I really was trying to avoid any need to write about the Robin Thicke (featuring T.I and Pharrell) song, Blurred Lines. I really was. Why? Because it was just do damned obvious what was wrong with it. Sure, I’ve had the academic argument back and forth with some friends over the rape overtones the song espouses, versus whether the song is encouraging women with extroverted sex drives to feel free to act on their urges toward a partner inviting them to do so. But does that argument even matter? Nope, because whatever is dominant public understanding actually prevails, and that dominant understanding is that women are objects to be sexualized and lines between their objectification and rape culture are blurry, on top of some people’s perceptions of blurry sexual consent practices. Whew, one might think to bring up all those social inadequacies would be a tall task for a mere song, and yet the lyrics and the video clearly reach that goal, and more.
Perhaps the song was on its way out of popular culture, with damage done and feminist critique complete? Nope, because MTV’s Video Music Awards saw fit to take it multiple steps further, reigniting arguments around slut-shaming, women’s sexual commodification, a white woman’s appropriation of black culture, a white woman objectifying black women… and the list goes on.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the original videos.
Safe for work (SFW), also know as the video-where-the-women-aren’t topless:
Not safe for work (NSFW), also known as the video-where-women-are-topless:
Yes, those are part of popular culture, with over 18 million views on YouTube. Women, whether topless or not, parade across the screen as visual objects, riding bikes and holding goats and throwing dice, as mere “things” to observe while the music is being performed by men. As one YouTube commenter pointed out, “This porn has great music.” Oh, and that music? Here are excerpts from the lyrics:
“Okay now he was close, tried to domesticate you. But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature. Just let me liberate you, you don’t need no papers, that man is not your maker…
But you’re a good girl, the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty, go ahead get at me…
You’re the hottest bitch in this place…
You wanna hug me… what rhymes with hug me…
I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two…
Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you. He don’t smack that ass and pull hair like that…”
The lyrics explain themselves. I am positive that I do not need to wax lyrical about the ways they reference women’s “papers”, assuming that women have an animalistic component and that is why they dress or act the way they do, continuously naming sexual women as bitches, suggesting that hug and fuck rhyme and are somehow linguistically and realistically similar, or naming anal sex as enjoyable if it is damaging to the recipient… Etc. Etc. Etc.
So to what does the song title, Blurred Lines, refer? Whether a woman’s overt sexuality is a come-on, and men having a difficult time understanding that? Women’s clothing choices blurring the lines between sexual empowerment/body ownership versus illicit exposure? Cultural difficulties understanding consensual sex?
From the Rock the SlutVote Facebook Page
But after all of the debate and reading the feminist thought on the video, I think perhaps the confusion truly is around women’s sexual empowerment, consensual sex, and cultural difficulties handling that. Case and point? The picture below, of the naked woman with the tiniest stop sign on her butt, indicating that her ability to say “stop” is so inconsequential that it is a mere accessory.
Moments after making the comment, “”What a pleasure it is to degrade women,” Robin Thicke even tried to argue that the song is feministic. And that is all the air time I will give to that one. But definitely check out this father’s write-up of “How To Talk With Your Sons About Robin Thicke” by Eric Clapp.
I also struggle with the participation of the women models in the Robin Thicke video. Regardless of pay or fame, or because of it, the women chose to participate in that capacity. Their upbringing in a culture and a career where women are merely objects used to sell or advertise, with perhaps little feministic intervention, is a complete and full rationale for why they would think the video was pure satire and their naked antics just another part of the satire, rather than the meta picture. My favorite feminist write-up is by Elizabeth Plank at PolicyMic, and she breaks down this very issue after discussing words from the head model, Emily Ratajkowski.
“…So what happens when the model in the song doesn’t think the video is objectifying, but other women do? In other words, if a woman is objectified by the viewer, but she isn’t objectifying herself, is she still an object? If a tree falls in the woods, but it doesn’t hear its own sound, did it make one?
Moreover, if Emily Ratajkowski is stripping down for the camera to point out the absurdity of music videos that portray women who strip down for the camera to the point of absurdity, but her ironic wink isn’t understood by her audience, is it still subversive?
