Music Television (MTV) and the Effects of Sex and Violence

Sex, Violence, & Rock N’ Roll


      MTV (Music Television) just celebrated its 10th birthday recently and in its decade of existence has experienced some problems. MTV started strong but then lost steam; however, currently it has revitalized itself. Like many other forms of media, MTV has been under attack by parents, critics, researches, and the like claiming MTV’s content, sex and violence in particular, has detrimental effects on its viewers. It is this last concern which this paper addresses.



It was August 1, 1981, slightly past midnight when MTV launched onto the scene playing the video “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. With the immediate popularity of MTV, this video’s title seemed a self-fulfilling prophecy. MTV now chooses from more than 8,000 videos compared to only 600 in 1981 (“MTV Turns Ten,” 1991).

MTV was set up to boost the slumping music industry. Videos are essentially commercials for songs, which has turned into a useful way of marketing music recordings. Jhally (1990), a University of Massachusetts communication professor, claims that the writers and directors of TV commercials produce music videos also.

MTV extends to more than 50 countries including Europe, Mexico, Poland, Brazil, Australia, Soviet Union, Latin America, Asia, and Japan (Reynolds et al., 1991). MTV launched VH-1 (Video Hits-One), a station catering to older music fans, in 1985. MTV plans to divide itself into three channels in the next two years; each will play to different musical tastes (Leland, 1991).


MTV along with other music video stations attracts an audience of 21.5 million daily (Enos, Sandra, & Forsyth, 1984). So popular is MTV that when the Sammons Co., a cable company that provides service to several areas in the U. S., dropped MTV from its basic cable service, subscribers protested forming petitions and rallies forcing Sammons to restore MTV (“MTV Restored,” 1992).

MTV has created the new breed of a “visual pop star” (e.g. Boy George, Michael Jackson, and Madonna) (Leland, 1991). Rolling Stone (“MTV Turns Ten,” 1991, p. 71) reprinted a TV Guide article that noted MTV “helped create a new visual language, shaped fashion, defined a youth culture, and just may even have saved an entire industry [i.e. MTV changed the way music is made and consumed].”

Concerns about MTV Effects

Sexual and violent content

Conventional wisdom says that sex and violence sells. Since TV commercials use sex to get attention and link their product with pleasurable feelings; and since music videos are merely commercials, it comes as no surprise that MTV contains sex as well as violence. It is also no surprise that MTV, like many other media, has come under fire for its sex and violence.

By the time a young person graduates from high school, they have spent 12,000 hours in the classroom as opposed to 18,000 hours in front of the TV (Greeson & Williams, 1986). This statistic particular concerns researchers since MTV’s target audience lies in the 12 to 24 age bracket. It warrants the question, “What effect does MTV have on these young people?”


Public criticism has befallen upon rock music videos. In 1984, the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) argued that the sex and violence in music videos makes them “unwholesome” for young viewers; the American Academy of Pediatrics reinforced this opinion in 1988 (Hansen & Hansen, 1990). In 1985, the newly formed Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group led by Tipper Gore, made charges at a U. S. Senate Hearing that music videos contain too much sex and violence (Vincent, 1989). The PMRC forced the current record labeling law that now stickers certain “offensive” albums.


Research by Seidman (1992) found that two-thirds of MTV’s characters are male. While this only leaves one-third as females, he found that half of those females wore revealing clothes. Seidman also determined that males and females sustained their stereotypical roles as predicated by society.

A study by the NCTV of 160 hours of music videos concluded that viewers are exposed to an average of 18 instances of violence per hour (Kalis & Neuendorf, 1989). More than half of all music videos contain some violent act or crime.

Popularity of Sex and Violence


In a study by Hansen and Hansen (1990), subjects rated the music and visual content of music videos with high amounts of sex as the most appealing videos; however, videos with high amounts of violence decreased the popularity of both the music and the visual content. The judgment of the appreciation of the music was evoked from the added “excitation” of the visual images, which the viewer attributed to the music itself (Zillmann & Mundorf, 1987). The enjoyment of rock music videos may be judged by its components: rhythm, melody, lyrics, visuals, etc.

Hansen and Hansen (1990) found sexy videos to elicit happy or sexual feelings, while violent videos tended to increase feelings of fear, anger, or aggression. Males judged sexual videos more appealing than females (Zillmann & Mundorf, 1987).


