Justin Bieber, Abuse, and Rape Culture: Why Women Should Find His Music Videos Concerning

If you’ve checked social media recently, you probably noticed that Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video is everywhere. The catchy beat (thanks, Skrillex) and impressive dancing has made it highly talked about. And we agree- the “Sorry” video is totally awesome! However, after watching “Sorry” you might be tempted to scroll through Justin Bieber Vevo, and watch the music video for “What do you Mean” as well. That video hasn’t gone over as well with us at Her Campus Bryant. We actually find the video highly problematic for a number of reasons.

First of all, the lyrics have been criticized on various platforms for their potential inference towards rape culture. Even Girls star Lena Dunham had something to say about it.

The song contains concerning lines such as “What do you mean/ when you nod your head yes/ but you wanna say no.” The entire song revolves around a woman’s inability to stick to her decisions, including sexual choices (“Wanna argue all day, make love all night”). The song urges the woman to decide, saying “what do you mean? Better make up your mind.” The general tone conveys aggravation with her inability to decide, and a desire for her to change her ways. This is a setback for anti-rape campaigns that insist a woman has the right to say no to sexual advances at any time. This includes being able to say no to someone you’ve had previous relationships with, or originally consented to but then changed your mind. These kinds of sexual assault are especially prevalent on college campuses. Safety campaigns have stressed a woman’s right to say no, and the necessity to obtain clear and ongoing consent.

Unless, apparently, you’re Justin Bieber.

If the lyrics are problematic, the music video is even more disturbing. You can watch the video below, but we've summed up the important points so you don't have to.

We originally see Bieber handing a wad of money to a man outside of a motel, and receiving a lighter in return. You might assume that this is your typical shady drug deal, but you would be wrong. It is something much more bizarre, and potentially damaging. You next see Bieber in a motel room with a woman. First off- if he’s handing out giant wads of cash, can’t he afford to rent out a nice hotel room? This poor girl is probably going to wake up with bed bugs. Before long, we see Bieber and the woman engaging in some pretty intense sexual activities. Initially she is very receptive, but later pushes him away. Between the video and the lyrics in the background, we get the impression that this type of thing happens often. While we know that a women has every right to reject physical advances, Bieber clearly isn’t happy about it.

Suddenly, surprise, a bunch of guys in masks break into their room! They pull the Biebs out, kicking and fighting. They then turn towards this poor girl, drag her out of bed wearing nothing but her bra and underwear, and throw a bag over her head. You later see her and Biebs cuddling in the trunk of a car as their kidnappers drive them away. Apparently the fear of being kidnapped has made her forget how unhappy she was with him earlier. They are then tied up in a warehouse, where Bieber finds a way to free them. The bad guys bust through the door, and Bieber whispers “trust me” before taking the girl's hand and pulling her out an open door that leads to…

…an underground skateboarding party? Surprise! The “kidnappers” were friends that Bieber paid in what was apparently an attempt to make his girlfriend more sexually willing. The rest of the video is set at this party, where Bieber hangs out with friends, sings, and skateboards. His girlfriend, meanwhile, is still wearing nothing but a borrowed shirt over her underwear. Someone please get this poor girl some pants.

The concerning part is that between the fear and confusion of being kidnapped, tied up, and literally landing in the middle of a party, Bieber and his girlfriend seem to have settled all of their differences. They’re dancing and laughing together, and she doesn’t even seem to mind that he spends most of the party ignoring her. When you consider that going through dangerous or frightening experiences with a person can bring you closer together, this does make some sense.  

What we essentially have here is a girl who doesn’t know how she feels, and a guy who uses his money, status, and connections to gain the upper hand in the relationship. Among other things, two signs of an emotionally abusive relationship are domination and control, and using money to control your significant other. Emotional manipulation, being forced to stay with someone, threats, and having their power held over you are all components of an abusive relationship. Our problem with this music video is that it is romanticizing a very dangerous type of relationship. Domestic abuse is a serious matter- a poll by Glamour showed that almost 60% of young women have experienced abuse. 30% of women polled said that they had never been in an abusive relationship, but indicated abusive behavior. This shows that many women do not realize, or don’t want to admit, how dangerous their relationships are.

The girlfriend in the video is forced to undergo physical violence (being dragged out of bed while she fought off attackers) and emotional distress (the trauma of believing her life was in danger). And what was the reason for this? Because her boyfriend thought it would make her like him more? The people who love you are supposed to protect you. They aren’t supposed to let bad things happen to you- and they certainly aren’t supposed to hurt you on purpose.

While most collegiettes will never be fake-kidnapped by their boyfriends, manipulation in relationships is something many people will deal with at some point. So girls, don’t be fooled by fancy music videos. Being controlled isn’t cute or romantic- it’s abusive. It’s dangerous, and it’s a sign that you should get out as soon as possible.

For more information, check out the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline