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


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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7 replies

  1. What a great idea for your students to re-write the lyrics with the voice of at least one of your alternatives! How about from the viewpoint of the elderly woman or man? Then you would have to take into account what that man or woman would have felt many years earlier and how they would change since then, or even NOT change since then. From simple assumptions to incredibly complicated ones, maybe prompting conversations across generations that would have never taken place before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Evening! I like you idea about thinking about the song from different points-of-view and even from different points in time! That could be really interesting. The gray boxes are various quotes from the song – I didn’t write any alternative lyrics for this song. Will have to think about doing so through!


  2. Your questions of “Why does she have to have a boyfriend?” and “What does she think about all of this?” The answer to the first question (at least from my perspective as a middle-aged woman), is that many of us did (and unfortunately many still do) base our identity or happiness solely on being in a relationship. In other words, many women do not grow up with strong female role models and we think that happiness = being in a relationship. When I was a teen, this is always what I thought. I was not a whole person unless I could find a boyfriend. Although there are more strong women role-models in TV and movies now, many young women still feel this same way–that they need a man. The song is perpetuating a belief that’s already present among many. A lot has to do with role-models and self-esteem. So I guess I just am one who would have taken the song at face value, that there is a friend (or boyfriend wanna-be) who is worried about this girl he cares about. Andrew, I like the idealism that you point out, though. All in the video are attractive. All are young. Definitely a good thinking exercise for me to start the morning.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, and the question of “What does she think about all this?” I think women in abusive relationships don’t want to be in them but they are afraid of being alone. I had a family member in a relationship like this. Her mother told me that the young woman stayed because she thought no one else would want her. It is sad.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Hey my friend,
      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. Songs/Videos like this always give us so much to think about when we stop and really listen. I wish song like this would give others agency. For example, the song could have given the woman a voice. The song “Somebody I Used To Know” comes to mind as one that gives voice to more than “just the man.”
      Chat more later! Dr T say hello to you and yours. 🙂


  3. I know it’s been a while since you posted this, but I can’t agree more! Shawn seems to be rather sexist and hasn’t changed in the last two years. So many of his songs have this underlying tone and I wish more people realized how harmful his songs are for young women.
    In this day and age I’m surprised it hasn’t been pointed out more often.

    Liked by 1 person

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