Rape Culture In Our Pop Culture: Bieber’s ‘What Do You Mean’

Unless you live under a rock (or maybe just on Newton), you’ve probably heard Justin Bieber’s new song, “What Do You Mean.” The response to the track has been overwhelming—it reached number one on the iTunes chart faster than any single ever released. Before the Howard game last weekend, it was played at least eight times at one Mod’s tailgate.

Undoubtedly catchy, the lyrics have raised questions from major news outlets about its implications on rape culture. From, “What do you mean / When you nod your head yes / But you want to say no,” to, “When you don’t want me to move / But you tell me to go,” Biebs implies that he can consent for the woman in question because he already knows what she’s thinking, despite her clearly stating otherwise.

In an op-ed for the Huffington Post titled “How ‘What Do You Mean’ Promotes Rape Culture,” Barnard student Sofia Lyons wrote, “The lyrics perpetuate the idea that unwanted advances or sexual misperceptions are at the fault of the woman because she wasn’t clear about her intentions or a man thought she wanted it because she couldn’t ‘make up her mind.’”

Lyons isn’t wrong. Explicit consent is paramount, especially on college campuses. And there’s no denying Bieber’s song is about sex, when later in the song he croons, “Wanna argue all day / Making love all night.” Digging himself in deeper, Bieber also gives the girl a time crunch, “Said we’re running out of time / What do you mean / Better make up your mind.” It feels like a threat.—what happens if she doesn’t make up her mind?

But this argument isn’t a new one. The song came out almost a month ago, and Bieber even performed it in August at the VMA’s.  What’s noteworthy here is that no one seemed to care. It has maintained its number one spot on iTunes, and is still hugely popular on campus. So are these undertones worth caring about?

When asked what the song is about, Bieber told Ryan Seacrest, “Girls are often just flip-floppy … They say something and they mean something else.” What Bieber is implying is that boys have the right to decide what girls are actually thinking, even if it isn’t what they say. It is no longer ambiguously implied in the song, as he clearly states his intentions.

Perhaps worst of all is the music video. It starts with Bieber giving a wad of cash to a gangster. Bieber then goes to a motel room, where he spends the rest of the video trying to have sex with a former Victoria’s Secret model, a girl who is unhappy with the volatile nature of their relationship. Interspersed between love scenes of the couple are depictions of Bieber’s girlfriend lying dejected beside him in bed, implying that she is less than thrilled about his sexual advances.Eventually, it seems, she agrees, but only after they’re kidnapped by the Scream villain and brought to a rave party at a skate park.

While the story arc in the video makes no sense, the implications of a rape culture couldn’t be clearer. In an interview with Ellen Degeneres, Bieber tells her that the song was about “women in general.” Apparently all women are to blame, not the threatening, sex-crazed Bieber.

Bieber’s ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez also has a single out,  “Good for You.” The lyrics are undeniably anti-feminist, about wanting to dress up for a boy so he will want her. “Gonna wear that dress you like, skin tight / Do my hair up real, real nice / Cause I just wanna look good for you.”

These are horrible messages to be sending to both women and men in regards to their expectations of women. These songs suggest that someone can decide for a woman what she is thinking, regardless of what what she says, and what she should wear. What is this, some sort of awful ’50s nightmare?

College campuses are perhaps the most in-touch with and influenced by pop culture than any other environment.  What does it say about BC students’ notion of relationships if they’re so obsessed with this song? Even Bieber has made the intentions of the song clear, so are we just ignoring the lyrics? Or is it actually seeping into our subconscious?

Featured Image by RBMG