Subtle Sexism: Bruno Mars’s “Just The Way You Are”

In an interview about his song “Just The Way You Are,” Bruno Mars assumes that all women crave compliments about their beauty. Even though he states in another interview that he “wasn’t thinking of anything deep or poetic” when writing his lyrics, I have not written about pop music in forever, so I will dedicate this post to deconstructing my dislike for “Just The Way You Are,” because the song makes female worth synonymous with physical appearance, and it implies that women should find self-acceptance through men, instead of themselves.

Well-intentioned sentiments that miss the mark. Image via http://www.azlyrics.com/.

Well-intentioned sentiments that miss the mark. Image via http://www.azlyrics.com/.

All humans should feel confident and safe within their own skins, and we should use our physical appearance as a self-esteem booster if we wish. However, unlike Mars’s lyrics imply, there is more to women – and men – than just the way they look. He states that “you’re amazing just the way you are,” but his compliments only focus on the woman’s “eyes [that] make the stars look like they’re not shinin’,” her “hair [that] falls perfectly without her trying” and her “smile [that makes] the whole world [stop and stare] for a while.” He addresses her eyes, her hair, her smile, and her face – what happened to her compassion? Her work ethic? Her athleticism? What about her personality? While this song creates a surface-level message of body positivity, it fails to delve deeper into how we should value ourselves for more than how we look, because contrary to what Mars assumes, perhaps women want to feel good about things other than just their beauty.

Bruno Mars, singing and playing the piano, while his love interest... sits. And watches. And acts abashed.

Bruno Mars, singing and playing the piano, while his love interest… sits. And watches. And acts abashed. Watch the music video for proof.

Why do some men think that women can only find their self-worth if we give it to them? Just like One Direction’s song “What Makes You Beautiful,” “Just The Way You Are” implies that women’s insecurity contributes to their beauty. While the lyrics sound well-intentioned, the music video shows this patriarchal standard to an extreme: the entire video fixates on a woman who acts coy and shy, while Bruno Mars draws her, serenades her, and plays the piano for her. Toward the end of the music video, the woman shakes her head while smiling, as if she still cannot believe what Mars sings to her – the video portrays her lack of confidence in a positive light. Why is it so hard to praise women who are aware of their attractiveness and who are actually able to articulate how much they love themselves, without a man whispering the reasons in her ear?  If pop music strives to empower, we should examine songs like these with a keener eye, because empowerment should not just come from others – it should also arrive from within the self.

As a male, I do not want to assume what women want. But, as someone who cares about his little cousin who’s entering the seventh grade in a few months, I feel that we should take a step back and think about what we hear on the radio sometimes. If my little cousin hears “Just The Way You Are,” I want to remind her that although she should feel proud of her appearance, she should also appreciate her advanced reading ability, her penchant for board games, and her artistic talent. If she listens to “Just The Way You Are,” I will tell her that she should always value and love herself – no matter what I or any other guy thinks.

Part of the birthday card my little cousin gave me! Look at that vocabulary. Also, ten points to whoever recognizes the allusion.

Part of the most recent birthday card my little cousin gave me. Look at that vocabulary. Also, ten points to whoever recognizes the allusion.

What do you guys think “Just The Way You Are”? Agree or disagree with my take? Are there any other songs or artists this post reminds you of? I know that my standards might be a little high, but Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” and John Legend’s “All Of Me” better articulate the idea of complete, selfless acceptance than “Just The Way You Are.” On a side note, if you want to read my thoughts on Mindset by Carol S. Dweck, Adam by Ariel Schrag, or Landline by Rainbow Rowell, you can do so here, here, and here respectively. Hope you are all have a wonderful week!

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25 Comments

Filed under Pop, Society

25 responses to “Subtle Sexism: Bruno Mars’s “Just The Way You Are”

  1. Omg yes definitely. I do like the song because it’s catchy, but that doesn’t mean I agree with it.

    In psychology we learn that men exhibit “benevolent sexism”, embedded in their minds thanks to society. That whole chivalry attitude that says “women need help with everything” and “maybe my opinion can make her day a little better so she should appreciate when I compliment her.” So y’all mean well, but aren’t thinking beyond a basic level. I think this is evident in the fact that Bruno Mars said that he wasn’t thinking of anything really deep, which means the song and this attitude just sprang from instinct.

