Lesson Plan: Popular Music, Gender Representation, and Media Effects

Fifth Harmony feat. Kid Ink, “Worth It” (2015, music video directed by Cameron Duddy)

Ian here—

For three quarters in a row, I used Stanley J. Baran’s Introduction to Mass Communication textbook for my Mass Communication course. However, during that time, I drifted away from assigning Baran’s chapter on media effects. I was very upfront to students about the reasons why: I find it dull, and dry. It provides a thorough historical overview of various theories of media effects, from the Frankfurt School to George Gerbner’s “cultivation analysis,” but it doesn’t provide meaty examples of studies of effects in action. So, instead, I decided to turn my media effects week into a feminism week, and use Susan J. Douglas‘ wonderful observations on popular music and its effect on perceptions of gender roles in her book Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. The book’s breezy, first-person style is far removed from the distanced overview of sociological theories found in Baran, and a good model for the types first-person observations and analysis I hope to provoke when teaching this material.

If you would like to follow along with the visual presentation for this lesson in motion, it can be found here.

Lecture portion


First, I get the elephant out of the room: simplistic direct causal theories of how media affect us don’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. The rhetoric that we sometimes hear from politicians, to the effect that violent TV or videogames “causes” mass shootings, cannot answer the question as to why all of the other viewers & players didn’t commit mass shootings. (I am quite upfront here when it comes to pointing out that, given the political climate in the US, it is much less controversial to blame mass media for shootings than it is to blame guns.)

But refraining from saying “violent media causes people to commit violent acts,” isn’t the same as saying that media doesn’t affect us at all. It just means that it’s complicated. (Complicated enough for a century’s worth of competing theories.)


I settle on as neutral a formulation as I can, attempting to sidestep the theoretical disagreements that Baran takes pages to explicate. The mass media, I propose, are socializing agents. (In using this term, I am throwing a bone to Baran.[i]) That is, the mass media arise out of, and in turn contribute to, our values as a society. Our time spent with mass media artifacts teaches us how to be a member of our society. Nonfiction media, such as journalism, of course keeps us informed about events in our world. But fictional popular entertainment plays a role, as well: it can provide a model for what it means to be someone in our society, and the norms of behavior one ought to adhere to.

Of course, the mass media aren’t the only socializing agents at work in our society! There are also parents, schools, churches, and other community fixtures. But just because media represnts only one among many socializing agents doesn’t mean we should downplay its very real power.

Here, I pivot away from Baran’s terminology, and dive directly into a meaty quote from Douglas:

What were you to do if you were a teenage girl in the early and mid-1960s, your hormones catapulting you between desire and paranoia, elation and despair, horniness and terror? You didn’t know which instincts to act on and which ones to suppress. You also weren’t sure whom to listen to since, by the age of fourteen, you’d decided that neither your mother nor your father knew anything except how to say no and perhaps the lyrics to a few Andy Williams songs. For answers – real answers – many of us turned to the record players, radios, and jukeboxes of America. And what we heard were the voices of teenage girls singing about – and dignifying – our most basic concern: how to act around boys when so much seemed up for grabs.[ii]

I encourage my students to notice that Douglas never says, “1960s girl groups caused me to lose my virginity to a boy I had a crush on.” Nor does she say, “1960s girl groups caused me to wait for marriage.” Nor does she say, “1960s girl groups caused me to stay with an emotionally abusive boyfriend.” Douglas, in this passage, is quite clear that popular music constituted one cultural voice, providing one potential set of answers to questions. Rather than a “cause,” pop music formed one potential source of influence, balanced against others.

The takeaway of Douglas, I propose, is that representation matters. We don’t know the exact mechanisms by which media affect us, or the limits of their effects, but we do know that they both emerge out of and contribute back to the norms of the society in which we live. What people do in the mass media provides us with one possible model of the behavior expected of us by our society, and of our possibilities within that society.

This is especially true when we watch or listen to representations of members of the same group we self-identify as. As Douglas points out, the lyrics of girl groups provide suggestions of behavior to teen girls. But, beyond this, we can say: The professions of Asian men on television tells Asian boys something about what they can dream of growing up to be. The way Black characters are portrayed in Hollywood movies tells Black viewers something about how they are perceived in white America. And so on.