The short answer is yes. Sexism can’t be ironic because we’re not over it. It’s still massively prevalent. Men still benefit from it, women are still hindered by it. Most women in music videos are required to wear next to nothing, while men have the privilege of keeping their clothes on and earning the same degree of attention, or more. It’s not ironic to put women naked in a music video because it’s an extension of the crap that already floods our screens. It’s not anything new, it’s just more of the same old sexist garbage.
Moreover, the idea that consent is a ‘blurry’ concept is deeply ingrained in the way sexual assault is represented in the media, our culture, the education system and, yes, our judicial system. It’s what drives many to doubt the veracity of rape allegations. It’s what drives many rape survivors to never report their rapes. In fact, it’s why rape is the least reported crime and why 97% of rapists will never see a day in jail.
Sure, Ratajkowski could have felt empowered and her performance could have given confidence to a handful of women, but does the personal benefit outweight the collective harm? Sure many men could have watched this video and got the joke, but what about those who didn’t? What about the people who watched the video and internalized the message that women can be consumed like objects without consent because, you know … sex is about “blurred lines” anyways…”
Now, there ain’t no party like feminists-clarifying-blurred-lines party. Here are some of my favorite responses and why:
Blurred Lines – Mod Carousel
Does a great job at pointing out what I hope is obvious to most, that parading someone in front of the camera in minimal clothing and performing ludicrous tasks is ridiculous, regardless of which body we are objectifying.
Defined Lines – Aukland Law Students
Absolute favorite mock-up. “That’s a sex crime.” Enough said.
Lame Lines – Melinda Hughes
This one doesn’t quite hit the mark for me – assault does not label someone a douchebag or a pervert, they committed assault. But it starts to get the point across, with my favorite part of the balloons reading “Melinda has a big vag.”
Feeling vindicated? Perhaps many were. These videos are feministic and artistic brilliance.
And then Miley Cyrus happened. For those who haven’t seen it, here it is from start to finish.
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke – Performance at the MTV Video Music Awards
After this performance, the lines between women, sexual expression, appropriation of culture and commodification of bodies, became even more blurry for those who didn’t know they were there, and even more clear for those who name them and discuss their need for change. Here, I will direct you straight to read NinjaCate’s article at GroupThink-Jezebel, “Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of her VMA performance.” An excerpt:
“…What Miley did last night was easily one of the most racist displays I’ve ever seen. From her insistence on twerking, to her use of all black women as literal props (they were teddy bears) to her smacking of her dancer’s ass and the simulation of rimming, it is very clear to me, that Miley thinks that black women’s bodies are to be enjoyed, devalued and put on display for entertainment purposes.
Here’s the thing: historically, black women have had very little agency over their bodies. From being raped by white slave masters to the ever-enduring stereotype that black women can’t be raped, black women have been told over and over and over again, that their bodies are not their own. By bringing these “homegirls with the big butts” out onto the stage with her and engaging in a one-sided interaction with her ass, (not even her actual person!) Miley has contributed to that rhetoric. She made that woman’s body a literal spectacle to be enjoyed by her legions of loyal fans. Not only was that the only way that Miley interacted with any of the other people onstage with her, but all of her backup dancers were “black women with big butts” as Violet_Baudelaire so astutely pointed out. So not only are black women’s bodies being used as props, but they are also props that are only worthy of interaction if that interaction involves sexualization…”
Read that whole article, and all the links she has. Amazing and important and I am thankful for WOC feminist writers for writing more and often and deeply.
Slut-shaming received the most feminist media attention. Here, an excerpt from Thought Catalog’s write-up by Nico Lane:
“…We often give men the sole blame for slut-shaming and harassment, but we all contribute to a culture that degrades and abuses women, one that labels the expression of Miley Cyrus’ sexuality as “white trash.” I think that the entire performance was an artistic failure — from ill-advised choreography to overt minstrelsy — but very little of the backlash has even been about that. Apparently in society, it’s not that bad to be a racist. The real crime is being a slut.
You probably don’t give a damn about Miley Cyrus specifically, and neither do I. However, I would love to see Robin Thicke subjected to the same criticism after the performance, a married father who passively let Cyrus gyrate all over him. She’s all of 20 — still young and very, very dumb — but he should know better, especially after all the criticism he’s gotten for “Blurred Lines.” The performance literally recreated the fucked-up power dynamic of that video onstage, yet another scantily clad woman performing for the male gaze, and no one even batted an eye.
