Sophomore Speech: WWBD

Photo by Sam Lee

Emma Martignoni
Sophomore Speech Finalist

As the annual sophomore speech finals have come to a close, Denebola got the opportunity to obtain each finalist’s transcription and recording of their speech. Sophomore Emma Martignoni’s speech entitled WWBD, enabled her to finish in third place. Read Martignoni’s speech below:

“What is S and M?” That’s the question 11-year-old-me asked my parents from the backseat of our car, the first time I heard the song “S&M” by Rihanna. I’m sure you can probably imagine their shock as they stammered out a vague response about self-expression, which didn’t leave me any less confused or curious.

Fast forward to Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s joint performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, where I, along with about 10.1 million other people in the U.S., watched Miley’s untraditional dance moves on live TV.

At the time, I remember one having distinct thought: what happened to Hannah Montana? The woman on my TV screen, twerking in a nude latex bra and underwear, was definitely not the same person who sang “Best Of Both Worlds.”

Sometime between hearing “S&M” and watching the VMAs, I came to the realization that the overwhelming majority of popular music in the United States is about sex. According to professor Dawn R. Hobbs from the University at Albany, 92% of the 174 songs that made it into the Billboard Top 10 in 2009 were about sex.

Then I thought about it some more. While the general subject of Rihanna’s songs wasn’t anything groundbreaking in pop culture, my parents’ car wasn’t the only place where her music cued uncomfortable conversations in 2011. Due to her provocative lyrics, many defined her career as smutty or trashy. The result was widespread censorship: the music video for “S&M” was banned in 11 countries and restricted on YouTube. Some radio stations wouldn’t play it until after 7pm, and would change the name from “S&M” to “Come On.” But I also thought about other popular music I was familiar with. In 2002, Nelly released the song “Hot in Herre”, and a year later, R. Kelly came out with “Ignition (Remix)”; in 2013 Jason Derulo released the song “Talk Dirty”, featuring 2 Chainz. If you’re familiar with these songs, you’d know that none of them are exactly Disney-Channel appropriate, and neither are their music videos. In the video for “Hot in Herre”, there are aspects of sex and sexual dancing, but no actual nudity or actual pornography, and it’s the same for “S&M”. However, Nelly’s career would never be characterized like Rihanna’s. Why? The reason is gender.

When female artists release sexual music, they are met with controversy and scandal, resulting in censorship that male artists wouldn’t have to face. This is because there is a huge double standard between male and female artists, which dictates that women don’t have the freedom of owning their sexuality in the same way that men can. Why type of message does that send to women and girls?

It’s a double standard that we’ve all probably furthered ourselves. When we brush off Rihanna’s music as inappropriate, we’re not consciously doing so because she’s a woman, but because her songs have a sexual nature. However, this reaction is not one that male artists like Nelly are met with. So, when we see Rihanna’s music as inappropriate, we’re feeding into the idea that sexual music by female artists is somehow worse than that of men.

The harsh criticism that female artists are subject to is not only directed towards their music, but also their performances. Take the 2013 VMAs for example. After Miley’s performance with Robin Thicke, Twitter with negative responses. A Twitter post recapping the VMAs said that Cyrus’ performance spurred a massive wave of 306,100 tweets per minute. In comparison, the Super Bowl blackout in 2013 hit a peak of 231,000 tweets per minute. However, as stated in an article from Relevant Magazine, little attention was paid to Robin Thicke’s involvement. Whereas he emerged relatively unscathed in all of the media attention, Cyrus was met with hundreds of articles and posts expressing outrage over her actions. According to Cyrus in an interview with US Weekly, Thicke was entirely cognizant of the outrageous nature of the performance beforehand, and even played a part in picking out her wardrobe. He said he wanted her “as naked as possible, because that’s how his video was.” However, despite the fact that he was fully aware of what was to come, he wasn’t the one breaking down one of the largest social media platforms in the world.

I eat, sleep, and breathe music, but personally, Miley is not my artist of choice. I don’t believe that all music should be a slap-in-the-face statement about sex, or that women should have to expose their bodies to get as many views, sell as many albums, or be as far ahead as their male counterparts. But male and female performers should be held to the same standards and given the same freedoms of expression.

And if Beyoncé thinks so, then you should too.

The singer was interviewed by Out Magazine after the release of her fifth album, which the interviewer denoted as her most sexually liberated project. In response, Beyoncé shared how “There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality. There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy. You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist—whatever you want to be—and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.”

Now you’re probably thinking: why does this matter to me? I’m not exactly Beyoncé? Well, music plays a role in the daily lives of everyone. Whether you listen to it in the car on the way to school, or you’re already preparing to audition for Berklee College of Music, it’s everywhere. As Beyoncé noted, sexual liberation is healthy and imperative to the identities of girls and women, and we need exposure from role models in the media to understand and embrace that. If we stop stigmatizing messages of female sexuality, maybe we will hear the empowerment within them, and find the strength to end this form of social oppression. We need to empower women to believe that they have the right to own their sexuality as men do. And if you’re looking to challenge this double standard, which I hope you are, just remember:

WWBD: What Would Beyoncé Do?