Female masturbation has been big in pop lately. Whether it’s titillating videos like Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” and Miley Cyrus’ “Adore You” – with masturbation as a sexual performance for the male gaze – or empowering songs encouraging women to take pleasure into their own hands, like Lady Gaga’s “Dancing in Circles”, Miss Eave’s “Hump Day”, Hailee Steinfeild’s “Love Myself”, Charlie XCX’s “Body of My Own”, and FKA Twigs’ “Kicks”, images of women’s self-love are popping up more and more regularly in music.
The latest comes from Tove Lo in her short film Fairy Dust. It’s basically a collection of music videos for her songs (“Influence”, “Lady Wood”, “True Disaster”, “Cool Girl” and “Vibes”) strung together with a vague love triangle narrative. But the part that has caught public attention comes as the credits roll. Tove Lo lies on a bed while her song “What I Want for the Night (Bitches)” plays – a song about casual sex with women (“Bitches, I don’t trust ‘em, but they give me what I want for the night). She’s masturbating.
There’s no nudity, but the song was taken down from YouTube for being sexually explicit – and got lots of the papers talking.
I’ve written before about the way female masturbation is often used to signal that a woman is a crazed, obsessive stalker. We’ve seen it in “Hands to Myself”, Skins, Single White Female, The Exorcist, Stoker and more, and the message is always the same: masturbation is a sign of perversion, because normal, good girls don’t pleasure themselves. If a woman will go to such lengths as touching herself to get her kicks, who knows where her debauchery will end?!
Is that what’s happening in Fairy Dust, too? Before the masturbation scene, we hear Tove Lo’s voiceover darkly mutter: “Nobody knows me, knows all the dark sides, all the things that really go on in my head when I talk to people. Sociopath, psychopath. What if he’s right?” Both her and her co-star Lina Esco’s characters are portrayed as a little unbalanced – crashing cars together, laughing manically or screaming in fear. “Fuck, what the fuck is wrong with these girls?”, as a baffled male cab driver says to Esco.
At the end of Lo’s masturbation scene, we see that Esco is watching. To either enjoy watching masturbation, or enjoy being watched masturbating, is another classic trope of “crazy sexual girl” behaviour.
But Tove Lo also intentionally plays with anti-feminist stereotypes. Take “Cool Girl”, a song that takes a sexist construct invented by men and runs wild with it. “Now you can’t tell if I’m really ironic,” Lo sings. Like Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” video, it embraces an anti-feminist narrative to an extreme. You want crazy? I’ll give you crazy.
Filmed though a masculine lens, with Lo’s head cropped out of shot, the masturbation scene here functions as the cherry on top of a video that hovers between these two spaces, part a rejection of the sexually exciting yet damaged trope, part an erotic embrace of the same stereotype.