In a recent country song titled “Girl in a Country Song,” singers Maddie and Tae flip a giant switch titled “role reversal.” Suddenly, the girls in cut offs and fringed bikinis morph into out-of-shape men in atrocious outfits, thus supposedly turning the table on female subjugation. If the video’s YouTube viewership (more than 2 million hits and counting) is any indication, the concept strikes a chord.
Despite the popularity of the video, its execution left something to be desired. Slate tore it apart, which is easy enough to do. While the men turn into women, the women in bikinis remain. While the men in the song are accused of expecting women just to look pretty, Maddie and Tae don’t actually do anything that would prove the contrary.
But props for trying. In any case, a solid punch to gender norms is a tricky thing. It’s easy to say what it is not—it should be more than dressing farmer boys in short shorts for a music video. But is it the freedom to grab your crotch a lot like Jessie J in “Do it Like a Dude”?Could it be called a challenge to gender norms for a man to cover a woman’s song and maintain the female perspective, like Jack White does with Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”?
The jury is out. But there are examples of great gender reversal moments aplenty scattered throughout YouTube. Here are three of my favorites:
“If I were a Boy” / Beyoncé
When Beyoncé’s “Bow Down” came out, it caused waves. Not only because it’s a great song, but because she distorts her voice to sing some verses as a man.
However, Beyoncé’s first role reversal came much earlier. Her music video for “If I Were a Boy” not only features flawless use of the subjunctive, but is also one of the most well-executed gender reversals around. Beyoncé builds her case for a double standard subtly and convincingly. As a super hot cop, she kisses her husband on her way out to work, where her coworkers hit on her and the line between casual and inappropriate blurs. “Act like what?” Beyoncé tells her fictional husband. “Why are you so jealous, it’s not like I’m sleeping with the guy.” At that, the situation reverses. Her husband is now the cop and she’s the woman accused of irrational jealousy. We see that what was dubious with a female protagonist is everyday with a male. What works best about this video is that because it’s Bey, viewers are caught up in an uncomfortable tension between excusing her—after all, if she were my partner in fighting crime, I may hit on her too—and knowing that they may not cut other women they know the same slack.
“Oppressed Majority” / Eleonore Pourriat
Not a music video, but a short film, “Oppressed Majority” (originally “Majorité Opprimée”) throws you into an entire world where genders are reversed. It does so without warning—as you see women craning their necks to ogle men running by and a woman telling a man, “I should really be talking to your wife,” you begin to understand. The fact that benign scenes like a row of women hanging on a city bench or a man pushing a baby carriage seems so unusual is frightening.
The short film has fun with gender reversal in ways that seem distinctly French. For example: Female joggers run topless down the street. But it develops into something more serious, and the ending chills with its blend of the unthinkable and the familiar.
“Yoü and I” / Lady Gaga
If Maddie and Tae were going for a good gender-bender of a country song, the best place to take notes may be from Lady Gaga. In this video, Mother Monster serenades a dark haired man—who is none other than herself. Notorious for her costumes, Gaga makes for a very convincing man. The pairing of the two—female pop star and male alter-ego—puts a whole new spin on the song, taking it from a conventional romance to an anthem of self-discovery.
No girls in cut offs and bikinis there.