“Shape of You,” Objectification, and Harvey Weinstein

I’m not hip. My exposure to most pop music involves hearing the songs my wife adds to her Spotify playlists. If not for that, I probably wouldn’t know much (or anything) about Adele or Taylor Swift or One Republic or Imagine Dragons. Aren’t you glad she’s in my life? (I am—immensely.)

Being the unhip hipster that I am (you know, uncool before it’s cool to be uncool), I only first heard Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” several weeks ago. It caught my attention for a couple of reasons. First, it’s catchy. And second, it reminded me of Harvey Weinstein.

My mind made an immediate connection between the song’s lyrics and Salma Hayek’s 2017 op-ed for The New York Times: “Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster Too.” In it, Hayek describes how Weinstein manipulated and harassed her. The abuse came to a head when Weinstein allegedly threatened to shut down Hayek’s pet project—the movie Frida (which, at the time, was in the middle of production)—unless she agreed to add a lesbian sex scene to the film, during which she would be fully nude. With no other discernible way out, Hayek acquiesced to his demands.


Now, what’s the link between this horrible situation and Sheeran’s catchy pop song? The connection is found in how Hayek summarizes why Weinstein’s treatment of her was so degrading:

In [Harvey’s] eyes, I was not an artist. I wasn’t even a person. I was a thing: not a nobody, but a body.

In “Shape of You,” Sheeran is expressing a similar mindset. His infatuation is not with a woman, per se, but with a woman’s physical shape. She’s not so much a person as she is just a body.

Sure, the woman in the song responds positively to his lecherous behavior. And yes, after they fornicate for a while, they finally decide to actually start a relationship. It’s not a one-sided infatuation, where a woman is finding herself coerced and manipulated.

Nevertheless, the early stages of a Weinsteinesque perversion are slinking through the song’s subtext. The emphasis, after all, is on the woman as a commodity to bring sexual pleasure. To quote part of the chorus,

I’m in love with the shape of you
We push and pull like a magnet do
Although my heart is falling too
I’m in love with your body

While he’s acknowledging the faint presence of something other than just lust (“my heart is falling too”), he includes the word “although,” bringing the focus back to what he really wants—i.e., her body. What Sheeran is promoting in “Shape of You,” and what Weinstein has practiced for decades, is evaluating women based on their physical appearance and their potential as a sexual partner.

And they are not alone. Because our pornified culture has turned many taboos on their heads, a “Shape of You” mindset has become a toxic component of the cultural air we breathe. It’s a problem recognized all over the ideological spectrum. Listen to what women’s rights activist Caitlin Roper says:
Popular culture is littered with imagery and messages that reinforce women’s second-class status. In media and advertising, women are routinely objectified and dehumanized, reduced to a collection of sexualized body parts. It is near impossible to escape the ubiquitous representations of women as sexually available and existing for men’s use.

You may be tempted to label this cultural mindset as “no big deal,” or maybe “outdated,” or possibly “sexist.” But truth be told, it is evil. Women don’t want to be treated this way, and women don’t deserve to be treated this way.

THE GATEWAY DRUG TO WEINSTEIN                                                                               

To be clear, I do not think Sheeran is on the same level as Weinstein. The two are not identical. Their objectification of women may be similar in kind, but not in degree.

The danger is that Sheeran is on the same road as Weinstein is. Sheeran may be thousands of miles behind, but he’s making the road look appealing. With his chart-topping, record breaking artistry, he’s asking us to see the road as fun and enjoyable—as the road most traveled, the road most attractive. What he’s failing to acknowledge, and what we as a culture are ignoring, is that this road leads to Harvey Weinstein and those like him.

We won’t be able to adequately fight against sexual violence when the 2018 Grammy Awards (where “Shape of You” won Best Pop Solo Performance) blatantly condemned and blatantly celebrated objectification all in the same night. We won’t be able to adequately sever the root of sexual manipulation from our society if we condemn it in real life while celebrating it in the stories we enjoy. We won’t be able to deal with all fifty shades of sexual deviance if we continue to heap praise on “Shape of You” while spewing venom on men like Harvey Weinstein. When we do these things, we are, as I have mentioned earlier, acting like parents who train their teenage drivers how to speed up while taking an on-ramp, only to turn around and yell at them for driving on the freeway.

“Shape of You” is both a cause and an effect of a philosophy of objectification. It’s time we shape up as a society and let that philosophy go.

photo credit: Margot_M via flickr, CC (This photo has been cropped.)