    Ugh yes “What Makes You Beautiful” does get on my nerves though I’ve always disliked it. I think it’s worse than “Just the Way You Are” just because the lyrics are much more… blunt than the former. The first time I heard “YOU DON’T KNOW YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL” I was literally sitting in the car like “…except actually I do.” Then they go on to say that that shyness and self-doubt is what makes her beautiful which horrifies me. So what I grasp from it is that girls that are shy with low self-esteem are beautiful and loveable because the benevolent sexist macho man can fly in and sweep her off her feet and build her up from nothing and be her hero.

    • Yes yes yes I agree with all of this. I don’t think Bruno Mars is an outright sexist, but as you say, he and other men do exhibit “benevolent sexism,” showing that even well-intentioned people can get it wrong. Hopefully by pointing this behavior out to those who perpetuate it can stop short a harmful and annoying cycle. Also, yeah, I’m curious about who wrote that One Direction song – “What Makes You Beautiful” never clicked with me either and it’s sad that I didn’t really think about why until a few months ago. Thank you for the detailed and psychology-related comment!

  2. Beauty is fleeting. I crave compliments based on my mind. I think most girls do.
    http://www.awordofsubstance.wordpress.com

  3. Well said. A couple weeks ago my husband got home and I was all ranty about “men”. He asked if I’d been reading MRA sites. I laughed “nope, thanks to my hearing aids I’m hearing the words of the music I listen to”. My music taste are eclectic classical, folk, pop, rock, hard rock, Jewish, 1960s-present, a bit of everything. I’d spent a day listening to how:

    1. “men only go to work for women” umm really so men don’t need food, clothing, shelter, healthcare? This explains so much of American politics.

    2. Men need to be saved from marriage / ball & chain (no comment needed)

    3. They love us because of all the stuff we do for them (not how we make them feel or how doing stuff for us makes them feel)

    4. We should go back to them because of what they need (not because of what they could do for us)

    5. They want to buy our love (you know if they had a million dollars? I guess there is no other way to get a woman? Although based on the other songs maybe not?)

    6. I loved once and she broke my heart I will never will love again but hey sex, you should appreciate that I’m here for sex but I want you to give me everything (what’s wrong with this picture?)

    7. I taught you how to have sex (or had pity sex) you should be thankful to me (umm what? Seriously?)

    And of course there’s what you point out. My poor husband. I’ve gone back to listening to music without my hearing aid after deleting a number of songs and adding more instrumental music to my playlist.

    Sorry for the rant. I guess I’m still feeling a bit angry? Frustrated? Saddened? Wondering if girls/women will ever be seen as humans?

    I think guys need to start thinking about women as people, fellow human beings. We aren’t sidekicks/secondary characters in your story. We are protagonist in our own stories.

    • Ugh, yes, the lyrics in some songs definitely perpetuate unhelpful gender roles and stereotypes. It’s great that you’re cognizant of them though, and hopefully more people will strive to understand the music they listen to instead of just blankly accepting it. Although, you have a point that sometimes it is easiest to just listen to instrumental music. Hope ranting has alleviated some stress and thank you for reading and commenting!

  4. There’s a fine line between appreciating someone’s looks and only appreciating someone’s looks (and not anything else about them). I’m not really sure where this song falls for me, though you bring up some excellent points.

    On the one hand, I appreciate what Mars is trying to do here. I wish more women would just be happy with the way they look and stop trying to “fix” things that aren’t broken in the first place. The more insecure women feel about how they look, the less likely they are to participate public debate about anything. Which is why I also agree with you that this song is bad because it doesn’t focus on any reasons why women should be proud of themselves for anything else. And we have definitely created a society that praises women for being insecure and shy, which is ridiculous for all the reasons you’ve already explained.

    In the end, i don’t think I have a problem with this song on its own, because I do believe that women should be happy with how they look. My problem is that we only get songs like this. It’s kind of like race in Hollywood movies. Sure, it’s fine to have a POC be the bad guy in a movie – it’s not fine to only show POC as bad guys, or to have all bad guys be POC.

    • I totally respect your opinion about still appreciating the song and Mars’s attempt to praise women for their natural beauty. However, I also agree with what you say when you comment on how he only lauds women for their physical appearance – and it is unfortunate that we only receive these types of songs instead of more well-rounded ones. I love the analogy you include with POC antagonists because that is definitely another way to think of the issue. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  5. Great, great post Thomas. I’ve honestly never thought about “Just The Way You Are” in that light, but as I read your post, I couldn’t help but agree. It is, truthfully, a well-intentioned song as you said, but only manages to transmit its message in a shallow manner. Not just shallow, but in a way that it completely missed its mark.

    Again, fantastic post Thomas!

