Friday, 6 September 2013

How Popular Music Contributes to Sexist and Rape Tolerant Attitudes

For the past two weeks my Facebook feed has been flooded with news about two related scandals: firstly, beginning on the 25th of last month, dozens of articles and memes shaming Miley Cyrus for her raunchy performance at the Video and Music Awards, and then a couple of days ago news of Auckland University’s Law students’ parody of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’. Sadly, a great deal more public criticism has fallen upon Miley than on Thicke, and the parody of ‘Blurred Lines’ seems to have provoked at least as much misunderstanding and anger as support. Thicke has tried to claim that ‘Blurred Lines’ is somehow a ‘feminist movement within itself’, [1] and the director of his music video has said that it was intended to be ‘subtly ridiculing’. A lot of people seem to be confused about what counts as satire, and what’s just plain sexism. Of the people who do recognize the sexism in ‘Blurred Lines’, most still see it as ultimately harmless. I do not share this view. I want to explain how songs like ‘Blurred Lines’ and the general public’s non-critical consumption of them contribute to a culture of sexism and rape-tolerance, and  show how these attitudes have revealed themselves in the public and media treatment of Miley Cyrus and the UOA ‘Defined Lines’ parody.

Let’s begin to unravel this by looking at some lyrics. ‘Blurred Lines’ can be read in its full obscenity here: - but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just dissect some relevant passages.

If you can't hear what I'm trying to say
If you can't read from the same page
Maybe I'm going deaf
Maybe I'm going blind
Maybe I'm out of my mind

Here Thicke establishes the premise of the song, which is that women (or ‘girls’, in his own words) confuse him when they don’t respond favorably to his sexual advances. ‘Maybe I’m going deaf/blind’ suggests this arises from something his prospective partners are saying/wearing/doing, which has given him the impression that they are sexually interested. When he ironically warbles ‘maybe I’m out of my mind’, he reduces any possible clarification of these misleading social cues to lies and irrationality.

OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you're an animal, baby, it's in your nature
Just let me liberate you

Thicke goes on to pass judgment on another man’s attempts to ‘domesticate’ a woman, and immediately re-confines her within the same space of male control by suggesting that she needs him to ‘liberate’ her from her sexual repression.

And that's why I'm gon' take a good girl
I know you want it…
I hate these blurred lines…

The ‘blurred lines’ Thicke refers to, though he won’t admit it, are the lines between consent and rape. The refrain ‘I know you want it’ that pulses through the song is his answer to women everywhere denying male sexual advances. Through the rest of the song, this theme is expressed with increasingly appalling imagery: ‘I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two’, ‘do it like it hurt’, ‘so I just watch and wait for you to salute’. The lamentably catchy beat and fun melody have the effect of mellowing out the ugly lyrical content and making it possible to sing and dance along to distinctly anti-feminist messages without actively contemplating them.
            There are two versions of the music video for Blurred Lines – one featuring young female models dressed in mini skirts and midriff-bearing tops, Robin Thicke and his buddies in suits, a couple of animals, and some obnoxious hashtags; and an unrated version with all of this except most of the clothes on the women, and with three extra letters in the balloon arrangement that reads ‘Robin Thicke has a big D’. The original was removed from YouTube in just under a week for containing too much nudity and sexual content,[2] but has since been restored. I’m not going to link to it here, because I already feel conflicted about having contributed to its soaring pageviews, but you can uncover it easily enough if you think it’s worth your time.
            The images in both videos contribute to the anti-feminist lyrics by depicting women as the literal sexual playthings of the fully-clothed men. In one shot one of the models has a toy car run down her arched back. In another, one of the men pulls on a model’s braid like a dog-leash. In the unrated version there’s a shot of a model’s back, with her face cut out, and a tiny stop sign perched on her buttock – because sometimes non-consent is just that insignificant. Basically, if rape culture was looking for an anthem, it couldn’t do much better than ‘Blurred Lines.’

