A Bechdel Test for Heteronormativity in Popular Music
We have all most likely heard of the Bechdel-Wallace test, which is often used as a way to gauge sexism in media… but did you know that the Bechdel-Wallace test can also shed light on heteronormativity?
(Note: The test is commonly referred to as just the Bechdel test, but Bechdel herself has stated she prefers “Bechdel-Wallace” to acknowledge Liz Wallace’s role in conceiving of the test.)
Alison Bechdel, the creator who originally popularized the Bechdel-Wallace test, is an artist and author who draws cartoons depicting everyday life as a lesbian.
In the context that her comic strips are about being lesbian, the Bechdel-Wallace test becomes not just about seeing women represented in movies, but about a story meeting the bare minimum for a lesbian to be able to see herself in it.
A majority of media sends the implicit message that boys like girls and girls like boys. This messaging is called heteronormativity.
As a result of heteronormative messaging, children often internalize the idea that if they’re a girl, they must like boys, and vice versa. This means that children who are not straight may not have language to describe their experiences, or may struggle to understand why they feel differently from other children.
This is one reason why representation that does not revolve around the opposite gender is so crucial, especially for women, since it is known that many popular movies do not portray women outside of their relationships with men.
Looking at popular music in particular, what is a litmus test that can be used to gauge how heteronormative popular music is as a whole?
The checklist I settled on to see if non-straight people can relate to a song in terms of sexuality is:
- The song mentions something to do with sexuality in the lyrics (romance and/or sex), as well as one of the two below:
- It does not explicitly or implicitly specify the gender the singer is attracted to (allowing for a listener of any sexuality to project their own experiences onto it),
- or it explicitly or implicitly specifies that the speaker is attracted to the same gender (exclusively or not).
This means that a song “fails” if it is about romance and/or sex and specifies that the speaker is attracted to the opposite gender. Failing does not make a song problematic on its own, but if a disproportionate amount of songs fail, it would indicate high levels of heteronormativity in popular music.
Using this framework, I analyzed the lyrics of the Billboard Top 25 from 2012, which is 10 years ago and also around the time I personally first started having feelings of same-gender attraction as a child, as well as the Billboard Top 25 for this week (the week of May 14, 2022), in order to compare levels of heteronormativity.
Out of the Billboard Top 25 from 2012, 23 songs involve sexuality somehow in their lyrics, or 92%. The two exceptions, if you’re wondering, are Lights by Ellie Goulding and Good Feeling by Flo Rida.
Of those 23, 56% fail based on lyrics alone. Some that pass based on lyrics would fail if the test took the music video into account, such as Payphone by Maroon 5, so 56% is a rather low estimate of the songs that are explicitly heterosexual in some way or another.
The other 44% are for the most part songs about love that do not specify the gender of the subject, with the fun exception of Starships by Nicki Minaj, which I gave a pass for the line “Fuck who you want and fuck who you like.”
While the pass rate is rather good on paper, none of the passes make even a reference to same-gender attraction, unless you count the above line from Starships. The songs either specify heterosexuality or do not specify at all, which makes the popular music of 2012 quite heteronormative overall.
As for the top 25 for this week (week of May 14, 2022), 22 out of the 25 involve sexuality in the lyrics, a very similar number to 2012. Out of those 22, 59% are explicitly heterosexual, which leaves a 41% pass rate.
The numbers look almost exactly the same as 2012 at a glance, but there is one key difference: some of the passes are explicitly about same-gender attraction! A notable example is Lil Nas X’s THATS WHAT I WANT.
Even if the number of heterosexual love songs at the top of the charts has stayed stable, the addition of explicitly gay love songs makes a big difference in shifting the balance of heteronormativity in popular music compared to only having either straight or neutral songs.
(Just for fun, I also analyzed the top 25 most played songs in my own library. Only 12 of the 25 involved sexuality in the lyrics at all, which is a significant difference from the most popular music; of those 12, only 33% are explicitly heterosexual, but the rest are gender-neutral love songs and make no mention of same-gender attraction. Try it on your own library and see what you find!)
Since there were such high levels of heteronormativity around and before 2012, I learned as a child that I must like boys and not girls, and it took a long time to unlearn this as I grew older and had experiences that contradicted it. While this message is still overall strong in popular music today, there is also an alternative presented, and being aware that there is an alternative to being straight is key for non-straight kids to reach self-understanding and thus self-acceptance. I’m glad that artists like Lil Nas X are getting recognition nowadays so that young people today can have a better chance at learning boys don’t all necessarily like girls and vice versa.