Friday, September 27, 2013

Feminist criticism of Blurred Lines misses the mark

One of this summer’s biggest hits was the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. A catchy tune, upbeat background vocals and dance-able beat combined to help Thicke’s song reach number one on the Billboard charts – and stay there for the next 12 weeks. But the song also brought its fair share of controversy. At first, a risque music video full of topless dancers brought accusations that Thicke was demeaning and objectifying women. More recently, prominent feminists have released a series of articles and parody videos accusing the lyrics to Blurred Lines of endorsing rape and sexual assault, with one going so far as to call it a “rape anthem…about male desire and male dominance over a woman’s personal sexual agency.”

Make no mistake, sexual assault is an enormous problem in our society – especially on college campuses – and any time these allegations are made they deserve to be taken extremely seriously. There are indeed a great number of songs, movies, and other elements of pop culture which propagate sexism and are pernicious to women. But upon further inspection, the accusations against Blurred Lines on this count are largely unfounded.

Perhaps the most controversial line from the song is the refrain, “I know you want it.” Critics contend this line insinuates that a woman’s consent to a man’s sexual advances can be assumed, such that active and explicit consent are portrayed as unnecessary. This critique is furthered by the line “The way you grab me, must wanna get nasty.” Feminists rightly note that just because a girl dresses, dances, smiles or flirts in a certain way does not mean she’s “asking for it”. They also observe that unfortunately, that absurd logic is used by many rapists to justify their actions. Taken in conjunction with the song’s title, this argument claims Thicke is trying to legitimize that line of thought by blurring the lines of consent.

But this is not the case. Just because Thicke’s song includes a sentence that many rapists have also used does not mean he is endorsing their actions. The meaning of any language, sexual or otherwise, can only be understood in the context of the situation in which it is used. And unlike rapists, Thicke’s character is speaking before any sex has occurred. Thicke is using those words to verbally woo someone, in an attempt to preemptively acquire their consent; that is very different from using them to justify physically raping someone, in a retroactive attempt to suggest their consent wasn’t necessary. Thicke’s song never comes close to endorsing the latter.

It’s true that while making his sexual sales pitch, Thicke uses the tactic of “assuming the sale”; he tries to inflate the perception of his own attractiveness by speaking as if the woman’s desire for him were a foregone conclusion. This is certainly arrogant, but again, the gap between words and actions cannot be ignored. It is not rape to suspect someone might want to have sex with you. Thicke’s self-portrayal as an irresistible stud says nothing about whether he would rape someone should his facade fail to work. Nor is this cockiness limited to male pop singers. For example, Beyonce’s song “Check On It” also has the lines “boy I know you want it,” before describing in explicit detail all the non-verbal cues the man in question is giving her to imply that this is the case. Stars like Rihanna and Fergie offer many similarly self-centered examples, as do rap artists of both genders. Even outside of the music world, modern people do seemingly do everything in their power – from clothing to makeup to the people they hang out with to the way they speak – to maximize their sexual leverage. Perhaps this overpowering social concern with presenting ourselves as sexually attractive shows our culture is shallow. But Thicke’s example is no worse than the rest, and there’s no evidence he views his suspicions about a woman’s desire as a substitute for her confirmed consent.

Another controversial lyric is the repeated assertion that “you’re a good girl.” Critics portend that by labeling his target a “good girl”, Thicke is attempting to explain her lack of demonstrated interest with the assumption that she’s merely trying to conceal it, in order to keep the intact the myth that his advances are irresistible. They also accuse Thicke of propagating the antiquated idea that women are either “good girls”, if they abstain from sex, or “sluts” if they partake.

The truth is that Thicke’s lyrics do exactly the opposite. When we consider the dated and sexist social pressures placed on women not to have casual sex, it becomes clear Thicke’s lyrics are actually an invitation for women to break free from those constraints (mighty conveniently for him, of course). When he sings, “Let me liberate you…that man is not your maker”, he’s telling women that men do not own them, and they can decide who to sleep with on their own. He’s telling them to reject the social pressure to not act “slutty”, and not to be ashamed or guilty about wanting sex like everyone else. He encourages them to let loose their “animal”, and makes a caricature of the guys who try to “domesticate” them by shaming them into that traditional gender role.

From this perspective, there’s evidence he’s using the term “good girl” sardonically, as if the term itself is ridiculous. Because there’s nothing wrong with having sex, doing it often does not make one any less good. Thus, he’s suggesting there’s no such thing as a good girl, and teasing the woman for pretending to be one.

Of course, it may well be the girl is not pretending at all, and genuinely has no desire for Thicke whatsoever. Thicke never lets on to this possibility because, once again, it would not fit in with his self-inflating aura as a handsome pop-star. But as was previously explained, that cocky front is only dangerous if it translates from verbal boasting to physical aggression, and the song’s lyrics never come near endorse that additional step. In fact, the only allusions to physical advances in Blurred Lines comes on the part of the woman who “grabs” the singer. This, along with the line “Go ahead, get at me,” might even be interpreted as empowering to women, because it unconventionally encourages them to take the lead in approaching men and initiating relationships themselves.

Of course, many other lyrics in Blurred Lines are not particularly high brow. Like many pop songs, the lines are often redundant, hollow and meaningless, and Thicke’s songwriters may not be trying to make any social commentary whatsoever. But what little meaning they have seems to be much less offensive than some have contended, and there may even be elements of female liberation hidden beneath the surface.

No comments:

Post a Comment