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Rape, Cultural Appropriation and Bad Music

July 4, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 7.54.04 AMDiane Martel has two music videos climbing to the top of the charts this week, and burning up the Web with commentary and criticism. If you’ve not heard of Diane Martel, that’s because she’s a director, and the driving creative force behind the videos, not the stars, and in this society, we worship the stars. But make no mistake, she is the driving force behind Robin Thicke’s video for “Blurred Lines,” which many are calling rapey. And Miley Cyrus’s video for “We Can’t Stop”, which is being called both slutty and racist.

I’m not sure why, but I do think it matters that both of these videos were directed by a woman. Which is not to say that women can’t be sexist puppets of the patriarchy, I mean, one look at mainstream media proves that’s not the case! They can. But I don’t see that in these videos at all. And I tried.

First off, let’s look at Robin Thicke. I watched the video over and over again. First time, I will admit, I just saw boobies. I like boobies. A lot. So I tend to get distracted around them. Second time through, I watched the whole thing, looking for the rapey parts. I didn’t see them. So I watched it again. Still no rapey parts.

What I did see was mostly naked women bopping around and douchey guys trying to get their attention, and the women not giving them the time of day. Which is precisely how I react to douchey guys. I think it’s an appropriate response. I did not see any nonconsensual touching. No grabbing. No forcing. It all just looked harmless and playful to me. And, frankly, stupid. (Nevermind that as far as the song goes, it’s just repetitive and dull as hell.)

Backing up, let me justify my use of the word “douchey,” because I always get in trouble when I do it. I love the word “douche” as an insult. A douche is a thing that is marketed to women, that is beautifully packaged with a great sales pitch about being good for us, what we deserve, a way to increase our status. But, under all those words and fancy packaging is a product that is unnecessary and bad for us. Which is exactly how I feel about blinged-out pick-up artists who tell us how good they are for us, and are mostly just full of well-packaged empty promises. They also talk about their penises and prowess a lot, which Thicke does very directly in this video with the words “Robin Thicke Has A Big Dick” on the wall, which makes me think that he would leave me with a “not so fresh” feeling and is probably an all talk, no value douche. At least the character in this video is.

Back to the video.

There has been a great deal made out of the phrase “you know you want it” being repeated over and over and over (and over) again. The complaint is that those words are something  a rapist would say to justify their actions. Sure, that’s totally possible. However, a rapist also says things like, “do you want to go to a movie,” “that’s a really pretty dress,” “do you need a ride” and any number of things. Things that most of us have said at one point or another.

The sad truth is that “that’s something a rapist would say” is a statement that covers our entire lexicon of language. If you would say it, so would a rapist.

Because rapists do not have a secret language code. Duh. If they did, no one would ever talk to them, and rape statistics don’t indicate that that’s the case. Most of us are raped by people we know and have had conversations with. About the weather.

Their Dolce & Gabbana ad. I added the words "You Know You Want It" to make a point.

Their Dolce & Gabbana ad. I added the words “You Know You Want It” to make a point.

Context matters. A lot. So, if  “you know you want it” was the tagline in, say, a Dolce and Gabbana print ad in which a woman was being held down with a $2,000 leather heel at her throat and a matching belt around her neck, yes, that would be rapey.

This video? Not rapey.

Then there’s the matter of the song’s title, Blurred Lines. This is causing much consternation in the blogosphere, because many would like to contend that the lines are never blurred. At it’s most basic level, sure, there are no blurred lines. You do not get to touch someone who has not told you they want to be touched. Period. However, the world is, in fact, full of stimuli and mixed messages that are generalized to the point at which they are normalized, and we sometimes confuse the general for the personal. The very fact that we have a multi-billion dollar industry telling women to be sexy in order to get men, and men that they are not winners unless they get the girl, while simultaneously slut-shaming women and telling men they can’t touch the sexy girl is a mixed message.