Now it seems quite obvious why sexual content is utilized in videos. As terms such as “happy” and “pleasure” can affect the evaluation of a photograph; likewise a visual depicting sexual content, which is pleasurable, would affect one’s judgment of the whole (i.e. the video or music). The arousing music supplements the visual making it that much more pleasurable. Viewers come to associate the video with positive emotions and thus, enjoy it.

Pornography has always been a male-dominated industry, so it is quite logical that males enjoy sexual content more than females. In addition, MTV caters more toward men as they make up the bulk of rock music fans; consequently, they buy more albums.

The less popular nature of violent videos may extend from the fact that they elicit negative emotions such as fear and anger from the viewer. The arousing music may augment these negative emotions making one feel overstimulated and uncomfortable; thus causing subjects to dislike the video. Contrary to this explanation music videos’ producers still want to produce violent videos because many viewers seek out stimulating media content.

While it remains true that most individuals enjoy sex, it makes sense that sexy videos rank as the most popular. Since not all people enjoy violent content and since one cannot select the next video MTV will play, it makes equal sense that violent videos are less popular.


A Theory

Dreamworlds does not command “theory” status per se, but warrants many sound arguments for its use. Following an explanation of the basic premises of this “theory” based on researcher Jhally’s findings, from this point on it will be referred to as the “Dreamworlds Theory.”

Jhally (1990) refers to the world of music videos as a “male fantasy world;” a “sexual dreamland.” Jhally finds music videos portraying male sexual fantasies in a number of ways. He notes that the music video woman has certain attributes: (a) she is a nymphomaniac, (b) she needs substitutes for men [i.e. phallic symbol items (e.g. banana)], (c) she is miserable without her man, and (d) she takes her clothes off at the slightest excuse.

Jhally (1990) notices women (un)dressed in lingerie, leather and chains, or unusual but revealing clothes. He notes that many female artists seem forced to adhere to these “sex strategies” (e.g. Madonna, Samantha Fox, and Lita Ford).

Jhally (1990) further postulates that women must accept the position of an object to be admired and stared at. He continues noting that the camera angle helps meet these ends by shooting from below (i.e. looking up a dress), panning across a woman’s body, or focusing on only one body part.

To sum up, this Dreamworlds Theory explains the music video world for what it is: a land where male sexual fantasies run wild as imagined by rock videos’ producers.

Possible Effects

Jhally (1990) comes to the conclusion that these sexual images can lead to incidents of rape or acceptance of rape. All of his conclusions are possible, but one should base them mainly on the conditional effects model determined by the differences in each individual which will cause effects at different degrees.

Jhally (1990) concludes that the objectification of women dehumanizes them and makes men believe that they can “use” women (e.g. the rape myth – she said “no” but look at her promiscuous activity on MTV). This seems like a cultivation effect for one sees so many “loose” women on MTV that they believe all women are similar to them. One can also tie in observational learning because an individual sees all of these women succumbed by men (sometimes against their will) who are then rewarded by getting what they want. Rape is a possible outcome, or at least a vision of most women as “easy.”

Jhally’s (1990) bases his second assumption on the socialization function of MTV. He supposes that rock videos help adolescents construct an understanding of the world; he further supposes that these adolescents, males in particular, may develop certain attitudes toward rape through MTV exposure. MTV’s role as a socialization factor could operate in two ways: (1) viewers model the behavior of their “rock idol” which could involve mistreatment of women or (2) women’s sexual role in rock videos instill in viewer’s minds that this is how all women act (i.e. a stereotype).

Jhally (1990) provides the familiar statistic that date rape is the most common form of rape. A man with this “rock video stereotype” of women might rape a woman and perhaps even feel guilty after the incident, but then turn on MTV and see the same thing which could justify his actions to himself.

In the end, Jhally (1990) admits that “these images don’t directly cause rape, but they can lead to attitudes that might lead to certain violent behaviors by some men toward women.” He continues noting that these images affect how we respond to rape; one may see it as self-deserving or provoked by the victims.

It appears that music video images can lead to these results based on two possible changes: (1) desensitization – an individual judges rape as not such a bad crime because of his long-term exposure to similar incidents on MTV or (2) attitude – one develops a positive attitude toward rape because it seems that women want to be raped or they deserve it.

