The visual language associated with spreading out or becoming bigger is, generally, reserved for men. In our day-to-day, we call this manspreading, and we use it derogatorily to rail against the bozos taking up three seats on the subway, displaying their crotch with rabid entitlement. That performative entitlement, by its very nature, is incredibly inconvenient for everyone dealing with its physical consequences. Manspreading designates that men, when given only a smidgen of space (the bottom part of a seat) can defy that restriction to claim as much space, not just as they need, but as they want, with impunity. In pop music video, nothing is more representative of manspreading than the iconic “chair dance” of the 90s. If you were still a peanut in the 90s: sitting on a chair the wrong way, spread eagling, was kind of a thing. It told you which boys were “bad” but “sexy”—like Slater on Saved By The Bell—because they’d never deign to voluntarily sit on a chair the correct way.
The male spread-eagle, whether seated or otherwise, is a neat visual reminder that men have tesitcles, and penises, and therefore the kind of power that allows them to be as big and unwieldy as they choose. In East 17’s “It’s Alright” (1993), for instance, seated band members splayed their legs wide in a show of manly bravado. This visual became essential to the assertion of sexuality and dominance in boy band videos. The Backstreet Boys “As Long As You Love Me” (1996) and Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna” (1997) are iconic examples of the chair-backwards manspread, the former tacitly suggesting that the titular “love” should be directed between thighs, while the latter’s presentation making no pretenses on exactly what you make Usher wanna do. In all three of these examples, the love interest is a passive, unnamed, and with the exception of the Backstreet Boys video, faceless woman who must incur the full frontal wrath of the man’s loins. You’d be hard pressed to find a music video from the 90s in which male pop stars, when seated, aren’t spread like butter.
The Backstreet Boys, taking up as much space with their legs as humanly possible.
The boys who spread, of course, weren’t always chair-bound. Throughout the 90s, this kind of space-dominating choreography extended through to the a majority of boy-band moves, seated or otherwise, manifesting wide straddles and low camera angles with a very specific point of focus. NSYNC videos, including (but not limited to) “Tearin’ Up My Heart” (1997) and mid-90s English boyband 5ive’s “If Ya Getting Down” are good examples of the low POV crotch shot. More often than not, women’s bodies weren’t shot the same way: they were captured at eye-level, in a portrait-like landscape from which to be admired. For instance, in Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” (1999), where Beyoncé et al do the goddess-pose “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah” part, the camera doesn’t look up from below with the focal point between their thighs, as it does when men pull similar shapes. It stays steady at eye level, allowing the choreography to only hint at the sexuality that lies beneath.
Women, of course, were already appearing hyper-sexualized in pop music videos, but they weren’t spreading out in quite the same way as men. At least at first. Women, culturally, are taught to be smaller, take up less space, and to appear rather than to act. In pop music videos, women dance within the space defined by their hips and shoulders (the Spice Girls in “Stop”), tease the camera with coy glances (Jennifer Lopez in “If You Had My Love”), crawl like animals, or lay, serpentine and writhing (Christina Aguilera in “Genie in a Bottle”). Women, in the early days of pop dance videos, didn’t embrace the vulgarity of crotch shots, and the assertion of sexual dominance, in quite the same way as men.
Mariah Carey, who dominated the 90s pop scene, is a good example. In “Fantasy” (1995), her sexuality is nothing less than adorable, as she succumbs to a sexy roller coaster ride, all doe eyes and inoffensive suggestiveness. She’s every bit the object of male desire, the fantasy, non-threatening in her passive sexuality. In “Honey” (1997) she’s a bit more naughty, wreaking havoc on a jet ski. But when it comes time for her choreographed dance, Mariah moves only in the zone predetermined by her own body. Her legs never sprawl wider than her hips and her arms stay close to her body. Her dance moves are tight and small, a tacit acknowledgement of the refinement, and indeed confinement, of her sexuality.
