Boys just wanna be boys: how Charli XCX’s ‘Boys’ music video refashions masculinity— for the better
Children like to ask me weirdly intrusive questions.
“Derek, why is your voice like that? Are you a girl?” a seven-year-old asked me as I helped him complete his multiplication tables, his youthful naiveté lighting up his face.
“Derek, why are your nails painted? Are you a girl?” the same seven-year-old asked me the day after.
I choose not to be offended by these questions. Children are blank slates of socialization, and their frank questions are simply a reflection of what they’ve been taught: that a man shouldn’t paint his nails, or that a man should look or act a certain way. Masculine representation in kid’s media is limited to Beauty and the Beast’s belligerently misogynistic Gaston and Hannah Montana’s manipulative Rico Suave.
Media is a tool of socialization
From these forms of media, we have been taught from a young age that boys don’t cry — that feelings are a female thing. For generations, this mindset has had repercussions on manhood, reinforcing toxic masculinity, a cultural ideal of masculinity characterized by “a drive to dominate and by endorsement of misogynistic and homophobic views.” New York Times writer Maya Salam elaborates on this drive to dominate, characterizing toxic masculinity as a set of behaviors like “suppressing emotions or masking distress,” “maintaining an appearance of hardness” and using “violence as an indicator of power.”
Music videos have only built upon this idea of toxic masculinity: that men are macho, heterosexual, aggressive machines of strength, and that women should be treated as objects of the male gaze. The 2004 music video for “My Band” by D12 uses women as accessories to the hypermasculine Eminem that makes girls “want to take off their underpants.” More recently, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” music video reinforces the idea of the “universal woman” that is submissive to a man’s sexual cravings.
Media representation is improving — maybe
In recent years, however, music videos have evolved to accommodate newer representations of gender that are markedly less problematic — namely, the Charli XCX “Boys” music video.
The music video presents multiple scenes of male celebrities indulging in activities that are either associated with femininity or poke fun at the seriousness of masculinity.
In one scene, rapper Aminé exudes a cheery grin as he dons a pink shirt and bites his lip. In another scene, electronic musicians Flume and A.G. Cook stare seductively into the camera as they pore over a stack of millennial pink books.
All in all, the music video is comprised of sixty scenes from sixty men, all of whom represent varying versions of masculinity with respect to their backgrounds, their careers, and their music video actions. In this way, Charli XCX’s “Boys” music video is disobedient, defying the industry standard for “eye candy” by providing a parody of hyper sexualization in its representations of conventionally attractive, shirtless men.
When the music video first came out, it achieved instant Internet virality. Flurries of news articles came out praising the “video hunks.” Vice released a ranking of every boy in the music video. Viewers worldwide took to social media to express their infatuation with the music video’s sensual portrayal of masculinity.
There is not much scholarly research on this topic, though many pop culture critics have hailed the music video as a revolutionary force in conversations around masculinity. Pitchfork writer Michelle Kim describes the music video as a “slideshow of alternative masculinity” that “could be seen as a dreamy respite from toxic masculinity.” However, she acknowledges many of the criticisms behind the music video: that many people featured in the video have a problematic past and that the music video focuses predominantly on the more conventionally attractive, muscular white stars.
There is ambiguity in whether these representations of toxic masculinity are as earth-shattering as some social media users have framed it out to be.
In discussions of the music video for Charli XCX’s “Boys,” many praise the artist for shattering normative gender roles and presenting a new vision of masculinity.
On one hand, some argue that XCX is destroying toxic masculinity by showing men that are vulnerable, emotional and authentic. On the other hand, some argue that this may be a problematic representation of men in that it views them through an objectifying lens.
In an article titled “Boys will be boys: Dismantling traditional masculinity through the female gaze in Charli XCX’s ‘Boys,’” The Mary Sue writer Jenny Cheng describes the look at a “refreshing look at masculinity.” Cheng acknowledges that while the music video does feature scenes like a shirtless Cameron Dallas “in all his macho glory,” “it also shows men performing what are usually seen as feminine activities… having pillow fights, peering seductively into the camera, taking care of babies, washing dishes, and erotically eating food.”
