Last month, British singer-songwriter Charli XCX released the music video for her newest single, “Boys.” Prior to this video, I would not have particularly cared if Charli was abducted by a pack of rabid wolves; since the video, I would personally fend off that pack of wolves to spare her.
Opening on a shot of a bathrobed Joe Jonas drizzling syrup over towers of birthday pancakes, the video quickly delivers on what the title—”Boys”—promises and becomes a rolodex of more than sixty celebrity men, both household names and fresh faces. Charlie Puth, Jack Antanoff, Wiz Khalifa, Tom Daley, will.i.am, and Ezra Koenig shutter through at a distracted pace, each boy starring in some playful scene. Teen songster Khalid giggles as colorful puppies lick at his cheeks. Panic at the Disco!’s Brendon Urie smolders in a bed of roses. Bastille frontman Dan Smith snacks on pink taffy. Rapper Jay Park lounges on an inflatable flamingo. Meanwhile, lyrics bubble along in the background to periodic Mario coin blings: “I’m sorry that I missed your party. I wish I had a better excuse, like ‘I had to trash the hotel lobby.’ But I was busy thinkin’ ‘bout boys.”
The song and video are so simply adorable that it would be tempting to brush them off as frivolous. But indulging that temptation would be dismissing a cultural commentary of Beyoncé proportions.
In an interview with Junkee’s Jules Lefevre, Charli explained, “Obviously the whole idea behind my video was to avert the male gaze….I made a conscious decision to not be in the video and to have all the guys doing the sexy things that girls are normally doing….” Ms. Lefevre put this in her own words, summarizing, “The concept is relatively straightforward: subvert the dominant tropes of sexualising women in pop music videos by simply replacing them with men.”
Now, as a man, I need to make this next point carefully. I don’t want to commit the age-old crime of telling these women what they mean to say, but I honestly don’t think that Ms. XCX is giving herself enough credit here. This video is not revenge for “Blurred Lines.” This video is not trying to weaken the male gaze with a spiteful eye-for-an-eye gouging. Rather, this video is a challenge to the male gaze, daring it to soften, to be a gentler beholder of beauty.
The male gaze is as old as misogyny itself and originated long before Robin Thicke handed a goat to a naked model and blew smoke in her face. Coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, the male gaze is efficiently defined by Wikipedia as “the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure.” Oppressive gazes predate the Renaissance and persist today; Diego Velásquez and Jason Derulo are equally culpable. But Charli XCX is not.
In crafting her female gaze, Charli XCX demonstrates a generosity to her subjects that the male gaze rarely even attempts. As a millennial who’s slowly “woking up,” I acknowledge the storied history of gender prejudice and recognize that current societal power dynamics generally preclude the possibility of reverse sexism and will always make comparisons between the likes of Thicke and Charli uneven, but I think it’s important to note that the latter mercifully makes no attempts at objectifying the men she is portraying. Rather, she allows them to exist as unique and personality-laden individuals.
She achieves this feat in a couple of important ways. First, she prescribes no bodily ideal for her boys. The video is flush with boys of many races, ages, sizes, aesthetics, and sexual orientations. In one frame, the gay, British Olympian Tom Daley takes a sexy shower, and a few frames later, a plus-size model and social commentator who has dubbed himself “The Fat Jew” dances in a kiddy pool. Indie darling Mac DeMarco rocks his dad bod as punk rocker Laurie Vincent literally cradles his actual child. Black albino model Shaun Ross licks a flame while Flume serves up some nerd realness, reading through some Mr. Feeny glasses.
In the same way, Charli refuses to police any particular way to be masculine. There’s Cameron Dallas slinging a chainsaw and Diplo cuddling puppies and Jack Antanoff curling pink dumbells and Tom Grenna washing dishes. Charli elevates every one of her models above the status of object or stereotype and permits them to be full, real people with charm and personality and character. By the end of the video, the viewer wants not only to gaze at each subject, but engage with him, learn about him.
In fact, Charli’s choice to employ men of renown also deserves attention. By using men who are accomplished in their fields and widely recognizable, she guarantees that these men will not be overlooked as props but appreciated as the complex subjects that they are.
It would be easy to claim that Charli has employed this army of celebrity men simply to garner views. If she did, it’s working. The video quickly rocketed to the number one trending video on YouTube and has been viewed nearly thirty million times. However, I believe that Charli XCX undertook considerable risk with this song and video. By bringing together such an all-star cast, Charli risks having her own musical and directorial efforts overlooked. In fact, many comments on the video read “here for Charlie Puth” or, most frequently, “here for Jay Park.”
This, paired with the quaint, third wave feminist lyrics in which Charli ignores the calls and invitations with her girlfriends to fritter away hours brooding over boys, at times seems like an invitation to write Charli XCX off as another forgettable bubble gum pop princess. I hope, though, that people deny that invitation and spend some time thinkin’ ‘bout the boys in Charli’s video—the dynamic, well-rounded portraits of them—and give credit to the artist behind them.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some boys to think about.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) graduated Calvin with degrees in secondary education, Spanish, English, and writing. He is currently teaching our nation’s youth how to say the colors in Spanish but hopes one day to relocate to York, England, where he will write poetry out of tea shops, go for lolloping runs through the British countryside, set the record for the most treacle cake consumed in a single sitting, and work part-time as a magical singing nanny with a knack for reminding families of the important things in life.