Discussion portion

The first time I taught Douglas’ chapter, in the fall of 2015, I played them some of the 1960s girl group pop she talks about, hoping actually hearing the music, rather than just reading about it on the page, would help stimulate student comments. This didn’t really work, though: students felt like Douglas had already said everything they could say, and they weren’t really familiar enough with the songs to contribute anything more.

So, I ended up winging it: I picked a few songs from recent pop radio, and played snippets of them, asking for student’s ideas about what they had to say about contemporary gender roles and sexual behavior. Suddenly, everyone was talkative—even some students that, until that moment, had been my quietest. So I relinquished control of the content (though not, of course, the themes), and switched into “DJ mode,” taking students’ requests for interesting songs to listen to and discuss.

In the subsequent times I have taught this lesson, I ditched this “taking requests” portion of class, instead settling on a set number of contemporary pop songs that I found to be especially interesting, provocative, or otherwise productive. Rather than dropping my playlist out of nowhere during class, I now share links to YouTube videos ahead of time on the course website. I also assign them a take-home quiz, to focus their attention on the songs’ most salient aspects. On the quiz, I ask students to listen to at least one song by a masculine-identifying artist, and one by a feminine-identifying one, and then answer any two of the following three questions they wish:

  • Question A: What sort of proposals do these songs make about possessiveness? How much time or attention does one partner owe another? What are the acceptable attitudes to take towards breakups, and how do those attitudes break down along gender lines?
  • Question B: What sort of proposals do these songs make about sexual expression, especially in regards to gender divisions? That is, who is allowed to advertise their sexual availability, and under what circumstances?
  • Question C: What sort of proposals do these songs make about the economics of relationships between men and women? On a financial level, this can mean: Who pays for things, who gets things paid for, and why? On an emotional level, this can mean: Whose job is it to provide emotional assurance to their partner?

I tell students that they can address the music videos’ visual content, if they wish, but primarily I want them to listen to the songs’ lyrical content.

What follows are the songs I used (clustered into thematic groupings), and some of the discussion that followed. I haven’t taught this lesson since April 2016, and if I return to it again in the future, I’m likely to tweak things and bring in some newer music. This might lead to different discussions, as well.

1) Post-breakup behaviors

First, I show “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved” (The Script, 2008):[iii]

Then, “Someone Like You” (Adele, 2011):

Repeating a question from my take-home quiz, I ask students what these videos communicate to their viewer about the acceptable attitudes to take towards breakups, and how those attitudes break down along gender lines.

Students are quick to spot the division. The Script’s song is all about redemption, and having a plan to get her back. Its upbeat music matches the upbeat attitude of its narrator, who clearly expects results. Students hone in on this communicating a moral of “work hard, and she’ll come back to you” towards masculine-identifying listeners.

Adele’s song, by contrast, can be summed up in quite different mottos: “He’s just not that into you.” “Get over it.” Adele is moving on. She tries to be magnanimous … but she’s still sad. Really sad. “Of course she’s sad,” I say. “She’s the saddest fucking woman in the world. It’s a key part of her persona, and her appeal.” (I don’t make a habit of swearing in class, but I’ve found that to be a laugh line, so I’ve stuck with it.) If it doesn’t come out immediately, I ask how Adele would be perceived if she engaged in the types of behavior the guy from The Script does. Students agree that it would be considered “annoying” at best, and “crazy ex-girlfriend” behavior at worst.

Turning back to The Script, I ask students to think hard about how the behavior described in the song would be characterized in real life. Initial responses can rang from “dedicated” and “persevering” to “desparate.” But, with a little bit of patience, I’ve never failed to get one student (and, I have to say, so far it has always been a woman) point out that the behavior described could be considered stalking. I agree, and note how popular music can normalize behavior that in real life might be grounds for a restraining order, by re-casting of such behavior as “romantic.”