The issue is what these visual representations of masculinity say about masculinity and whether they’re upholding or breaking down the normative gender roles that glue masculinity together.
In a broader context, the music video subverts traditional notions of masculinity by presenting men as the object — an albeit happy, carefree object — shattering cultural ideals of toxic masculinity in the process and rebuilding it into a new masculinity.
What is Toxic Masculinity?
The word “toxic” comes not to describe men, but rather our cultural constructions of manhood. “Toxic” describes the faults that arise when we hold men to a different standard of accountability for their actions and emotions. It helps to explain why American men were 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide compared to women. It also helps to explain why “67% of men report that they feel more than they express, with 40% of 18–24 year olds reporting that they cried in the past week and 64% of respondents expressing surprise at how much emotion they experienced with their first born child.”
Thus, toxic masculinity helps to explain the puzzling phenomenon of manhood in modern society, providing a socialization-based explanation of the predominantly negative aspects of manhood.
Of course, this idea has faced massive pushback among more conservative communities, which proclaim that “toxic” is not an adequate descriptor of masculinity and that the term seeks to corrupt traditional gender roles.
Ross Douthat, a conservative political analyst at the New York Times, attests that “When I look at the sewers of misogyny or the back alleys of ‘bro’ culture, I mostly see men in revolt against both feminism and our culture’s older images of masculine strength and self-possession, not men struggling to inhabit the latter tradition, or live up to its impossible/immoral demands.” By Douthat’s logic, “toxic masculinity” is an inaccurate way of describing masculinity because it’s a false cultural ideal and stereotype — and that the crusade against toxic masculinity is an “all-out attack on men.”
However, it is important not to lend too much legitimacy to the backlash against toxic masculinity: in the field of gender studies, the term is widely accepted as a way to describe the forms of socialization that teach men to be emotionally stunted, aggressive, misogynistic and violent. From anecdotal evidence that confirms the existence of strict cultural expectations of manhood — we are told from a young age that we should “man up,” or that “boys don’t cry” — to research that confirms the sobering mental effects of toxic masculinity, the negative role that toxic masculinity plays in our society has become increasingly clear.
The discourse surrounding toxic masculinity seems to be around the space that men should occupy in a post-patriarchal society — whether masculinity needs to be reformed for the better, or whether it is fine as is. In the context of male representation in media, toxic masculinity is best embodied through macho, unnecessarily aggressive straight male caricatures and hyper-sexualized females that are portrayed as objects.
Is Toxic Masculinity Changing?
If toxic masculinity is perceived as something that must undergo a transformation, the resulting product is a “new masculinity” that many gender studies theorists propose as an affirming, positive representation of masculinity that can be achieved through reforming our definitions of what it means to be a man.
This idea of a “new masculinity” was first brought to the forefront of popular culture through GQ’s 2019 Issue titled “The New Masculinity,” in which they profile cover star Pharrell Williams on his evolving masculine expression and envision the future of the men’s fashion. The issue is opened up with a letter from editor-in-chief Will Welch, who coins this new masculinity as “an exploration of how we can all become more generous, honest, open, and loving humans — especially if we rebuild masculinity on a foundation of traits and values like generosity, honesty, openness, and love.”
“This issue is an exploration of the ways that traditional notions of masculinity are being challenged, shifted, and overturned. It’s also intended as an exploration of how we can all become more generous, honest, open, and loving humans — especially if we rebuild masculinity on a foundation of traits and values like generosity, honesty, openness, and love.“ — Will Welch
In an article of the issue titled “Voices of the New Masculinity,” Nora Caplan-Bricker interviews fourteen people on where they see masculinity heading: on one hand, queer comedian Jaboukie Young-White reflects positively on one aspect of his masculinity:
“Just being sure of yourself. Getting to a point where you can take care of yourself so well that you can also be of service to others” — Jaboukie Young-White
In the same article, journalist Thomas Page McBee reflects on how he “figured out how to be the man I am… I listen more, I talk less, and I hug other men — even my uncle.” NBA star Kevin Love is also featured in the article, where he reflects on “suffering silently” and concludes that “showing that vulnerability, to me that’s super cool… we’re supposed to be emotional.”
