be objectionable in art is a matter of interpretation, and any formulated interpretation of the mind must be considered as individualistic and unique as that of a fingerprint.
That being said, there are certain kinds of objectifying images which are perceived to be present in some album covers that will strike a chord or provide a strong reaction to observers on a wider scale than those which might be observed in other album covers that may indicate either milder forms of objectification or none at all. However, even the staunchest supporter of artistic freedom (artist’s rights) has or will likely be offended by certain album covers, though at the same time, they would still defend the rights of artists to produce whatever they want. We may find some things we see in album cover art to be completely disgusting, reprehensible, degrading, offensive, obscene, exploitive, oppressing, dehumanizing, or even perhaps illegal to our way of thinking, but by and large, if we are supporters of artist’s rights, we will defend even that which we find affronting or deplorable to our own sensibilities.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the images of album art which adorn this webpage. No one can tell you what to think, of course, so the opinions about what is objectifying to women is left for your own consideration. Perhaps all of the album art presented here would be considered as objectifications of women by some, but it must be considered as well that other viewers would find nothing at all objectifying to women in this same artwork. Of course, there are certain legal issues that do come to mind in our society when they come to the display or objectification that might be seen in regard to minors/children. It’s hard, for most, to consider that such artwork is out there and available, or at least was for a time.
Indeed many album art covers have been changed or altered at various times due to some of these various issues we’ve been discussing. A consensus of some sort may have been reached that the album art was just too gross, violent, objectifying, or even illegal. We can assume that the opinions of the record companies and even the artist’s themselves may change or are influenced by some factor or factors that lead them to decide that what they initially approved and released went to far, or perhaps violated the law. This is especially true when some album art has been released featuring nude children.
If we look at the album cover for Bow Wow Wow’s “See Jungle!”we may decide that there is nothing really to be concerned with about this cover art, after all, as images go, it’s fairly mild. It’s a picnic scene showing an obviously naked girl sitting rather benignly, without her full nakedness, or genitalia, being displayed. However, if you were to learn that the girl, the lead singer of the group, was only fifteen when this cover was shot, you might have a markedly different opinion about how this album art should be interpreted and considered. An even more blatant form of what some would call child pornography is shown on the cover for the Scorpion’s album “Virgin Killer.” It is hard to defend this cover as being acceptable. Many times, as is the case with “Virgin Killer”, the title printed on the album, or other words that may appear on an album will contribute to how viewers will interpret the “art” displayed. Think to yourself for a moment, do you think that the cover is more or less offensive, or is it not at all offensive in any way, with or without the title being visible? Similarly, the eponymous album “Blind Faith” may stir these same reactions, though there is not a word on this particular cover. Does the album/group name "Blind Faith" convey any further meaning in your thoughts when you consider the cover's photo? Interestingly, this cover, showing a prepubescent girl naked from the waist up is considered a classic piece of album cover art in most circles. What is your opinion? Should this cover have been outlawed, should the record company, the artist, or the music group Blind Faith have been held legally accountable? Or is it artful and acceptable in some way?
What about Madonna and other artists who obviously have a big influence over, if not total control of, how they will be displayed on their albums? Does Madonna’s album “Hard Candy” objectify women? Why or why not? Why would she put out such a cover if were to be seen, especially by other women, as objectifying to women? Cher, Millie Jackson, and Britney Spears all have images on their albums shown here which may be considered as objectifications of women, so why would they release them? Some viewers, male and female, would argue that these representations of the artists themselves on their album covers show qualities of “power and strength”, and that these are not necessarily only “masculine qualities”, and that women should be proud of this connotation and emphasize their “own sites of power”, thus turning the tables in a manner of speaking on what has been considered the ‘male gaze’ of how sexuality has been traditionally defined.
However, there are also those who believe that these sorts of album covers by prominent female artists will only fortify and add to the continuation of the objectification of women in album cover art. Young girls may find it confusing to see their favorite artists displayed in these ways and they may begin to think of their own importance, or self-worth, as being connected only to how they are seen by others. They perhaps may follow the model by objectifying themselves through display, dress, actions, or other considerations that will instill in them the idea they must be seen as sexual beings focused on attracting male attention in order to feel happy and fulfilled as women. Conversely, there are even album covers that feature males displayed as women. Do the images of Marilyn Manson , Ru-Paul,and the cover art featured on Jane’s Addiction’s album qualify as objectifications of women?
Turning to other forms of album art, many of these covers show violent and disturbing images of women being brutalized, raped, or otherwise sexually dominated by men or the male gaze. The portrayal of women in submissive, subservient and fetish-oriented roles has been singled out as some of the more tasteless and extreme examples of how the objectifying of women in album cover art is identified and interpreted. The albums by 2 Minute Dreka, Butchered at Birth, Funeral Rape, Ted Nugent, and Waco Jesus (if you dare), are quite extreme examples of how women can be shown in album cover art as being treated brutally. You must ask yourself, What is the message being shown in these examples? Are they objectifying, or merely lurid attempts to garner attention to the cover or to the musical artist? Does the cover art and the title of Buffalo’s “Only Want You for Your Body” album seem offensive and objectifying to women in how you interpret the ‘artwork’?
Because many album covers that may or may not be seen as objectifications of women primarily feature nude, partially nude, or sexually suggestive women in various states of presentation, which one’s are worse than others? Look at the albums by The Black Crowes, Big Maso Mom, Super Beautiful Monster, Roxy Music, The Rollins Band, Boxer, Damien, Erotic Lounge, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. These and all of the rest of the albums discussed and evidenced here on this web page have in one way another been associated with artwork that is considered to be objectifying to women.
The purpose of this presentation is not to offend you but to get you thinking about how album cover art, and by extension, any images or portrayals that you might come across in a variety of mediums, affects you as viewer. If you found yourself disgusted, amused, or influenced in any way in viewing and reading this presentation, than the purposes I intended have been fulfilled. So, where do YOU draw the line? Where does everyone else? Personally, I find some of the artwork shown here to be offending, unnecessary, objectifying, and/or ridiculous. But I still come down in favor for the artist, for the rights of each person to make his or her own art, and for the rights of each person to make his or her own judgments about art. But, I do have a line.
I believe that any album cover art that uses pictures of real, unclothed children is likely inappropriate and should not be sold for profit. To me, everything else is fair game, or, fair art, as long as they are not using pictures of actual, real, unclothed children. The words, edits, graphics, photos, and design do not bother me as much, or at all, and I believe there should be no restrictions on these attributes, but the photos used of real, unclothed children, for the most part, could be banned and made illegal to produce as far as I am concerned. Of course, I said, ‘for the most part’, because I do not think that I would include naked baby pictures, or even naked toddler pictures, in my criteria, though, accepting these kinds of pictures would depend on the children’s poses and function within the photograph. From roughly age four, until age seventeen or so, I think there is really no need to show photos of completely unclothed, real children, and, as I stated, I would likely give this artwork a banning, restriction, or otherwise penalty. I say, ‘completely unclothed’ this time, because I realize that shirtless boys of any age are seen and accepted everywhere in our culture, whereas, girls without shirts, tops, or coverings above the waist are not.
There are too many qualifiers that come into my thoughts when thinking about art and what kind of artist’s medium, method, and/or message should be banned, restricted, or outlawed. I do not agree with almost all of those qualifiers, but it is only when actual photographic images of real, completely unclothed children are used in an artwork, that I believe that, that artwork, or that album cover, should be banned, prohibited, and/or outlawed. That’s my personal breaking point, for just about anything and everything else is fine by me, even if I hate it, or find it objectionable, reprehensible, pornographic, or utterly devoid of any redeeming quality or content whatsoever. Just leave the completely unclothed children, ages 4-17, out of it. But banning, or outlawing anything doesn’t eliminate the desires or needs of those who want the controversial item, and it generally means, also, that the item will still be out there, will still be produced, and will still be available somewhere in the global marketplace.
It is said, that, in some situations, a person must live by their own rules, and when it comes to forming opinions about what kind of album cover art objectifies women, a person must do exactly that. It is only by your own rules, beliefs, thoughts, or interpretations, that the personal judgment of things is made. You share this quality with over 300 million Americans, or, more accurately six billion plus Earthlings, and it should be obvious that judgments are plentiful, varied, and unique to the individual.
Again, each person will interpret images in their own way, so what may seem blatantly offensive and objectifying to some will not at all meet the criteria of what others would consider objectifying. You see things how you see them, and that’s a good thing. There is a unique stamp of you put to every thought you think about, and that’s a good thing too. It’s all up to you. This presentation has asked you to examine your own thoughts about what kinds of album cover artwork, if any, are objectifying to women. It is hoped that you will consider, in your thoughts, what has been presented here the next time you are looking at album cover art. The only opinion that matters in the end is your own. You must interpret, you must think, and you must decide.
01.^ Barnard, M. (2002) Fashion as communication (2nd Ed.). London & New York: Rutledge. pp 29-48. Original work published 1996
02.^ McFee & Degge. Exploring the
Relationships Between Art & Culture. Art, Culture, and Environment:
A Catalyst for Teaching.
Wadsworth Publishing Co, Inc, 1977.
03.^ Horowitz, F. (1992) Making Connections with art. What is art, and where does it fit in? In More than you see: A guide to art. NY: Harcourt Brace Javanovich College Publishers. pp 29-48.
04.^ AAD 252 Lecture Presentation. Week one 7/24-7/26/09 (flash presentation).
05.^ Create A Climate of Respect: What will you do to end violence against women?
06.^ Perry, G. (1999) Introduction: Gender and art history. In Gender and Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. pp 8-31.
07.^ Belan, Kyra. (2005) The female gaze and the male nude. In Earth, spirit, gender: Visual language for the new reality (pp39-46). Reno, NV: Bent Tree Press.
08.^ Berger, J. (1977) Ways of seeing. New York: Penguin. pp. 45-64.
09.^ Stern, W. (1997, Summer). How Men Look. Art Journal, 3-4
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