Stereotyping in Music Videos

“MTV can reflect society and its norms, may help to socialize young people by communicating ideas about proper behavior and selection of career paths, and influences males and females to develop distinct personality characteristics” (Seidman, 1992, p. 209). As many other media, MTV’s socialization function depicts stereotypes of men and women.

As mentioned previously, males outnumber females three to one on MTV, and half of the females wear “provocative clothing” (Seidman, 1992). MTV presents males in stereotypical occupations such as: manual laborers, physicians, mechanics, or firefighters, while showing females frequently as : waitresses, dancers, hair stylists, secretaries, or telephone operators. MTV allows male characteristics such as: adventuresome, aggressive, domineering, or violent, while giving females characteristics of: affectionate, dependent, fearful, or nurturing.

MTV stays in line with the usual stereotypical characteristics that are elements of the society, but it adds its own twist. MTV creates a stereotype of women as “sex objects” or “second-class citizens” (Seidman, 1992).

MTV could be a force in continuing the male and female stereotypes. It also socializes adolescents to new stereotypes of how females should act or how they should be treated.

This male-dominated world of rock video is obviously directed at the attention of male adolescents. Again the Dreamworlds Theory and its consequent effects come into play.

Another way to look at this is through priming. Consistent viewing of MTV can instill certain schema (stereotypes) into one’s mind. Everytime one watches MTV, these schema are reactivated and thus reinforced. MTV then forms the foundation on what one bases knowledge of males and females on. Furthermore, it provides a male-female script on how interactions between the opposite sex should exist.

Objectification of Women

Eighty-three percent of the videos on MTV feature white male performers (Kaplan, 1987). Over half of the music videos present women as sex objects and as something less than a person, while 16% of the videos involve implicit or explicit nudity (Vincent, 1989).

Females in videos are submissive, passive, and put on display for us to look at. MTV’s preference to male adolescents by playing male musicians excludes and devalues female musicians (Lewis, 1990). Even the females who make it (e.g. Madonna, Tina Turner, and Pat Benatar) often dress seductively in order to compete with the male-presented “dreamworlds” videos. Many videos attempt to legitimize voyeurism (Berg, 1984).


Many videos present women in this voyeurism-type video:

  1. “Sexy + 17” by the Stray Cats – promotes voyeurism of a girl as she prepares herself for a night out.
  2. “Infatuation” by Rod Stewart – Stewart sets up a camera and watches a woman through her window while she undresses.
  3. “California Girls” by David Lee Roth – the former Van Halen frontman walks through a line-up of women who stand silently in revealing bikinis for both Roth and the camera to gawk at.
  4. “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer – women are the band clad in tight mini-dresses; the camera takes a variety of shots of them for the viewer.
  5. “Private Dancer” by Tina Turner – this video addresses the issue of a woman’s position in the male-dominated world, which is that of satisfying male fantasies (i.e. Dreamworlds Theory).


Catering to male adolescents with visions of alluring women as MTV does could create problems in “real life.” A male becomes dissatisfied with the “ugly” (as compared to MTV women) women that he ends up with. It makes him create a standard that is not attainable. It could also affect girls who see Madonna or Paula Abdul in a video and want to look like her. Women in music videos reinforce the small scope of attractiveness available for women. Videos’ objectification of women can lower the self-esteem of both genders. It cultivates a false view of the world. The catharsis theory is not likely to operate here because while it remains possible to enjoy looking at women, a man will not have achieved sexual satisfaction just by watching a rock star obtain his sexual goal.

The white male dominance of the MTV world represents the intended effects of cultivation. MTV definitely presents males as dominant over females. Perhaps MTV reinforces the status quo with its programming.

Attitude change toward women can feasibly occur from extended MTV viewing. A male adolescent develops a positive attitude toward women as objects because he views this day in and day out. Likewise, a female adolescent may be forced to keep with these acceptable codes of appearance. If MTV develops a weighted influence, it would overcome the societal norms concerning the treatment of women. One may perceive MTV women as what women are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to behave.