            There are two easy arguments for the song not being as terrible as I’m making out. The first is the satire defense: that the song and video were somehow intended ironically, which then excuses the artists from any accusations of sexist or rape-tolerant attitudes. This is the angle taken by the video’s director, Diana Martel, who claimed in a recent interview that she considers it ‘meta and playful’. She claimed that the models were directed to look into the camera, which supposedly puts them in a ‘power position’, despite the fact that they are wearing almost nothing and are subject to the groping and lyrical catcalling of the men throughout. The lyrics are ‘ridiculous’, the men are ‘silly as fuck’, and all of this silliness keeps the sexism from being real. [3]
            The models in the video have corroborated this. Emily Ratajkowski claimed that the video ‘was making fun of itself’. When told that some people have found the lyrics ‘kind of rapey’, she said she ‘never even thought of that’, and found the lyrics playful and self-aware. [4]  Elle Evans and Jessi M’Bengue have described the environment on set as fun and comfortable, and said that the male artists were ‘nothing but gentlemen’. M’Bengue added that while people were entitled to their own opinions, she never felt any danger behind the sexual lyrics, and didn’t find them offensive.
            These statements are complicated by Thicke’s own interviews, in which he’s espoused a couple of different ideas about what they were trying to achieve. In one interview he referred to the lyric ‘that man is not your maker’ as evidence of its feminism and said that, quote: ‘it’s saying that men and women are equal as animals and as…as… power, in power, and that we’re all just supposed to just – it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good girl or a bad girl, you know, you can still have a good time’.

            In an earlier, slightly more coherent interview, his quoted response to accusations of the song degrading women was this: "I'm like, 'of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I've never gotten to do that before. I've always respected women.'"[5] It’s not clear whether that was supposed to be a joke, or if he genuinely didn’t give a fuck at the time and is changing his stance now that it’s come into so much controversy. Martel herself said ‘maybe he wasn’t thinking when he said that.’
            If they were in fact going for irony, this seems a very roundabout way of doing it. Rather than assuming the audience would see power in the way the women looked directly at the camera, couldn’t Martel have instructed them to raise their eyebrows or roll their eyes? If they were supposed to be empowered, why not make that more obvious? Fuck it, why not have the women fully dressed, in a club, with the same suited men hitting on them and striking out?
            The most likely answer, in my opinion, isn’t that Martel and Thicke thought their super subtle irony would be safely understood by the general audience. It’s that they didn’t think about it much at all. Ultimately, even if all the participants in the creative process had the same tongue-in-cheek intentions for it, which it doesn’t seem like they did, it fails as satire because the majority of the viewers didn’t get the so-called joke. You don’t make a comment about degrading women by continuing to degrade women.

The second argument is that the song and video are sexist, but the sexism doesn’t really matter because it’s just a pop song and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. M’Bengue said that the song was supposed to be a fun summer thing, and ‘wasn’t meant to be too deep’, and this seems to be the attitude a majority of the song’s audience is taking. It’s fair enough for the creators of a song to declare that it’s not a serious piece of work, that it’s just for fun, but here’s the thing: that doesn’t stop the mentalities it espouses from entering and affecting the public consciousness.
            Rape is a complicated and commonly misunderstood thing. Popular rape myths include the idea that rapists are usually strangers (in reality they usually know/are acquainted with their victims), that victims are somehow responsible for sexual assaults against them if they are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs (this makes consent practically and legally impossible) and that victims provoke or indeed deliberately contribute to their experiences of rape through their demeanor, the clothes they are wearing, etc. (this is not equivalent to sexual consent)[6]. People prefer to imagine rapists as inherently, sociopathically damaged monsters, as something other than normal people, because it is easier than imaging a rapist as someone in any way similar to oneself.
            These myths do not come out of nowhere. Rape-supportive attitudes (which includes any idea that obscures what counts as sexual consent or invalidates instances of non-consent) go hand-in-hand with cultural norms that assume men are more sexually driven and have urges they can’t control and that men are in some way entitled to sex, because these radically decrease the legitimate opportunities women have to refuse sex[7]. These beliefs are fed to us in films, on television, and indeed in music videos, wherein a man is depicted making sexual advances which a woman initially rejects but eventually succumbs to. This feeds into the commonly held perception that sexual consent is in some way ambiguous, and the resulting confusion between consent and submission.
            By depicting nearly naked female models being catcalled and groped by fully dressed men and using sexually aggressive and demanding lyrics, Thicke and the other people involved in ‘Blurred Lines’ were expressing sexist and rape-tolerant attitudes. Their claims to defenses of satire or silliness, in my opinion, make the matter worse by encouraging the normalization of attitudes that shouldn’t be acceptable.