These anecdotes of a newly reformed manhood represent a subversion of traditional masculinity where warmth, emotional expression, and vulnerability are encouraged, not discouraged. Gender studies scholar Ashley Elmore builds upon this “new masculinity” in “The New Man and the New Lad: Hegemonic Masculinities in Men’s Lifestyle Magazines,” in which she draws from the socializing power of media to bring attention to a new masculinity materializing as a result of media representations of men changing: “the readers of Playboy embrace the new man role to a large extent in their political views and the ‘theoretical’ ideas about gender. Playboy men are able to find peace with their roles as new men not because of their financial power, as in GQ, but by their sexual power.” Elmore’s point supports the existence of GQ’s new masculinity in which a man is comfortable in his own masculinity, as opposed to helplessly squeezing into a distorted version of masculinity.
In this reformed manhood presented by GQ in their “New Masculinity” issue, we find male figures that defy our strict traditional notions of what it means to be a man: Pharrell, a Black man that loves “working through thorny ideas about the patriarchy”; Jackson Wang, a Korean pop star that views makeup as a reflective form of art; Jonathan Lyndon Chase, a Philadelphia painter that explores the intersection of Black and queer identity in his works.
However, many express skepticism at the existence of a new masculinity, arguing that toxic masculinity is embedded in every structure of power. George Lachmann Mosse disputes that “The recent youth culture continues to thrive side by side with normative masculinity, but there are as yet few signs that it will triumph over the needs of traditional society… The importance of modern masculinity as part of the cement of modern society makes the manly ideal difficult to defeat.”
In this manner, the extent to which masculinity has progressed from “toxic masculinity” towards “a new masculinity” is ambiguous: to what extent is it performative or superficial? Mosse’s research is an implicit rejection of the new masculinities presented by Elmore and GQ, but it also presents new theories on the solidified grasp that the patriarchy holds on society and its institutions.
Regardless, the GQ issue presents an unfamiliar, nuanced masculinity that is distinct from representations of manhood in magazines from the early 2000’s. In the same way, we can dissect the “Boys” music video to narrow down its take on modern masculinity.
Thinking ‘bout “Boys”
The premise of the “Boys” music video is straightforward: boys are filmed doing boy things. But what does “boy things” entail? In this sense, the “Boys” music video presents new visions of masculinity, challenging notions of what it means to be a man through depictions of unfettered male happiness.
“I was busy thinking about boys… boys… boys…” croons XCX throughout the hyperpop song. Juxtaposed with these blunt lyrics, the music video presents museum-like exhibits of masculinity. In the video, the celebrity men each have their own unique action, set and wardrobe, but they are cohesive in their themes of unearthed femininity and defying gender norms.
In one such exhibit, singer and former child actor Joe Jonas seductively pours syrup onto a stack of pancakes while dressed in a velvet bathrobe. Color plays an integral aspect, as well: he eats the stacks of pancakes on a millennial pink table, and sits in front of a millennial pink wall. The sexual tension of the scene is overstated, providing a humorous parody of sexual representations of men in media. He maintains a suggestive grin throughout his scene, providing a parallel to sexualized depictions of women eating food.
In a similar — but not exact — manner, fast food chains like Carls Jr have infamously used women as a marketing vehicle to increase the consumer value of their foods, most notably for their burger named the “Slutburger,”
Thus, Jonas’s exhibit is far more than a simplistic clip of a man eating; rather, it is a tacit role reversal of these mass marketing tactics that place women at the center of the male gaze. Instead, Jonas is repositioned as the sexual object, eating his pancakes invitingly and objectifying himself.
Likewise, Jonas grins alluringly after gorging on his pancakes — combined with the uniquely feminine color scheme of the scene, his facial expressions reveal a rejection of traditional norms around masculine emotional expression that dictate what emotions are or are not suitable for men to openly express.
