Carr on Culture: Feminism shines through masculine lyrics

by Mary Kate Carr / Beacon Correspondent • January 20, 2016

Last year saw the rise (again) of Justin Bieber. He evolved from a petulant, spoiled teen star to a triumphant King of Pop. You can’t turn on a station on the radio without hearing “Sorry” or “Love Yourself.” The same group of people who would scoff at Bieber’s old music will loudly tell you that his new album Purpose is “fire.”

I’m interested in pop music and how it affects culture and feminism, and Bieber is no exception. Viewed through a feminist lens, some of his most popular recent singles give interesting insight into different types of modern relationships.

The single “Love Yourself,” co-written by Ed Sheeran, drew my attention first. One line from the song stuck out to me: “My mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone.” It seemed like a particularly cruel and manipulative line, but listening further, I realized it as a whole is about escaping from an abusive relationship.

The song lists several warning signs of abuse to look for in a significant other: if your family doesn’t like them; if they attempt to isolate you, “you told me that you hated my friends;” if they gaslight you, “every time you told me my opinion was wrong.” This partner made the singer “feel small,” “[feel] so low when I was vulnerable.” The track acknowledges how hard and how horrible it is to be in an emotionally abusive relationship, but it’s also a triumphant send-off, telling the abuser to go “love” themselves.

I realized this was the first time I’ve ever heard a frank and honest depiction of an emotionally abusive relationship on pop radio. Although a lot of the genre is about love gone wrong, our culture tends to glorify abusive relationships such as Twilight’s Edward and Bella, or Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anastasia and Christian Grey. I think it’s particularly notable that Bieber has a historically large female fanbase. “Love Yourself” has an important message that’s now reaching millions of young women around the world. I hope those people listening can recognize the signs of a bad relationship and identify them in their own lives.

What’s particularly interesting about this song is that it’s written from a male perspective. Bieber singing about being a man in an abusive relationship articulates a struggle that’s rarely publicized in pop culture. We’ve seen similar public incidents—Chris Brown and Rihanna’s widely-reported relationship, or the violence depicted in Eminem’s songs, for example. However, the toxic masculinity so prevalent in our society often forces us to turn a blind eye when someone of the male gender is suffering abuse. It’s the reason that stories like Emma Roberts’ domestic abuse of Evan Peters gets swept under the rug: Public perception is that boys don’t experience abuse the way girls do. My idea of feminism concerns all survivors of abuse, including young men. It’s refreshing to see this acknowledged in such a public forum.

“Sorry,” which I admit is one of my favorite songs of the year, however, is in contention/inconsistent with the album’s largely positive lyrics. The narrator of this song employs emotionally abusive techniques, such as gaslighting. The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines gaslighting as “an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity.” In “Sorry,” Bieber trivializes his partner’s feelings (“You gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty”) and “counters” their feelings by bringing up the partner’s own lack of “innocence.” Another sign of gaslighting, also according to the hotline, is if “You’re always apologizing to your partner.” Though “Sorry” is supposed to be Bieber’s apology, he somehow flips things back on his partner: “Can we both say the words and forget this.”

Unfortunately, these tactics don’t seem to be portrayed in the same negative light as they are in “Love Yourself.” I can’t presume to know Bieber’s intentions in creating these starkly contrasting singles. I can say that it presents a complicated picture for those of us hearing these songs ad nauseam on the radio. “Love Yourself” firmly decries its subject, yet “Sorry” seems to celebrate the singer’s disingenuous apology. As is the nature of pop music, it can be hard to discern toxic messages from a great tune.

As a feminist, I believe we should be conscious and critical of the media we consume, even if it’s media we love. I enjoy Bieber’s new songs, but I also acknowledge they portray both sides of a toxic relationship—abuser and abused. I hope those of us in relationships will be just as wary of someone like the narrator of “Sorry” as they are of the person depicted in “Love Yourself.”