Thursday, August 15, 2013

Every Body Get Up

As usual, I'm not particularly a fan of the number one hit song of the summer, in this case Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". I certainly hear a lot of it because I listen to The Howard Stern Show and Stern's a big fan of the song, possibly because the video famously features topless women. Which is something I liked, too, not just because the women are beautiful but because the situation depicted feels very innocent, and it's nice to see something in popular media that does not feel the need to connect sex with horror or violence. But the song, while certainly an earworm, isn't interesting to me and Robin Thicke seems like a George Michael impersonator and I'm not a big fan of the original George Michael.

But while I was out yesterday, it occurred to me to google "Blurred Lines Male Gaze" and I couldn't repress a grin. Few things give me a thrill of melancholy schadenfreude like the invocation of that term in any critical discussion of art because I know it usually means I'm about to hear someone who thinks they're being very smart about to say something very stupid in the name of justice.

Sure enough, when I got home and googled, I found several satisfyingly tangled essays, most of which directly contradict one another, in their attempts to explain why "Blurred Lines" and its video are crimes against humanity.

One thing going in I assumed would be common among the criticisms would be an address up front of the fact that the video was directed by, and the concept of the women being topless in it came from, a woman, Diane Martel. I knew it would be too easy if people were put off by this one detail, still I figured people would want to take at least a paragraph to explain why a work that was literally the product of a female gaze is a strident example of the male gaze.

As it turns out, nearly all of the essays fail to even mention the music video's director, side stepping entirely any quotes from the artists as to their motivation behind the depiction of nudity in the video. I found only two essays that mention the director, one of which, this one, only brings her up in the concluding paragraph; So, in conclusion, yeah the song is fun and has a catchy tune BUT the music video objectifies women and the lyrics are truly concerning. The fact that the director of the video is a woman doesn’t erase these facts, nor does Thicke’s pathetic, weird and ignorant claim that he’s trying to start a “feminist movement” through this song. Also, note to Thicke: if you have to state in your music that you have, ahem, impressive genitalia, you probably don’t (overcompensating much?).

This person seems to assume that simply by acknowledging the fact that the director was a woman the fact becomes irrelevant.

So, oddly, it falls to me to present the argument as to why a woman's vision would be an example of the male gaze; as a commercial director working in a world dominated by a patriarchy, even a female director might be conditioned to present imagery that depicts women as inferior and/or subservient to men, as nothing more than visual objects to please men.

Here's what the director says her intentions were;

I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men. Look at Emily Ratajkowski’s performance; it’s very, very funny and subtly ridiculing. That’s what is fresh to me. It also forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators. I directed the girls to look into the camera, this is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I don’t think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck. That said, I respect women who are watching out for negative images in pop culture and who find the nudity offensive, but I find [the video] meta and playful.

And I must say . . . I think she succeeded in her intentions. I do feel like the women in the video are the ones truly wielding the power. The song is about Thicke making this argument that women are just as sexual as men and that he knows this because he picks up on perhaps subtle signals. The women in the video, with their goofy dances and casual nudity seem to be saying, "Yeah, genius, congratulations on catching up with the rest of the class." Even the bit with the woman dancing in front of "Robin Thicke has a big dick" in big letters, which is something Thicke has said repeatedly in interviews wasn't his idea, seems to be ridiculing male sexual preoccupations.

A lot of the essays I read mention the many parodies that have come out about the song, apparently one of the first of which was this one by a "boylesque" group called Mod Carousel;

This article at Raw Story effusively praises the parody.

What struck me as so wonderful about this video is that, unlike other attempts at exposing how routinely women are objectified by casting men in their roles, the men in this piece are fully committed to being sexy, when usually in stuff like this, the men are subtly mocking the idea that men can be sex objects at all. Most of the time, when men agree to pose in classically “objectified” poses, they’re winking at the camera, using irony to give themselves distance from actually having to live in a traditionally woman’s space. None of these guys give off a “me so silly!” vibe that undercuts what this work is trying to do.

. . . Not only are the men stripped down to thongs and wearing make-up, but they are striking all the pouty-sexy poses of the interchangeable naked women of the original video and it’s sexy.

Which surprised me. The author of the article is a woman and most heterosexual women I know don't find guys like those in the video above especially attractive but, I say, any woman who does, more power to them. The video, as an attempt to reverse the paradigm to where I as a male viewer might feel corresponding discomfort at the supposed objectification of men . . . don't really feel uncomfortable watching the video. Actually, it just looks like a group of friends having a good time.