It was every bit as weird and predatory as critics suggest his song is, yet the Thicke backlash machine has been virtually silent. When photos of the performance were reposted to mock the scandal, Robin Thicke was even replaced with Beetlejuice, lampooning Cyrus’ sexuality but erasing Thicke from the picture altogether.
This reminds me of the Super Bowl performance where Justin Timberlake “accidentally” ripped open Janet Jackson’s costume to reveal her breast. America didn’t get upset with Timberlake for exposing her. They were mad at Jackson for having a boob. They say that all press is good press, but the incident killed her career. The album she released in the wake of the controversy tanked, after recently having two songs go to #1 on Billboard. Since then, she’s only had one solo hit, the modestly performing “Feedback,” but none of her old success. Meanwhile, the incident helped launch Timberlake’s solo career, making him one of the biggest stars in the world. It’s the double standard on crack…”
And finally, f you are still blurry about cultural appropriation, check out this great write-up by Renee Bracey Sherman at Strong Families:
“…The short answer is when one from a privileged community uses something (a justice movement, style of clothing, dance, language, etc.) that is a part of a minority community’s culture and uses it as their own without citing credit, and often doing it wrong. In school, we have a similar idea called plagiarism, and students are held accountable for it. Cultural appropriation happens a lot. So much so, that we often don’t notice it when it happens.
Remember Madonna’s famous ‘Vogue’ song? Of course you do. It topped the charts and still gets played…everywhere. Did you know vogueing, which originated as a style of dance performed by gay men and transwomen of color in NYC in the ’80s, was a form of connection, community, and celebration of self for the queer community who were often rejected their families for their femininity, love of fashion, and sexuality? Madonna didn’t give you the history of or culture of vogueing, and she didn’t tell you that the houses in which the vogue competitions were held were safe havens for homeless youth. She just sold you the song on her album. Also, she did it wrong – no duck walk, no wrists, no spins, no cat walks. Today, vogueing is alive and well, check out this great video of queer youth of color vogueing at the Ruth Ellis Center in Michigan. Need more history, watch ‘Paris is Burning’ – a great documentary of the lives of the vogue houses in New York City.
Remember the Pepsi Super Bowl commercial of the “Harlem Shake”? The actual Harlem Shake is a dance that Black folks have been doing since the ‘80s and became popular again in the early 2000s when Missy Elliot and P. Diddy highlighted it in their music videos. It originated as a dance in Harlem, New York, and the challenge was to be able to do it well (which is hard enough) on a moving bus (even harder). When it was appropriated on the commercial, they did it wrong and didn’t explaining that it was already a dance or use the dancers who know how to do it. Melissa Harris Perry breaks it down on hershow, with actual Harlem youth.
In Cyrus’ case, not only is what she’s doing not correct in style, but she erased its history and roots. Twerking has West African roots, made famous by Josephine Baker in the 1920s. As the Crunk Feminist Collective noted twerking was a ‘90s coming of age anthem for many teens: “twerk music from local New Orleans based musicians DJ Jimi and DJ Jubilee was always played on the radio.” It’s also frustrating to Black women who have traditionally been called “hoes” or “video vixens” for dancing in such a way (and barely get paid to survive and have to work in a very sexually charged work environment), but when Cyrus does it, and creates a hashtag as if she created it, it’s considered “cute” and her “sexual coming of age”. Not to mention she’s getting paid, very well, to perform. It’s White privilege at its best, and perhaps folks are having a problem seeing it because we’ve been watching it since the dawn of time…Elvis, jazz, yoga, the headdresses from the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, just to name a few…
None of these lines should be blurry. By now, our culture should have figured out defined lines of sexual consent, humanistic relationships, cultural historical respect, and body autonomy. Has that happened? Not nearly, and “Blurred Lines” is perhaps just the star example of how far off the mark we remain. Keep naming, keep writing, and keep finding artistic ways to make understanding these concepts accessible to the larger audience. Because that’s what Robin Thicke did, he just got the wrong message across.