Violence in Music Videos

As already stated it has been found that over half of the music videos contain some violent act or crime (Kalis & Neuendorf, 1989). A study by Miller (1990) found that adolescents who watched the most violent videos filled in violent responses in the accompanying questionnaire. She also found that adolescents’ moods changed after viewing retaliatory violence because they too become retaliatory. Kalis and Newendorf (1989) found that the most frequent initiator-recipient aggression occurs between males in videos.


Taking a look at Miller’s (1990) study utilizing the video “Janie’s Got a Gun” by Aerosmith provides a useful example.

This video, which won MTV’s best “metal” video of 1989, suggests that retaliation is an appropriate response to abuse at home. In the video, Janie motivated by the fear of continuing sexual abuse loaded a gun and shot her father.

Miller (1990) found that 80% of the adolescents in the study understood the video. She also found that those who watched the Aerosmith video believed retaliation to be an appropriate response.

The ironic Rolling Stones’ video “Too Much Blood” takes a stand against excessive media violence but remains violent in itself. It features blood oozing from a TV set as well as a woman throwing a TV out the window.


Returning to the Aerosmith video example, it is important to note the possible effects this video could have exhibited on its subjects.

The violence in the video and its theme may have elicited negative emotions in the subjects. Combined with the arousing music, they may have become overstimulated, and thus more aggressive, concluding that Janie did the right thing. The respondents may have seen Janie’s shooting of her father as justified.

Over time, videos like this desensitize viewers to their violent content. A viewer may become so desensitized that if they were involved in an abusive situation (individual variable), they may react in the same manner. Adding the effects of arousal, this reaction is even more prevalent because the viewer becomes stressed and needs a way to relieve this overstimulation.

Cultivation effects present another major problem. The world is not full of “Janie’s fathers.” Videos like this or with other violent themes lead to the cultivation of “perceptions of mistrust, apprehension, danger, and a ‘mean world’” (Walker, 1987, p. 2).

The viewing of violent media content positively correlates with “real life” aggression. The MTV stereotype of a “macho-type” man leads to man-to-man combats in videos. This depiction may result in a desire to obtain this “macho” image, and thus lead to more man-to-man fights in “real life.”


The effects of mass media come from many messages, not just a single source; and it is this combination of sources which influence the shaping of one’s attitudes and behaviors (Walker, 1987).

Walker (1987) asserts that cumulative effects of violence are what warrant “special” concern and for this to be true, MTV must positively relate to other sources of mediated violence. In Walker’s study, it did not.


Researchers Larson and Kubey note that while “TV serves primarily to promote middle-class values and behavior, popular music reinforces youth counterculture through depicting the intensity, turbulence, and rebellion of adolescence” (Greeson & Williams, 1986, p. 178). Individuals create meaning out of their experiences and for adolescents this includes MTV.

MTV Effects

There are several noteworthy trouble points in relation to MTV’s possible effects. Several effects require “special attention:” (a) sex role stereotyping, (b) attitude change in regards to sex (women in particular), (c) arousal and cultivation effects in regard to violence, and (d) individual differences in regard to the above effects.

MTV’s socialization effects should not be neglected because adolescents can learn their role in society with contributions from MTV. For instance, young teenagers may not grasp the irony of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” video but it may be their first encounter with this sexual subject; and thus, they base later information on it. Likewise, more adolescents tended to agree that premarital sex was acceptable after watching MTV (Greeson & Williams, 1986).

Closing Remarks

No doubt MTV has effects on its viewers but to what extent still remains open for debate. In the world of MTV, logic takes a break (e.g. Paula Abdul dances with a cartoon cat and a clay hammer grows from Peter Gabriel’s head). In this respect, adolescents may not take MTV seriously because it does not mimic “real life” experiences; and thus, its effects remain minimal.

In addition, MTV does not usually hold one’s full, undivided attention; it is often on as background noise just as one would use a radio (Kaplan, 1987). When viewing, individuals are usually just relaxing and not absorbing MTV as “hard” information.

These remarks are not meant to “short-change” MTV’s influence. They merely rebuke any statements of MTV being a completely “evil” entity.

MTV does influence its viewers. If this influence is too great, one has two options as a parent and one as an individual: (1) (for parents) watch TV with your children or (2) (for parents) but (1) (for individuals) turn it off!

MTV. Blessing or curse? All the votes (effects) have not been tallied!


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