Has anyone else noticed that Meredith Brooks’ ‘I’m a Bitch' just seems to list a lot of Madonna/whore dichotomies?
As someone who downloaded ‘Blurred Lines’ long before it became the subject of a debate on sexual politics, and who still can’t help but think that it’s just so damn catchy, I have a lot of mixed feelings on the subject. That said, (and at the risk of sounding like a Political Science cliché), I think it’s important to have clear and precise engagement with what exactly is so problematic about the song and music video.
Words like ‘misogynist’, ‘chauvinistic’ and ‘sexist’ get thrown a lot in discussions about popular culture. Some have even accused the song of advocating rape, interpreting ‘blurred lines’ as referring to the blurred line between consensual and non-consensual sex. Others have argued that it promotes sexual harassment and assault (in the sense of non-consensual contact) more generally. These arguments are all valid, and certainly persuasive in light of the general impression given by the song and, in particular, its music video. Nonetheless, I think they sometimes risk being too generalised or simplistic.
The reason being clear and precise is important in these sorts of discussions is because generalised comments invite glib responses such as ‘Feminists see misogyny everywhere!’, or suggestions that you have simply missed the point of the song (see the comments section of any YouTube post of the ‘Defined Lines’ parody for countless examples of this).
Explicitly recognising the nuances of the source material and the context in which it operates pre-empts such responses and forces those disinclined to agree to at least engage with the fact that, even though glib responses are available, they may still be insufficient. It also recognises that something doesn’t need to be the worst, or even a very bad, example of sexism to still be hugely problematic. I don’t profess to provide the ultimate, or even a good, example of such a nuanced response. What follows are only my opinions on the subject.
Why it’s probably not rapey
In my mind, the ‘blurred lines’ referred to in this song is really about the girl sending mixed messages about her level of interest, and Robin Thicke trying to entice her to agree to go home with him, rather than taking ‘maybe’ as meaning ‘yes’ and planning on having his nasty way with her regardless of actual consent. Do I think he’s doing it in an unbelievably creepy and dickish fashion? Oh yes. Do I think he’s planning to sexually assault her? No.
The lyrics seem to support this:
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
Firstly, Thicke seems to acknowledge that the girl has some form of agency, and it was incorrect for the other guy to try to ‘domesticate’ her as if she were a pet or property. He’s also (arrogantly) asking permission to ‘liberate’ her, which again, suggests that he recognises she at least has some form of autonomous, independent, persona to liberate, as well as the capacity to not allow him to ‘liberate’ her (whatever that means, maybe he’s planning on adopting her from the pound?).
I hate these blurred lines / I know you want it (x3) / But you’re a good girl / The way you grab me / Must wanna get nasty / Go ahead, get at me
‘The way you grab me’ suggests that the girl is the one instigating the contact in this instance. He interprets it as her wanting to have sex (which is, admittedly, not the way consent works). But, importantly, invites her to ‘get at him’ rather than taking the initiative himself. In this light, the ‘I know you want it’ seems much more like teasing than a disregard for consent. She’s voluntarily touching him (which may indicate insanity, but that’s another issue), he’s indicated his consent for this to progress, the ball is now in her court, and she has the ability to, if she desires, refrain from ‘getting at him’. It’s a general consent-fest.
Then there’s a lot of stuff about how she is the ‘hottest bitch in this club’ and how he feels lucky that she’s demonstrating interest. And Pharrell Williams raps some stuff about: ‘One thing I ask of you / Let me be the one you back that ass into’.
I’m not sure that’s a pick up line that’s ever worked for anyone, but again, it’s up to her whether or not she allows him to be the one that she does indeed back her apparently exquisite derriere into. There’s nothing to indicate that, once she realises what a terrible life decision she has made, she would be unable to retract the consent and flee screaming in the opposite direction (potentially into some form of sterilised bath). Presumably this then leads to the ‘getting nasty’ and the rest, they say, is disturbing, disturbing history.
Why it’s still super creepy and really problematic
Firstly, it is true that this a pop song designed to be enjoyed in a jovial, frivolous and generally non-political manner. It is also a pretty established point that people (in particular people of the demographic likely to go to parties and clubs and dance to ‘Blurred Lines’ while possibly receiving mixed messages from a ‘hot bitch’) take a lot of cues about how to behave from popular culture. If you think Robin Thicke is cool, and you’d like to be like Robin Thicke, then perhaps you’re also inclined to flirt like Robin Thicke. To the extent that people are already inclined to act like Robin Thicke anyway, songs like this simply reinforce the idea that such behaviour is okay – which it isn’t (see point 2).
Secondly, there is a biiiiig no-go area occupying the space between ‘rape’ and ‘treating a woman with respect’. While I’d argue that it’s important to not overstate the problem with ‘Blurred Lines’ by suggesting that it advocates rape or sexual assault, I am in no way suggesting that telling a girl you will ‘liberate’ her inner ‘animal’, implying a girl only has worth to the extent that she is the ‘hottest bitch’ in the general vicinity, saying ‘I know you want it’ to anyone about sex, or, while we’re at it, inviting a total stranger to ‘get nasty’ with you, is in any way appropriate or non-creepy. So, to the extent that this song advocates all of that, it is problematic.
Thirdly, it is true that some people overanalyse song lyrics more than others. To the extent then, that the general impression of ‘Blurred Lines’ suggests that it is okay to rape, sexually assault, or even just harass, women, this is hugely problematic. Hence the ‘generalised’ arguments referred to above are still absolutely important.
Fourthly, the music video throws a completely new wash on the song and makes the general impact of ‘Blurred Lines' much more offensive and ‘rapey’ than simply the song itself. In general, it features Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I. dancing with some girls who are wearing plastic and appear to be on some form of horse-strength Prozac or otherwise experiencing an alternate reality that does not seem to involve a great deal of personality or being engaged with what is happening around them. Thicke stands there looking smarmy while girls blank-facedly dance around him, and Williams is seen at one point pulling a girl by her ponytail. To the extent that the rapeyness of lyrics are mitigated by their acknowledgement of the girl's agency, this pretty much undoes all of that and presents them as playthings in some form of Victoria's-Secret-meets-Stepford-Wives-esque scenario. I'm hard pressed to see this as anything other than blatantly and shamelessly objectifying women and this is obviously hugely problematic.
So, in conclusion: No, I don’t think ‘Blurred Lines' is advocating rape; but yes, I do think it sends some really damaging and offensive messages about how men should treat women.
Sometimes I can’t tell whether his poems are:
I DANCE FOR TEN YEARS
If Nobody Else Ever Lived
It Would Be Enough Anyway
Because I Am So Alive That I Make Up
For Anything Else That Happens or Doesn’t
I CANT TELL YOU ABOUT THE
I DON’T KNOW SHIT ABOUT IT
jesus will save ur sorry ass
i sit on the porch and sing
snowbank next to a windmill
the horsehead nebula the
watertower 8am sun
rip this poem in half
care at all
i’ll just make another
i cried at 9:28 and again at
again at 10:59
no terrible reason tho haha
i watched THE NOTEBOOK
and it made my cry
because it was so amazing
i am gunna go have
waffles for breakfast
have a good day
i know i will think of u all day
I’m inclined to go with #1, with just a little touch of #2:
im sorry i like you better than everything
i want to whisper into your smile
come watch cops
you make me need to write love poems
this is what i might whisper in the rain
come over and
nap with me i want you
i sleep like a raccoon in you
i sleep in you
like i am a raccoon somewhere
do you ever want
to climb into a birch tree with me
in the bottom of the rain i want you