Promoting (Anti-)Violence with Violence in Shawn Mendes’s “Treat You Better” (2016)

Recently, I was listening to videos on YouTube for research, and I didn’t realize the “autoplay – up next” feature was on until I heard Shawn Mendes’s “Treat You Better.” The song bothered me. Once I looked, the music-video bothered me, too. It’s taken a few days to start put my finger on it, but I have some thoughts. 

Before going on, please take a look at “Treat You Better” and its music video. 

“Treat You Better” wants viewers to think it prompts concern for women. Through the lyrics and video, we learn that the woman’s boyfriend does not always treat her very well, and this really concerns a friend of hers. The friend shows concern and offers to “let it go.” And the video ends with a “public service announcement” that cannot be stated enough.

However, “Treat You Better” is actually a one-sided manifesto–by a young, fit, able-bodied, (presumably) heterosexual, White (presumably cisgendered) male–at a woman about why she shouldn’t be with her current boyfriend and should be with the writer of this manifesto. He begs her to leave her current boyfriend.

And the “I can let it go” proves to be a very conditional offer. 

When you should be with me instead 

And why did he put her in a position where she has to crawl out of a window to escape from him?

The song transforms the woman into a commodity to be fought over. Love and women are male-dominated competitions in “Treat You Better.” The manifesto tells her over a dozen times how that he can treat her better than the current boyfriend can.

I know I can treat you better
Better than he can

What about the woman and her agency? Why does she have to have a boyfriend? What does she think about all of this?

The manifesto-writer is also overly confident and thinks that he alone can solve all of her problems. 

I’ll stop time for you
The second you say you’d like me too
I just wanna give you the loving that you’re missing

The manifesto also tells her how she is wasting time a half-dozen times without any acknowledgment for how she is choosing to spend her time or any consideration for how even bad experiences can shape who we are in positive ways. 

Tell me why are we wasting time
On all your wasted crying

Is the song saying the woman is “wasted” or “trash” for not doing what the man wants?

More importantly is what “Treat You Better” teaches audiences. It teaches women that they need a man, that such monogamous relationships are necessary to their happiness and safety. It teaches men that they too need a woman and should be a “gentleman.”

And any girl like you deserves a gentleman

And by a “gentleman,” “Treat You Better” means a man who defends his woman, who does everything for his woman, who makes impossible promises to his woman, who denies his woman her own voice and independence, who wants to ultimately use the patriarch’s psychological violence.  

“Treat You Better” suggests that the woman has no friends, no family, and no other possible support systems besides the man who is begging to be her boyfriend. 

Just know that you don’t
Have to do this alone

We must also acknowledge the intersectionality of the manifesto-writer. Look at physical appearance, he is the embodiment of what has come to be considered the ideal male in popular culture. (He only lacks blond hair.)

Young, fit, able-bodied, (presumably) heterosexual, White (presumably cisgendered) male

This matters in terms of the song’s and music video’s reception and in terms of the messages it delivers. Can you imagine the backlash or reaction if we changed some of the variables? Imagine how “Treat You Better” would change if the manifesto-writer was fat or crip or Muslim? Such “otherness” signifies a kind of cultural disability.

Or, would the manifesto-writer have been as concerned about a woman he wasn’t interested in sexually? Or a woman who wasn’t culturally ideal? 

So, how exactly is he going to “Treat You Better”?

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda