What Do You Mean, Justin?

In recent years, Justin Bieber has become one of the world’s top celebrities with the expansion of his singing and modeling career. Beliebers (as Justin’s dedicated fans call themselves) keep up with all the latest news and gossip regarding Justin’s life, relationships, and, of course, the most current songs. When most fans think of this pop music icon, the words “handsome,” “sexy,” “stylish,” “friendly,” and “cool” may come to mind. However, “sexual predator” should possibly be added to this list of favorable words. When Justin Bieber released his hit single “What Do You Mean?” in 2015, it became the fastest single record to reach number one on iTunes (Lyons). Though a catchy beat, “What Do You Mean?” promotes rape culture through masculine dominance in the heterosexual relationship portrayed through the lyrics as well as contradictory actions and gestures throughout the music video.

Rape culture is a term coined in the 1970s by feminists in the United States as a tool to “show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence” (What is Rape Culture?). In her book Transforming a Rape Culture, Emilie Buchwald defines rape culture as “a complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women” (What is Rape Culture?). Though many view sexual assault and rape as predominately a masculine act that disproportionally affects women, as education has progressed, the belief has evolved to include the fact that it can happen to anyone regardless of gender identity. Along with the progression of sex education, the law has changed to encompass different aspects of sexual assault. Today, the law provides strict guidelines for the definition of rape, but rape culture has normalized this sexual violence in society through passively condoning rape. In terms of the law, lack of explicit verbal consent to any sexual act means that the sexual act is rape, which is a federal crime. However, pop culture often normalizes and victim-blames sexual violence through sexual objectification of women in music, movies, advertising, and TV shows.

Specifically exploring the lyrics of Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” reveals of the promotion of rape culture. From the beginning of the song and throughout the chorus, Justin Bieber asks “What do you mean?” then proceeds with, “When you nod your head yes, but you wanna say no. What do you mean?” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). Here lies the main problem in the lyrics: lack of consent. Though Justin uses this lack of consent to create sexual tension, it emphasizes women’s sexual indecision, which is a key component of rape culture. Rape culture simplifies this process of consent, letting one partner dominate the decision. Portrayed as the “good guy” on the surface level, Justin Bieber works to figure out what the woman actually wants. Just as Justin exemplifies, rape culture depicts the everyday, average guy as the “good guy” so that there is no way he could possibly be thought of as a rapist (Bridges, Pascoe).  This ideology can then lead to the perpetuation of “playing hard to get” in order to earn the affection of a potential mate.  The “game” of “playing hard to get” steers further into dangerous waters as it not only establishes the belief that “no” can equal “yes” in the journey of pursuit, but commends those who ignore consent. As non-verbal language becomes prioritized over verbal language, misinterpretation of meaning becomes more common, further promoting rape culture (Redkar).  This tactic and use of non-verbal cues contrary to verbal language becomes a key component of Justin Bieber’s music video subsequently discussed.

Later in the song, Bieber states, “you’re so indecisive of what I’m saying,” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). Not only does this statement not make sense grammatically, but it also adds a harsh stigma to female indecision. Often, this sense of indecision and hesitancy occurs in an uncomfortable or precarious situation as a personal warning sign to proceed with caution. In this situation, the woman experiences indecision due to Bieber’s dominant sexual actions as well as consistent pressure for her to make up her mind. Just like the woman in the music video, women are allowed to be indecisive about sexual activities and this indecisiveness should be a red light for their partner to let them have their space to figure out what they personally want to do. This does become dangerous, as Bieber exemplifies, when the partner takes it upon him or herself to determine what the other is thinking. Bieber’s lyrics make it seem that unwanted sexual actions or misinterpretations are the fault of the women because she was not clear what she wanted, adding “Better make up your mind” and “You’re so confusing” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). He pressures her into making a decision as “we’re running out of time” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber).  Though she clearly is sending him mixed signals about her true feelings, he forces her into a decision, once again telling her “Better make up your mind” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber).  Due to her indecision, Bieber makes the decision for her and assumes that since they’ve had sex before, she wants to have it again: “Wanna argue all day, make love all night” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). However, sex is not black and white, like Bieber depicts; people are allowed to engage in some sexual activities without going all the way to sex every time and to discontinue activities at any point. Further, in this lyric, Bieber sexualizes female aggression by linking arguing to sex, romanticizing a toxic relationship dynamic. This suggests that rather than being seen as mutually exclusive, conflict and intimacy are both key components of an ideal relationship. By normalizing violence and conflict within this idealized relationship dynamic, Bieber’s music video endorses another aspect of rape culture.