    -Grace 🙂

  6. Laras

    I’ve never attempted to deconstruct pop songs, but honestly I feel most pop songs these days are quite shallow. The quote you gave in itself expressed the lack of depth Mars put into the song, he would have never really intended the song to be sexist, he’s just living in this kind of society. I guess I see the song as quite intimate, a relationship for like minded men that are clumsy in their version of women empowerment (and metaphorically being hit in the head with the metal pan by your review, haha).

    • I see your point, Laras, though I think it is important that we examine pop songs because they can reflect sentiments held by a large amount of people in society. Even if they do have a tendency to be shallow or not thought-out, that doesn’t excuse them from examination – on the other hand, there are pop songs out there that do succeed in being empowering and meaningful, like Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper.” I’m glad you stopped by, thank you for reading and commenting!

  7. OMG people just sit back and enjoy a wonderfully romantic song. And all you women out there, I hope you have a guy that loves you so much he tells you how beautiful you are EVERY DAY. Too much time is wasted disecting everything these days.

    • My husband tells me how wonderful I am. All the time. Thankfully he doesn’t focus on just my body but on my mind and my actions. The wonderful conversations we have, the ways I challenge him, how he’s become more confident and capable since we got together, how life is more fun together. I have a true partner that sees me as more than just a beautiful body and who loves me very much. I hope you have a guy as wonderful as mine that shares in the housework and sees you as a full partner in life as well as loves you.

      • I have to agree with Tasha here, Christa. It’s wonderful to have someone who praises you for your beauty, but there’s so much more than too. Hopefully we all have people in our lives who appreciate us as three-dimensional human beings, worthy of love and capable of compassion.

  8. The Howling Fantogs

    I never really thought about it that way. I also can’t assume to know what women want, but even as a man, everytpone likes to be complicated on his they look every now and then, don’t they?

    • I agree, compliments about looks are fine and dandy every now and then, but there’s so much more to a person that just their appearance, and all of those other aspects deserve recognition and praise as well.

  9. This post was excellent, so spot on! ‘The video portrays her lack of confidence in a positive light. Why is it so hard to praise women who are aware of their attractiveness and who are actually able to articulate how much they love themselves, without a man whispering the reasons in her ear?’

    ABSOLUTELY.

    I think there are worse more derogatory songs about women out there, but this one’s more like a silent killer because it’s masked as being positive towards women when in reality it’s as bad as the rest of them. The One Direction one really gets me angry. You’re only beautiful if you don’t know your beautiful. Nice one guys. I also don’t like how it assumes that all women have low self-esteem and think less of themselves.

    Sure, beauty is what initially attracts us to a person, but really Bruno, you couldn’t rhyme in a few personality traits?

    • Love how you term it a “silent killer,” because that’s such an accurate phrase. Generalizing an entire gender is not cool and I agree that he could have at least attempted to incorporate a personality trait or two – he didn’t need to make the entire song an ode to the intellect, but as a songwriter I’m sure he could have striven for more if he wanted to. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  10. I had never given that much thought to this particular song before. Now that you point it out, I see how he only praises the girl for her physical attractiveness. I feel that in our society if a female accepts a compliment, such as: “you are pretty,” then she is viewed as “too” confident or “vain.” When in reality, everyone should be able to politely accept a compliment. Modesty is good, but when women are pushed to the extreme of never being allowed to accept a compliment about themselves, it becomes detrimental to their self esteem. On a side note, how do you feel about women giving men compliments? Do you feel that they are received in the same way? Thank you for your wonderful posts!

    • You raise a point I haven’t considered much – I agree that it’s difficult for women because in some ways they are taught to be modest to an extreme. Being humble is a good thing, but as you say, in excess it’s self-deteriorating. I don’t have any quantitative research at the moment to back this belief up, but I feel like for men it’s a little less of an issue. Of course men are taught to be humble and not too cocky, but at the same time being confident or at least not being self-deprecating is more accepted than it is for women. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  11. This is ridiculous. I agree with Christa. Enjoy the song. Most women, if they will be truthful, would love to hear a compliment about their looks especially from their man. He actually was complimenting the woman to not be so concerned about their looks because she is beautiful just the way she is. What do you want some type of psycho analytical song? Evidently, everyone loved the song because it became a best selling single and won Bruno Mars a grammy. Stop hating and go tell your woman how good she looks. If he wrote a song about personality, character and whatever else your little dissecting mind can come up with, you would have something negative to say about that. Despite what you think, women loved it and they love him as an artist.

    Barbara

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