            The other more easily visible consequence of the song and video, and the social norms they perpetuate, can be seen in the recent treatment of Miley Cyrus and the ‘Defined Lines’ parody. The attitudes I identified above belong to a more general culture of sexism, which has wide reaching effects on the ways we react when our social norms are challenged.
            Miley’s heavily sexualized performance of ‘Blurred Lines’ at the VMAs led to her being branded with labels such as ‘disgusting’, ‘disturbed’ and ‘embarrassing’[8]. Overnight she was reduced from a person into a collection of unflattering GIFs. Miley was not the only participant in this performance, but the media reports of the event have largely failed to attribute any blame to Robin Thicke. It seems very unlikely that he didn’t know what was planned for his set, but Miley has been the one held to task for it. Thicke was (once again) fully clothed, and didn’t dance in the sexually explicit way Miley did, but one would think there would be some responsibility attributed to him as a participant in the performance, and as the only fully adult participant at that. This is a perfect example of an instance of failed gender equality: Robin Thicke gets away with creating and performing ‘Blurred Lines’ with only the occasional objection to his ever-increasing popularity, while Miley is internationally shamed, and may never recover her reputation. The hyper-sexualisation of society is a problem that affects both sexes, and should be dealt with by both sexes, not turned into one more thing for which women alone must take responsibility.
            The same double standards were responsible for YouTube’s recent banning of the ‘Defined Lines’ parody. Fortunately it has since been restored, and can be viewed here: 

Here we have an excellent example of clear-cut satire. The video turns the content of the original ‘Blurred Lines’ on its head by replacing the female models with muscular, scarcely clad men, and the men with fully-dressed females. Unlike in ‘Blurred Lines’, the efforts made to communicate their power don’t start and end with them looking into the camera: they are shown throwing money in the air, literally standing on the men, and pacing around them while they are encased together in gladwrap. The lyrics too are concerned with defining sexism and sexual violence (‘what you see on TV/doesn’t speak equality’ ‘You can’t just grab me/that’s a sex crime’) instead of ‘blurring’ it, so to speak. The video contains no more nudity or sexual content than either version of the ‘Blurred Lines’ video, yet it was banned, while the original stayed up. This is purely because the world isn’t accustomed to images of men being sexually objectified. Near-naked women such as those in the ‘Blurred Lines’ video are so commonplace that it doesn’t occur to the general audience to be offended. Parodies such as this one are important because of the attention they draw to unacceptable sexism and double standards.
            This is why I refuse to accept excuses made for ‘Blurred Lines’ under the defenses that it’s just a pop song, and isn’t dangerous. The presence of sexism in our society has been as obvious as ever in the past couple of weeks. Popular music which depicts and celebrates the degradation and sexual objectification of women and the blurring of sexual consent must be held accountable for the continuation of these attitudes.

[2] “Blurred Lines”. Accessed 2 Sept 2013.
[3] Makarechi, Kia. “'Blurred Lines' Director Diane Martel Defends Music Video Against Claims Of Misogyny.” Accessed Sept 4, 2013.
[4] Servantes, Ian. “Interview: Emily Ratajkowski Talks Controversy, Nudity, and ‘Rapey’ Lyrics”.
[5] Makarechi
[6] Deming, Michelle E., Krassen Covan, Eleanor, Swan, Suzanne C. and Billings, Deborah L. " Exploring Rape Myths, Gendered Norms, Group Processing, and the Social Context of Rape Among College Women: A Qualitative Analysis." Violence Against Women. Vol. 96, no.4 (2013). P. 467
[7] Bennett L, Manderson L, Astbury J. “Mapping a global pandemic: review of current literature on rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment of women.” University of Melbourne, 2000.
[8] Riggs, Liz. "Miley Cyrus and Pop Music’s Double Standard". Accessed September 7, 2013.

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