So it really was an under-acknowledged revolution when women started adopting more masculine poses. Madonna, of course, toyed with the relationship between space and feminine sexuality before it became a trend. In “Open Your Heart” (1986), Mads appears as an object of male desire in a peep show, but her movements, as she mounts a chair suggestively, are not those of a passive woman simply accepting the male gaze. Here, she eats up that gaze, and refines it on her own terms (miss you, amazing 80s Madonna). Janet Jackson followed suit in “Miss You Much” (1989), aggressively grinding against a chair in the last moments of the video, a scene that quickly became iconic among fans, and perhaps an even bolder move for a black woman in the late 80s. The notable difference between women performing such big movements and men performing them, is that male pop stars, in that era at least, weren’t questioned for their obvious sexuality. Both Madonna and Janet, on the other hand, were seen as disruptive women, thanks to their shameless sexuality and lack of hesitance to inhabit as much visual space as possible.
Christina Aguilera in "Dirty"
Indeed, in the early 90s, the chair dance and wide-legged stance was something of a taboo, used to denote a fearless, but fringe, sexuality. For instance, in Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew” (1996), a song in which she is the “other woman,” TLC’s “Red Light Special” (1994) which is a fairly graphic anthem for oral sex and maybe also has something to do with prostitution, began rejecting passivity in female sexual posturing. By the end of the 90s, though, the move had made its way out of the R&B genre and into mainstream pop and, full circle, into the hands of Madonna protégé, Britney Spears, in “Drive Me Crazy” (1999). Later, in “Stronger,” Britney defeats the chair, a symbolic rejection of both the male gaze and of the adoption of masculinized sexuality as the only path to sexual emancipation for female choreography. This perhaps, paved the course for female pop stars to begin visually presenting their sexuality by means of their own creation.
Regardless, feminine adoption of “manspreading” in early pop video choreography created a template for women to experiment with taking up space in music videos. Xtina adopted the liberal pose in “Dirrty” (2002). The Pussycat Dolls built a whole career on this spread-out realization of female sexuality (check 2005’s “Buttons” for evidence). Shakira performed an entire song about how reliable her sexual instinct is, manspread on a chair (“Hips Don’t Lie,” also 2005). More contemporaneously, Beyoncé appeared at the Grammy’s straddling a seat performing “Drunk in Love” (2014) while Nicki Minaj used the visual trope in “Anaconda” (2014), and Rihanna in “Pour It Up” (2012), while Miley Cyrus spent a whole tour doing the splits in the air. Co-opting this traditional male use of space and the chair dance, women thus remind us that they have vaginas in the same way that men have always wagged their penises in our faces. Beyoncé, Minaj, Rihanna, and Miley are our modern day Madonnas and Janets, and the chairs they’ve propped between their thighs are their instruments of sexual liberation. Spreading out, and spreading out sexually within the aesthetic of pop, is antithetical to the traditional demure and “proper” sexuality women are relegated to, and chair dancing has facilitated a blurring of those gender norms. And now, we’re at a point where these ladies don’t even need those chairs in order to perform their sexuality—not only aggressive sexuality, but a bloated, full entitled presence is now just as normal for women in pop as is has always been for men.
The Pussycat Dolls, using the everloving shit out of these chairs.
While the chair dance, for the most part, might have fallen out of ubiquity, its early adoption into female pop choreography changed the way we see women in a visual space. Even if we don’t see “manspreading” in women’s videos anymore, we see every other iteration of it, a ripple effect that has allowed women to grow within the limited space of the screen, until, like the men who have always been allowed to swell and grow at will, they threaten to become so engorged they explode out of it. We see women, like Beyoncé, using up every spare inch dancing around an invisible room in “Single Ladies,” refusing to settle for the confines of a two-step’s worth of space. We see Taylor Swift brandishing a golf club in “Blank Space,” swinging it violently and wildly, making herself grander and larger and more destructive with every swing. We see women in pop music videos growing bigger, and bigger, and bigger, not just in masculine ways, but in ways they defined for themselves. And maybe that started as simply as with a spread-legged chair dance.
Kat George is on Twitter - @kat_george