Justin Bieber’s music video for “What Do You Mean?” continues to promote rape culture by hiding the lyrical meaning through contradictory actions and gestures. The video’s broader narrative framework expands the meaning of rape culture, starting from the beginning of the music video. The scene of the video opens with a dark, stormy night as Justin Bieber and John Leguizamo stand outside a motel. Justin hands John money, making him promise “the girl won’t get hurt,” but John, handing Justin a lighter, replies, “you play with fire, you might just get burnt.” Later in the video, it is discovered that Justin is paying for the fake kidnapping of the woman he meets in the motel room and him. The screen then flashes to the motel room with a woman waiting as a clock begins ticking, immediately creating the tension and pressure surrounding the impending situation. The woman then answers the door to Justin, instantly sexually drawn to him. As the video progresses with on and off sexual intimacy between Justin and the woman, the tension builds. Soon after, they are both taken by men in masks, tied up, and driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car. At the warehouse, Justin is able to use the lighter, given to him by his kidnapper, to burn the ropes and escape. Here, they run to a door on one of the top floors, which leads to outside. As the pressure builds, the music suddenly stops; Justin holds out his hand and turns to her saying, “Trust me. Do you trust me? Take my hand.” Breathing heavily, she takes his hand and they jump out of the building, landing on huge air-pillows in the middle of a party. As the “kidnappers” take off their masks smiling, the woman discovers it was all a trick, grabbing Justin and kissing him as they begin to dance (JustinBieberVEVO).

From the beginning of the video, the woman is immediately sexually drawn to Justin Bieber, contrary to what the lyrics imply. The video content works to conceal the content of the lyrical connotations, a common theme in encouraging rape culture (Bridges, Pascoe). The woman does not appear to be bothered by Bieber’s demands and questions, going along with all he wants her to do and again acting contradictory to the lyrics. In the lyrics of the song, the woman seems unsure of her feelings as she “nods” her “head yes,” but she wants to “say no” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). However, the video makes it clear that she is sexual attracted to Justin and wants to be intimate with him as she immediately grabs him as he enters the motel room. Her actions make it appear as a normality for women to abide by the demands of a man, not questioning their own feelings or desires; masculinity is, therefore, equated with power in a heteronormative relationship.

The story line of the music video is a key element used to take away from the lyrical connotations and indecision. The broadened narrative throughout the music video does not at all tell the story of the lyrics from the song. The lyrics create this tension surrounding the pressure on the woman to be intimate with Justin and his frustration with her indecisiveness. However, Justin Bieber’s scheme throughout the video is just a test of her trust: a ploy to get her to make a decision about their relationship and to earn her trust so that she will have sex with him. This terrorizing view of romance, contrary to the rape culture influences, is not the way to go about love. Rape culture portrays violence as pleasurable and desirable in a relationship. This creates the view as the masculine figure in a relationship as the protector. Once again, equating masculinity with power.

Though a common cultural icon, Justin Bieber is a key contributor to the promotion of rape culture in society today. The lyrics to as well as the music video for his recent hit “What Do You Mean?” encourages masculine dominance and violence against women in heterosexual relationships through lyrical connotations, actors’ actions, and setting. Rape culture not only creates the problem of sexualized power within relationships, but supports heteronormative relationships. In a rapidly changing culture regarding gender and sexuality, this constructs yet another barrier to breaking down norms. Justin Bieber is just one example of the countless celebrities encouraging rape culture, further enforcing the monolithic ideology behind heteronormativity.


Works Cited

Bridges, Tristan, and C.J. Pascoe. “Pop Music, Rape Culture, and the Sexualization of Blurred Lines.” Feminist Reflections. The Society Pages, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.

JustinBieberVEVO. “Justin Bieber – What Do You Mean?” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Aug. 2015. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.

Levy, Mason, Jason Boyd, and Justin Bieber. “What Do You Mean? – Justin Bieber.” Google  Play Music. Warner/Chappell, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.

Lyons, Sofia. “How ‘What Do You Mean’ Promotes Rape Culture.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Sept. 2015. Web. 05 Sept. 2016.

Redkar, Nikita. “4 Reasons Why Telling Women to ‘Play Hard to Get’ Perpetuates Rape Culture.” Everyday Feminism Magazine. Everyday Feminism, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.