In another exhibit, “We Don’t Talk Anymore” singer-songwriter Charlie Puth sits gloatingly in front of a semi-washed car covered in mountains of soapy foam. Clad in a beige floral shirt, he rests on the foamy black car — this is an intriguing portrayal of male immaturity, supported later by a scene of Puth wringing out a sponge onto his body. At the end of the music video, he squints his eyes and chuckles when the sponge is thrown onto his face.
These representations of Puth dually challenge the gendered space of car washing as well as gender pressures that force men to be stern and unsmiling in their facial expressions. In many ways, this exhibit substitutes the man as the innocently sexual object, putting forward the idea that men, too, can be giddy, cheery and objects of the human gaze.
In 2018, a car wash station in Melbourne, Australia came under fire for explicitly using female nudity to market their car washing services. Linked to a local strip club, Kittens Car Wash employed women to dress up in bikinis and wash cars. Its discourse in popular culture confirms the hyper-sexualization of women in the car-washing sphere, which is implicitly overturned by the scene of Charlie Puth washing cars in the “Boys” music video.
In another exhibit, African-American hip hop artist Khalid is bombarded with a splash of color when two dogs — one a bright turquoise, the other an effervescent magenta — are brought into his arms. He dons a tie dye bubblegum pink shirt with a similarly-shaded background. His smile is infectious: as the puppies lick his face, he leans in and grins widely, openly appreciating the canines’ presence.
This exhibit is indicative of a new masculinity in which men freely express their emotions, connecting it to a larger trend in which men are unafraid to cross the strict border lines of femininity. Rather, Khalid is more masculine than ever in this scene because he embodies this “New” masculinity, a man that openly rejects the aggressive machine of masculinity and instead exudes warmth, intimacy, authenticity and playfulness. His display of animal affection is quite motherly, rejecting traditional masculinity and refashioning masculinity into this “New Man” masculinity that accepts emotional expression from men.
“Boys” and its broader significance
In a broader sense, “Boys” is indicative of a larger cultural shift in which men are becoming more comfortable in their masculinities. In the age of the e-boy and gender-neutral dolls, the strict perimeters that govern gender are loosening up; “Boys” has infiltrated the mainstream to challenge our past cultural perceptions around gender.
By flipping the male gaze into the female gaze, the music video refocuses our cultural paradigms, allowing us to indulge in female pleasure as opposed to pandering to heterosexual male interests. Additionally, the music video’s representations of male happiness, emotional intimacy, and male objectification provide a stark contrast to the domineering nature of toxic masculinity that push men into a set of standards that restrict authentic expression— the Man Box.
Visual representations of masculinity suggest that there is a tangible metamorphosis of manhood. However, this brings up new questions about social media and its use of trends: are these male creators simply capitalizing on trends, rather than authentically pushing the boundaries of gender?
These critics have a point: toxic masculinity is not just skin-deep. Toxic masculinity exists in many structures of our society, from corporate America to police brutality. However, it is imperative that we realize the layered nuances of gender— that gender, at the surface, is about appearance, and when our norms around gender and appearance shift, that means that our definitions of “gender” are changing, albeit gradually.
As I’ve grown more comfortable with my identity as a feminine, queer Asian-American, I’ve also started to come to terms with the fluid nature of gender and gender identity. The boxes that we construct around genders are just that: our very own constructions. In the past few weeks, I’ve experimented with nail designs, feminine clothing (I look good in a crop top, okay?), and being emotionally vulnerable with my close friends.
As I rewatched the “Boys” music video over and over to write this final, I let out a soft — but tender — smile at the end of it all. I’ve come so far since high school, when I would speak in a deeper voice and repeatedly wear baggy hoodies to hide my insecurities. “Boys,” I’ve come to realize, is far more than just a museum exhibit of hot, shirtless guys: it’s a groundbreaking construction of a new man, a man that’s comfortable in his masculinity, his femininity, and everything in between— a man that I aspire to be.