Which other articles, less pleased about the Mod Carousel parody but equally incensed by the Robin Thicke video, point out. Which necessitates a parody more directly employing the male gaze interpretation;

This video, and the article linked to above, demonstrate the fundamental disconnect here. And I should say here that, yes, there is a real problem in the modern world in regards to gender relations and sex crimes. Statistics are clear that a frightening number of women are raped or in other ways sexually assaulted every year. And I've personally witnessed men presuming a right to a woman's body too many times to say it's not a problem. However, I don't think that's where this mediocre song, "Blurred Lines", comes from.

The line which provokes the most outrage is, "I know you want it," and the video above is critical of a man who would say that when he doesn't really know she wants it. The article concludes with, "Next time, guys, make sure you know she wants it."

So, obviously if a guy knows she wants it, then it's okay. So why shouldn't we believe Thicke when he says he knows she wants it in the first place? Partly this is due to an inability to identify the sources of intent in the lyrics. Here someone criticised Thicke's lyrics in the form of running annotation;

"Tried to domesticate you"

From a feminist viewpoint, this is a very problematic line.

To ‘domesticate’ suggests three things.

a) that the girl (in this case a referent for all girls) are inherently wild and in need of taming. This in turn suggests that ‘girls’ lack a certain control and cannot be trusted with their own natures. They are closer to animals than people. Dangerous ideas…

b) that it is the job of a man to control women and make them fit for the house. Literally, Thicke is likening the girl to a pet. In doing so, he contributes to a centuries old tradition of female subservience to a dominant male, evidenced in literature throughout history.

c) that men are naturally superior to women, in that they are in a position to control and tame (‘domesticate’) them.

And yet, when listening to the song, it's clear Thicke is presenting the attempt to "tame" women as a bad thing.

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
Hey, hey, hey
You don't need no papers
Hey, hey, hey
That man is not your maker

These are really cheesy lines but clearly opposite to the interpretation presented above.

But the most common misinterpretation I'm seeing is of the title itself--"Blurred lines".

This article presents a predictably inarticulate quote from Thicke about the song and an angrily obtuse interpretation of the title;

The BBC asked Thicke what the lyrics mean. He replied, "For me it was about blurring the lines between - two things - one between men and women and how much we're the same. Like my wife, she's as strong as I am, as smart - if not smarter, stronger and she's an animal too and she doesn't need a man to define her or to define her existence. So the song was really about women are everything a man is and can do anything a man can do. And then there's the other side of it which is the blurred lines between a good girl and bad girl which, you know, even very good girls have a little bad side to them. You know you just have to know how to pull it out of them." The interviewer followed up asking about criticism of his song as a rape anthem. Thicke answered, "Yeah I think they should all - I mean, I can't dignify that with a response, that's ridiculous."

Given the chorus - "I hate these blurred lines" - it's hard to decipher Thicke's interview. His hatred of the blurred lines means he greatly prefers clear gender lines and hates his wife's strength and smarts. Alternately, Thicke wrote lyrics meaning the opposite of his intent and doesn't know it. Alternately again, Thicke wrote lyrics that fairly represented his intent which he misrepresented to the BBC. One of these has to be true.

Well, not really. Going back to the running annotations critique, let's look at this section;

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

Arguably, there is a moral ‘blindness’ at play here.

In the context of a party, gender inequalities don’t really hold much of a bearing, but this can be dangerous insofar as it blinkers men to the dangers of their own lusts. This song, and its controversial original video, highlights this danger. Men, having a great time, are casually subjugating women, oblivious to their wants, feels or needs.

I am reading between the (blurred) lines here, but it is interesting that, at least on a subconscious level, Thicke is aware of the dulling of his social sensibilities.

No, what Thicke is saying is that he's doubting his senses. He thinks he's receiving signals, but he feels anxiety that he might be wrong. That's the blurred line--a happily married woman who's content is a clear line. A married woman who flirts with other men is a blurred line.

I actually found one positive review of the song by googling "Blurred Lines Male Gaze", a woman who writes about a part of the song universally ignored by the negative critiques;

I know you want it
I know you want it
I know you want it
But you’re a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty
Go ahead, get at me

If she is grabbing at him, then we can only assume she is a willing participant. The song never sounded to me like Robin was sexually assaulting anyone, so much as viscerally sexualizing a woman who has been denied that kind of attention from her current partner.

By now, maybe you wonder why I've spent so much time defending a song I don't particularly like. Well, as someone who hopes for a day when sex isn't associated with shame and assault and more often then not celebrated in the media as something beautiful, I tend to be rankled by people who, as Oscar Wilde might have said, "find ugly meanings in beautiful things."

So I'll leave you with a better music video that happens to feature nudity;

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