My go-to workout song these days is “Give Me Everything,” a song Pitbull performed with a bunch of other musicians on New Year’s Eve. “Give Me Everything” has a crazy good beat, not to mention that signature Pitbull voice, and I just can’t help myself—I move when I hear it. Which is why I bought it. I didn’t care what the lyrics were, but once I started paying attention to them they fascinated me. While most of the song is addressed to a woman whom the narrator is trying to seduce, there is an aside in the middle of the song, addressed to the narrator’s rivals:
Reach for the stars/And if you don’t grab them, at least you’re on top of the world/Think about it/’Cause if you slip, I’m gonna fall on top of your girl. (This line is followed by mocking male laughter).
These lines got me thinking about perspective. I like a storyline with multiple perspectives—I like to hear the voices of different characters, to see the shades of gray in each of their truths. For example, if this song had any room for the voice of the woman being wooed, she might respond with something like, “Really? You’re asking me to give you everything—and I was seriously considering it—but now you’ve ruined it. Who matters more to you—me, that woman over there, or the guy you just laughed at? Your hotness level just plummeted, buddy.”
But there is no room for her voice in this song.
No surprise there. Although there are songs—even seduction songs (such as Lady Gaga’s “Love Game”) from the female perspective, the predominant perspective in our culture is male, whether we are talking about sex or politics or sports or tacos. When my husband was getting his PhD, he and his classmates were studying a theorist who discussed “the gaze.” The gaze was always male—it was a man looking through the lens of the camera when a couple kissed in the movies, a man looking at a woman in the kitchen or choosing a bra. This man isn’t your average guy. He is hypermasculine, someone with the braggadocio to not only woo a million women but mock his rivals while he’s at it. And his perspective puts its stamp on everything.
For example, the gorgeous woman formerly known as herself and now known— breathlessly—as George Clooney’s girlfriend wanted to be super gorgeous for the Oscars and worked hard at it with a regimen. I know this fact even though I don’t want to—the radio gave it to me, just because. No such gift has ever come to me about the pre-Oscar regimen of Viola Davis’s boyfriend—if Viola Davis has a boyfriend, or a husband, or a partner of any kind. And so it goes. The story, by now, is an old one.
But not for everyone. For the young among us, the world is new, the voices are fresh and exciting, and the cultural perspective is as persuasive as any husky voice set to a good beat could ever be.
The adolescent girl, the young woman between 15 and 25, who hasn’t had the time or resources to sort through the cultural b.s. surrounding the male gaze, might not question the perspective she is handed. She might not slow the lyrics down in her head and respond to them with affronted gusto, or roll her eyes at the mention of a celebrity’s wardrobe mishap, or tell her boyfriend she’s seen enough exploding cars and decorative cleavage to last a lifetime.
This girl or woman, if she were being wooed by the suitor in “Give Me Everything,” might stand idly by while the narrator speaks his aside, waiting to see if she will be the lucky one to give the powerful male fantasy his due. She might not realize that her voice could have been—should have been—part of the story. Or that seduction is supposed to be a two-way street.
I also worry about her counterpart, the young male between the ages of 15 and 25 who is being handed a perspective and told it is his. Don’t look for a voice of your own, take this one—and make sure no one else gets a word in edgewise. Including any part of you that might be uncomfortable with the status quo.
Well, damn, that is just wrong, y’all. Every bit of it is wrong.
So what do we do about it?
We sing. We tell stories. As many of us who can, in as many ways as we can. And I don’t just mean the rich and famous. I mean all of us. We need to connect with the young people in our lives—and with each other—and remind ourselves that the dominant voice isn’t even real. It’s just a fantasy—and, as fantasies go, it’s not even particularly creative.
I try to do this in small ways all the time.
For example, the other day when I was playing checkers with my son, I asked him to queen me when one of my pieces reached his side of the board. “Mommy!” he said with a grin. “It’s ‘king me!’”
“But if I were a ruler, I would be a queen,” I replied. “So queen me.”
And he did.
When I was helping a student write a cover letter, and she was trying to figure out how to address the woman she was writing to, I suggested the term Ms. and explained that I always use Ms. even though I could use Mrs. After all, I said, my husband always gets to be Mr. The student laughed.
Small messages, these, with nothing like the cultural impact of a popular song, but I believe they matter. To change the cultural perspective, you first have to change your own perspective. You have to believe that the gaze, the voice isn’t the only viable one—your voice can and should be part of the song. Once you start to believe that—really, truly deep-down believe it—the rest is cake.
All you gotta do is sing.