18 Sep 2013

Rapey lyrics, Thicke and the dangers of oversimplifying

So, I hate pretty much everything about Robin Thicke's song and video, Blurred Lines. What feminist doesn't, right? I don't need to go into everything that's creepy, douchebaggy and borderline rapey about the song and video, because plenty of writers have already helpfully outlined it for me. I don't even need to bother satirising its tired, predictable retro-sexism and insidious endorsement of rape myths, because plenty of humourists have already created their own parody videos, and freakin' hilarious they are too. However, when I read this article, which draws links between the song lyrics and the words of actual rapists, I began to wonder if the Thicke-bashing has gotten a little out of hand.
Not that the twatty-sunglassed one doesn't deserve every term of abuse in the book every time he purrs 'I know you want it/But you're a good girl' and endorses the concept of 'blurred lines' that every vile git who claims women all mean 'yes' when they say 'no' uses to justify their misogynistic behaviour. But, I get a little uncomfortable when I read the following - "women, according to Blurred Lines, want to be treated badly.
Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you.
He don’t smack your ass and pull your hair like that.
In this misogynistic fantasy, a woman doesn’t want a “square” who’ll treat her like a human being and with respect. She would rather be degraded and abused for a man’s gratification and amusement."

Yes, I bridle at the notion that it's 'square' not to want to have rough sex - I've written extensively about how being 'vanilla' should not be a source of shame, mockery or used as evidence that you are somehow less sexually 'cool' than people who like it ker-razy in the bedroom. Shaming men who don't want to play rough with their female partners definitely seems to be part of a toxic cult of masculinity that defines manhood only in relation to violence. However, I object to the notion that a guy smacking a woman's backside and pulling her hair equals 'degradation and abuse'. I object to the notion that this could only be done 'for a man's gratification and amusement'. I object to the assumption that this is necessarily non-consensual. I object, overall, to the idea that rough sex is something that is degrading, only ever initiated by men, and only ever forced, non-consensually on female 'victims'. (And yes, I've written about that).

Now, I'd rather spend eternity chewing on broken glass than ever consider sex with a douchebag in Ray-bans who comes on to me by saying 'You're an animal, baby it's in your nature', but that doesn't mean that every single word that said douchebag sings must necessarily be sick, wrong and misogynistic. I also feel that to equate Thicke's lyrics with words that rape victims actually had to hear during their assault (even if some victims were happy to collaborate in this article) is to trivialise their ordeal somewhat. It's also just a bit meaningless. If I say 'I know you want it' next time I temptingly offer a spoonful of ice cream to a friend seated next to me at a restaurant table, am I also guilty of perpetuating rape culture? If one of my roller derby teammates calls me a 'good girl' when I finally get a skating move right after the 74th attempt, is that simply bolstering the 'Madonna/whore' divide? I'm being facetious of course, and I know that what happens in life and what happens in sex can't necessarily be conflated (I know also, of course, that rape is not 'sex'). But Thicke's video isn't sex, either. It's media. Dumbass, lowest-common-denominator media at that. It's three men and three scantily-clad women twatting around in a studio. And whatever terrible things we feel it may reflect or encourage in our society, it's not the worst, or the only perpetrator.

Just off the top of my head, I can straight away think of probably ten different lyrics from popular songs that contain potentially shitty attitudes to women. How's about "Turn around bitch, I got a use for you" from Guns n' Roses It's So Easy? Or the same band's Used to Love Her, subtitled But I Had to Kill Her? We could argue about whether the fact the latter song was apparently written not about a woman, but Axl Rose's pet dog, negates the fact it sounds like an endorsement for murdering your spouse, for as long as we can argue about whether the 'ass-smacking' in Thicke's lyrics is consensual or forced, and I guess we might not get very far. But if, like the author of the Sociological Images article seems to be saying, we're not going to give artists the benefit of the doubt, then I guess I'd better start deleting all my G n' R MP3s. By this logic, I guess we'd better ban Britney Spears' I Was Born To Make You Happy too, not just because it's a godawful song, but because of the female subservience that its title and lyrics are advocating. We should probably also go after Alice Cooper's big-haired, chains n' whips-themed 80s classic, Poison, for the lines "I wanna hurt you just to hear you screaming my name". And maybe we should also take to task Wham's Edge of Heaven for the moment where young George Michael trills, "I would strap you up, but don't worry baby - you know I wouldn't hurt you unless you wanted me to" although at least the violence there is premised on consent and desire.

Which makes me think, where do we draw the lines (and not fuckin' blurred lines, either)? If we're going to cite any song with remotely rapey lyrics as intricately bound up with the traumas of real live women who have been assaulted, it's going to be a very long and sickening journey. Jason DeRulo made the charts in 2010 with a song that contained the lyrics "You'll be screaming 'no'''. Not long after, Dizzee Rascal rapped "I'm not forceful but I'm still hardcore/You're gonna give me everything I ask for". And if we assume that the line "I'm gonna give you something to tear your ass in two" must necessarily refer to 'violent, non-consensual sodomy', then we're gonna have to retrospectively condemn pretty little Pharrell Williams for promising to 'tear your ass up', 10 years ago in his duet with Jay-Z 'Frontin'. Personally, I think this assumption says more about the author's determination to wring every last drop of rapey-ness out of Blurred Lines than it does the actual song. Taken in the context of all the other rapey lyrics, I can see why one would assign this meaning to that particular line, but I don't think the lyric refers to anal rape any more than I think the line 'Burn this woman down' in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest means that McMurphy is actually encouraging Billy Bibbit to set fire to his sexual partner.
It sometimes feels like feminists are required to take one of two very simplistic sides when it comes to sexist media - either condemning it utterly, as the SI article does, or jumping to its defence and claming that said media can somehow be twisted to be 'empowering', however much evidence there is to the contrary. I don't want to do either. I want to encourage people to see the utter pile of bollocks that is Robin Thicke, his songs and his videos, in a wider context. I don't think it's helpful or wise to employ the shock tactics of placing rape victims' real-life trauma alongside silly lyrics from a shitty song that is one shitty song amongst millions that will be infecting the airwaves this week. I also don't think it's helpful to anyone, male or female, who enjoys consensual BDSM and is tired of what they enjoy being immediately labelled abuse.
Pop culture is powerful, insidious and can influence us all in ways we may never be fully aware of. But like a short skirt or a flirtatious smile, it doesn't cause rape, and neither does a stupid hashtag or a douchebag in sunglasses.

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