2) Stereotypes of gendered toxic behavior, presented as alluring + divergent views about who gets to present themselves sexually to the world

First, I show “Blank Space” (Taylor Swift, 2014):

Then, “Jealous” (Nick Jonas, 2014):

Riffing on where we left off on the last pair of videos—the normalization and even romanticization of bad behavior—in these two videos, we examine how songs and music videos represent gender-coded toxic behavior. Swift plays up the idea of falling for the “bad guys,” the “players,” and ending up in relationships that “go down in flames,” leaving “nasty scars.” The video takes this lyrical content and runs with it, playing up the “insane jealous nightmare,” character that Swift builds, producing an archetypal “crazy girlfriend” with terrible judgment. Jonas, meanwhile, readily admits to getting “jealous,” “possessive,” and “obsessed,” controlling his partner’s sexuality by cracking down on her posting of selfies (“I wish you didn’t have to post it out…”).

I’ve been surprised by how much students have pushed back at me here. It’s something I welcome, as long as it’s well-argued. Students have pointed out that the videos, especially, add ironic dimensions perhaps not immediately apparent in the song’s lyrics by themselves. While it’s true that Switft’s video makes the sort of behavior she describes fascinating, students argued that it doesn’t normalize it: our entire attraction to it is because it’s so exotic, so out of the ordinary. Students also insisted that the goofy, boyish dorkiness on display in the “Jealous” video (playing a piano with an old lady!) made it clear that Jonas’ character is deeply insecure, and unsuccessfully trying on different models of masculinity, which don’t fit him well. I have to admit that I’m coming around to their point of view, at least on the Jonas video.

I end this section with “Take It Off”(Taylor Swift, 2014), which has been hailed by some as an anti slut-shaming anthem:

Just for fun, I ask students, “if Swift’s character in this song was dating Jonas’ character from ‘Jealous,’ what would she say to him?”

3) Fiscal and emotional economics

First, I show “Worth It” (Fifth Harmony, featuring Kid Ink, 2015):

“Worth It” can bring out disagreement among students. (And I want it to!) The message “feminism is sexy” on the stock ticker (a blink-and-you-miss-it flash at the 2:42 mark) opens the door to a contentious question: Is this song feminist? Like most questions about feminism in contemporary popular music, it’s complicated. In my class, students were quick to point out that these women apparently show competence in the workplace, know what they want, and know how to make demands of men. But so much of the question comes down to what they mean by “worth it.” One could read the song as championing women’s self-esteem, as a cry to recognizing one’s own self-worth. But if “baby I’m worth it” really translates to, “I offer up my attractiveness in exchange for your financial support, if you can afford my tastes,” then that is hardly a feminist message. Instead, it’s one of self-objectification, and of trading autonomy for financial security. Some students will insist that women should be free to decide for themselves what is empowering—up to and including using one’s looks to live off of the money of rich men. Others questioned the dialogue between the women of Fifth Harmony and Kid Ink in this song. Are they singing to Kid Ink? Or are they arguing with him? Is the song dialectical?

From here, I pivot to “Locked Away” (Rock City, featuring Adam Levine, 2015):

I point out that, even though the lyrical content of the song explicitly refers to prison, its themes relate more broadly to the “mancession“—the departure of men from the workforce in the wake of the 2008 US recession, and resulting re-balancing of economic norms of who played the role of household provider. I encourage students to think of “Locked Away” and “Worth It” as a pair. Students have pointed out that, if we give Fifth Harmony the benefit of the doubt, they’re not simply asking for money, but for security. “Locked Away” looks at what happens when that security falls away, and when promises (whether personal, or cultural) are broken.

These songs fill up class fairly well, but if I have time, I move on to “Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)” (OMI, 2012) as a coda:

Here, the theme shifts from financial to emotional economics, in particular what academics would term affective labor. OMI’s bald-faced admission that he finds reassuring women’s self-esteem to be a chore (“Do you need me? Do you think I’m pretty?”), and longs for a partner that spends all of her time emotionally supporting him (“She is always in my corner, right there when I want her”) is especially rich for such discussions, if there’s time left in the class.

[i]. Baran, Stanley J. Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture. Updated 8th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2015. Pg 320.

[ii]. Douglas, Susan J. “Why the Shirelles Mattered.” In Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Random House, 1994. Pg 85. (This was my students’ assigned reading before this lesson.)

[iii]. For this and all other songs I show in the class, I only play the song/video up to the bridge. Two verses and two choruses are enough to get a sense for the song’s lyrical content, and going over that would strain class time too much.

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