Feminist backlash with a twang.
By Tom Jacobs
(Photo: Matt Cowan/Getty Images for Stagecoach)
The Dixie Chicks aside, country music is hardly known for its advocacy of progressive social ideas. Still, it’s a bit surprising to discover that, in its portrayal of women, the genre seems to be coarsening.
“To be a female in a country song in the 2010s is to be objectified more than in the past,” Texas Tech University researchers Eric Rasmussen and Rebecca Densley report in the journal Sex Roles.
“Country music in the 2010s tends to objectify women more, and portray them as empowered less than in previous decades,” they write. Not surprisingly, they find this trend is driven by lyrics sung by male artists.
Inspired by the rise of “bro-country” (described by one critic as “interchangeable songs about dirt roads, pickup trucks, girls in tiny cutoff jeans, and beer, lots of beer”) and Maddie & Tae’s 2014 hit Girl in a Country Song(sample lyrics: “Like all we’re good for is looking good for you and your friends”), the researchers decided to examine how women are described in contemporary country music.
They analyzed the lyrics of the top 50 songs on Billboard magazine’s annual Top Country Hits list for 1990–94, 2000–04, and 2010–14. Their sample consisted of 671 songs “that contained a reference to a woman.”
Among other things, the researchers noted whether the woman was portrayed as “empowered” or “dependent on a man.” They also noted slang references such as “honey” or “girl,” and lyrics in which a woman, or a part of her anatomy, is compared to a non-human object (“your body is like an hourglass”).
“To be a female in a country song in the 2010s is to be objectified more than in the past.”
They found that songs from the first half of this decade were “more likely to refer to a woman’s appearance, to women in tight or revealing clothing, to women as objects, and to women via slang than songs in one or both prior decades.”
This trend was driven almost entirely by male vocalists, as such descriptions were seldom found in songs sung by female artists. “These findings indicate that the most recent era of country music — ‘bro country’ — may be more than an anecdotal phenomenon,” the researchers write.
The good news is this is not a reflection of steadily increasing sexism. “Lyrics in each of the different decades do not appear to have portrayed women in increasingly rigid gender roles, or as more objectified, than the decade immediately preceding it,” they write.
This suggests “each new era in country music may be distinct in its own right, each representing cultural trends and societal development unique to its respective era.”
So what is it about our era that inspires such lyrics? Could it be American men who are drawn to this music believe their masculinity is threatened, and feel the need to compensate by defining women in rigid, reductive ways?
If so, it’s hard to see this tendency going away under a female president.