By Caitlin Lansing
John Legend’s “You & I (Nobody in the World)”
John Legend’s new music video for his song “You & I (Nobody in the World)” continues a recent trend – which will hopefully become a norm – of featuring “real” women.
Coming off the heels of the aerie Real campaign and coinciding with the premiere of Colbie Caillat’s “Try,” Legend’s video adapts a feminist trope for an audience previously underrepresented in the movement: heterosexual men.
Admittedly, my first thought upon watching this video was, “It’s great that Legend is joining the effort to represent diverse beauty, but are the images actually empowering women if they are attached to a song sung by a man claiming that a woman is beautiful? Isn’t that just continuing to put confirmation of female beauty in a man’s hands?”
I think my initial criticism was wrong.
While videos by women celebrating female strength and diverse forms of beauty are important, Legend’s video is a fantastic first step in breaking down the uninformed stereotype of feminism as a female-only goal to bring men down (see this potentially triggering blog, for example).
Legend’s adoption of a feminist agenda as a straight man clues other men into the ways they can understand and associate with the cause.
Whereas thousands of other music videos depict love relationships as between two traditionally attractive people, “You & I,” as a ballad, communicates to women that they are worthy of love simply because of who they are. This reveals a sad stereotype about romance in the media: that it can and should only happen between two conventionally attractive people.
Here, Legend states that romance is possible for women of all walks of life: those with disabilities and illnesses; who are transgender; who don’t wear a size 2. While Legend’s song might perpetuate the Disney-Prince-as-savior myth, he alerts the audience to the fact that men do have incredible – and even healthy – power to make women feel attractive.
He breaks down the idea that the “love interest” has to look a certain, all-too-familiar way.
This is a step towards changing men’s expectations about what the women in their own lives “should” look like.
Legend’s song affirms the goodness of telling a woman she is beautiful while awakening men to the possibility they have been taught a very narrow definition of what “beautiful” is. Legend has artfully leveraged his gender and sexuality to show his audience the harm of typical depictions of romance in media, and, in doing so, has communicated his support of feminism.
Caitlin Lansing is a 2014 graduate of Princeton University, where an adamant belief that “freak shows turned into beauty pageants” propelled her to write a 90-page history thesis about it. A former dancer and college cheerleader, she is no stranger to body scrutiny, and seeks to challenge the idea that one’s worth is intimately tied to appearance.
I just watched this video and, I don’t know. It portrays women and girls who appear to be looking at their own reflections in a worried way. Later in the video, we see some of them being hugged or kissed (by a lover or mother), as if to assure both them and us, the viewers, that they are worthy of love, however they look. Some of the women/girls are still alone, but have decided to smile at themselves. And some are still alone and looking anxious, like the woman with the wig and the little girl with the bow in her short hair. I suppose the video depicts a common human (though stereotypically female) experience — not knowing if we are good enough to be acceptable to others, and anxiously examining our own appearances to try to decide. I’m not sure how this experience is resolved in the video: even the runner is shown fixing her ponytail, as if none of us can really stop thinking about our external selves for long. I’m curious to know what other viewers think about the story and message here.
I actually really loved this video. What strikes me as being most significant is that women are framed *not only as love interests.* The song may have been written as a romantic ballad, but the video shows women being celebrated and loved as friends, mothers, daughters, sisters — and as professionals and athletes, too. The worried looks in the mirror are, I think, the video’s acknowledgement that women are harshly judged and that judgment sometimes makes it difficult for us to feel confident in our own bodies and actions. But the final images show women as less afraid and happier – and not because of validation by men. Yes, there’s a bride – but there are also daughters being hugged by moms, friends being together, and women walking into what looks like a big job interview. To me, this makes it clear that, even if a man is singing this song, the song and video are NOT fundamentally about men validating women. It centers the song in a much more powerful & positive way.