5 Nov 2013

Thinking Kink: Is Britney's 'Work Bitch' Video Just More 'Kink-Jacking'?

When I wrote the ‘Thinking Kink’ blog series for Bitch Magazine back in summer 2012, I found myself talking a lot about how "'vanilla' entertainers hijack BDSM imagery to make a quick buck”. Whether it was 30 Seconds to Mars’s Hurricane video implying that there's so much vanilla sex in music videos that only kink can make a video 'edgy' now, or Rihanna’s much-mentioned ‘S & M’ video, it was clear that one thing myself and some amongst the kink community are mighty tired of is a phenomenon I like to call ‘kink-jacking’. As Cliff Pervocracy put it, “The process of discovering you’re kinky…is long and difficult. I hate to see a vanilla entertainer reduce that to some black vinyl and dog chains”.

At first glance, I do feel that’s exactly what Britney Spears is doing in her latest video, ‘Work Bitch’. Slim, long-haired cisgendered women in PVC leotards, eye masks and spike heels? Check. Plenty of girl-on-girl dominating so that no man has to feel threatened and can instead just enjoy the faux-lesbian spectacle put on solely for him? Check. The commercialisation of kink in the form of the inexplicable Pill-speaker bit gag? Check. (Oh, and seriously, what the F is with the inexplicable fake British accent?!)
However, I’m aware of the need to not enact the same kind of presumptuous condemnation that people foisted upon Rihanna for daring to toy with imagery of violent sexual practices when she herself had been a victim of domestic abuse, or perpetuate the patronising idea that women in music videos have no control of their image. Rather than reading the imperative ‘You better get to work, bitch’ as internalised misogyny, we could read it as being declared in the same camp, arch style as RuPaul said it in her ‘Supermodel’ video. Rather than assume that the women of color Britney leads on leashes in her video are unwitting victims of dubious racial tropes, we could remind ourselves that Ciara chose to replicate this image herself in the ‘Love Sex Magic’ video.  While assuming that Britney herself must be nothing more than a marketing man’s plaything, we often forget that it was she who had the idea for the schoolgirl outfit in her very first music video, and therefore may have had more input into her heavily sexualised image than we care to remember.
That said, it remains depressing that the dominant model of sexiness (premised around being slim, white, long-haired, scantily-clad and subject to the male gaze), is still the only thing artists or their teams can think of to resort to when they need to be ‘edgy’. When the most rebellious thing a female artist can do is to remain fully clothed (watch Lorde’s 'Royals' video and try to name another current pop video where a fully clothed woman sings alongside shots of scantily clad men – I guarantee you’ll struggle), you do wonder why the need to ‘express oneself’ always comes down to the need to writhe, pant and pout. Britney’s done so much of the latter in her videos that it stands to reason she would eventually run out of tricks and need to do something new – enter the whips and chains. Yet the way it’s framed doesn’t feel edgy or subversive, it actually feels entirely safe. No men are depicted as submissive in the video, so male dominance isn’t challenged in any way. Instead, a privileged white woman spanks and disciplines her presumably less well-paid dancers.
Now, we might be equally unhappy were Britney portrayed as the submissive in the video,  and maybe that's because we're already tired of the perpetually submissive act from a woman who sang 'I Was Born To Make You Happy'. And maybe that's unfair, because feminism's all about choice, right? - even if that choice is to wear little, say even less and do whatever's going to sell records. But really, why is it so much to ask to see a slightly more nuanced depiction of kink, such as that seen in Madonna’s Human Nature video, where she constantly switches between dominant and submissive roles within a group of men and women. As BDSM educator and feminist porn director Tristan Taormino puts it - "Images of dominance and submission are not anti-feminist in and of themselves, but one of the reasons feminists critique them is because consent is not always explicit and because of the repetition of men dominating women, making it the main type of power exchange we see in [the] mainstream. . ." In a world where female power still feels so precarious, the repeated glorifying of female submission gets very tiresome very quickly, even to those - such as this very author - who enjoy and practice it.
As for the Pill speaker bit-gag, well. The audacious product placement aside, kinksters who get off on being human furniture or treating others as such, might find that particular idea very hot – being turned into a human stereo is not a particularly outrageous idea for many whose kinks include being treated as an object. But the commercialisation of kink does just seem to be another way of wresting it away from those for whom this is a major lifestyle choice - one which has often cost them a great deal to follow - and putting it in the hands of marketing men. Being full-on kinky can be bloody expensive - have you seen the price of a latex outfit, a spanking bench or a fucking machine?! And those who have a vested interest in making us feel that our lifestyles are not sufficiently shiny or sexy will do all they can to try and make us buy more things, as anyone who has walked into Ann Summers and see their 'Shades of Grey' bondage range can attest to. To be blunt, if you really want to gag someone, you can do it without spending a penny (why not use their own underwear?!), and was this bit gag included to actually advance knowledge of kink, or just to objectify the woman wearing it and do some free advertising at the same time? I think you can guess.
Ultimately, I guess Britney is doing what she can within the very narrow parameters she has been provided, and fair play to her. I'm sure she and her dancers peeled off all the PVC with relief after a hot day writhing around in the desert, and probably went home and put their tracksuit bottoms on, kinky sex being the last thing on their minds. Meanwhile, kinky people all over the world played happily in private or semi-public, displaying body shapes, races and gender identities from all across the spectrum, wearing outfits ranging from jeans and trainers to steel-boned corsets to nothing but clingfilm, and experimenting with power dynamics crossing every boundary imaginable. And that's how you can tell when kink-jacking, rather than a genuine and considered tribute to BDSM, is taking place - it's when none of that beautiful variety is represented.

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