Cougar Hall on the Sexualization of Women in Music Lyrics

At a Women’s Studies colloquium, associate professor of health science Cougar Hall presented his research on the sexualization of women in popular music lyrics.

IMG_6388PROVO, Utah (Jan. 29, 2016)—We all know what female objectification looks like on television, advertisements and billboards, but can we recognize the ways it occurs in the music we listen to?

Citing a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association, associate professor of health science Cougar Hall identified four sexual constructs that determine the objectification and sexualization of women through various mediums. For his own research, Hall focused on music lyrics, and discussed his findings at a Women’s Studies colloquium.

These four constructs either 1) define a person’s value from his or her sexual appeal, 2) hold a person to a standard that equates physical attractiveness, 3) make a person into a sexual object or “thing” or 4) inappropriately depose sexuality by making a person into a sex symbol.

Hall was teaching a class on sexuality and education in the curriculum when he came across a paragraph in the textbook that cited the 2007 APA report on the sexualization of girls. He assigned the report to his students, which then launched into a valuable and pertinent class discussion.

One of the male students in his class was somewhat of an expert on hip hop and rap music. This student drew Hall’s attention to the troubling song lyrics in the music that he listened to, which then encouraged Hall to further investigate the messages that music portrayed to both young women and young men about sexuality.

“It’s not just a question of whether the lyrics are sexual in nature,” said Hall. “As far as public health and health education is concerned, we’re not the moral compass. But what this APA report outlined was that these things are very detrimental, especially to young women as they grow up and identify their self-concept and their value in the world.”

Hall presented various images of sexualized or objectified women that demonstrated how each construct from the APA report functioned in terms of what one can discern on a visual level.

Music, however, becomes complicated as a form of communication because “by nature it has sex appeal in it,” explained Hall. Hall then reviewed music lyrics from several popular songs and identified how each song demonstrated harmful sexual constructs in the same ways as visual representations.

“We have to understand that what we have in the media is socializing young men to see women as objects,” said Hall. “I’m not saying that young men are the victims – we still have agency – but how does it impact women?”

Hall continued that this sexual objectification is damaging because it leads to health-related issues such as poor body image, depression, disordered eating and substance abuse, to name just a few.

“From a public health perspective, it’s about these significant health problems,” Hall explained. “Not every sexy lyric is necessarily a bad thing. It’s quite possible that there is a healthy, equitable sexual script in a song. But the lyrics we are talking about do not represent healthy sexuality, and that is going to be the difference.”

In Hall’s own study of the sexualization of women in music lyrics, he reviewed Billboard’s top 100 hits from 1959 to 2009, and what he found was unsettling –especially from a public health perspective.

Pages of results indicated a significant increase of sexualization of women in music lyrics over time. “In 1959, 11 percent of male lyrics were degrading and sexualized, and if you look at 1999 it goes from 16 percent to 32 percent in 2009,” said Hall.

Hall also added an LDS perspective to take away from the results of his research. “Any time you want to know what the plan of the adversary is, you just flip Heavenly Father’s plan. It’s always the antithesis,” said Hall.

He concluded, “As mortals, as human beings, it’s Satan’s plan ­– I can assure you – to make us feel or see each other as less than human.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)