So I, for one, am glad to have a clear illustration of how to behave when you’re confused. Which is to say, although it may seem to you to be a blurred line that this woman who you find sexually arousing is dancing around you and purring, guess what, you still don’t get to touch her. Our continued insistence that the world is not full of confusing mixed messages is not making people safer. Admitting that they are there and showing us how to deal with them will. So, douchey guy in the nightclub who thinks that the scantily clad women dancing around you are fair game, no, they are not. Watch this video. Note that he is not grabbing them at any point, despite their boobies in his face.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 8.03.36 AMDelving into the details, I also like the fact that you have sexy women claiming their sexiness, walking around with it, and douchey guys following them around like fools, and NOT TOUCHING THEM. Because that’s how this is supposed to work. It doesn’t matter how turned on you are, not one fucking bit, you still don’t get to touch them. And she has the right to prance around however she wants. Own it! The most sexual scene in the whole thing has Thicke and one of the female models “spooning,” and she’s the big spoon with her hands on him, she’s taking the lead. So, from where I sit, this video is pretty  much modeling what I wish the world looked like.

At least in terms of behavior.

If I were directing it, there are some things that would have looked differently. There would have been a far wider variety of women – from size to skin color. I totally would have put in some bigger bodies, some darker bodies, and shown them with the same flirty ease as the predictably skinny and boobie ones.

I also would have stripped those men down. Seriously, it’s totally creepy that they were fully clothed and the women were naked. Blech. That’s an old and withered meme.

But here’s the biggy. I would have reversed it all, half way through. Stripped the men down, clothed the women, and let the women be the ones pursuing. Because, really, I think that’s where we need to get. Show women wanting sex. Although playfully deflecting men, comfortable in their own sexuality and feeling safe, is a great thing, it’s still the classic “women are objects that men want” trope. But showing us as pursuers – and being rejected – would really be a home run here.

Because women do want sex, we do want a good time, and sometimes, we’re just idiots about it.

Which is a great segue into the Miley Cyrus video.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 7.55.19 AMHonestly, this video was just pure inane crap from start to finish. (Except the Teddy Bears, I liked the Teddy Bears. I’m all about a good non-sequitur.) Although, I will defend her until the end of time for her right to be “slutty” and “trashy” and whatever else she’s being called.

There is an unofficial “truth” that the tighter we lock our kids into boxes of purity and innocence and the forever young mystique, the more rebelliously they’ll try to break out of it. I know that when I was growing up, it was the kids whose parents tried to control them the most, who rebelled the hardest. Watching them has informed my parenting more than anything else.

We made Miley’s “Hannah Montana” the epitome of innocent youth, the only way she was gonna break out of it was with something like this. This could not be more predictable and natural to me. And some part of me was cheering her on the whole time. Sure, it’s painful to watch because it’s just SO OBVIOUS.

The song is every bit as sucky and inane as Thicke’s, but it’s also a tried and true anthem for every single generation. We all have our “oh my god, I’m allowed to party and have fun” anthems. For me it was Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and one Madonna song after another. This is no different.

So, Miley, you go girl. If you want to party with your friends all night and think it’s special you go ahead. Because it is special. It is brand new to you and you just want everyone to feel as free as you do. I get it. Every single adult has gone through that stage, and it’s awesome. And every child out there will go through it eventually, and it will be painful to watch, because that’s how this cycle goes.

However, I do have serious issues with the use of African American people and “street culture” being used as an accessory and a set dressing. And they are used to design a set that is “edgy” and denote her as a “bad girl” in the same way one uses bling to connote success.

Yet I can’t get as up in arms as people seem to want me to about the cultural appropriation. The whole video is trite, yes. But is it really a solid example of cultural appropriation? And if it is, is that inherently a horrible thing?

I think a lot of my problem is with the term appropriation. The issue here for me isn’t one of appropriation but of misrepresentation. She’s conflating “black” with “drugged out and partying.” With “dangerous and bad.” With “”rule breaking.” THAT is a problem.  It is stereotypical, two-dimensional and wrong. She could just as easily used some white folks in there, because all of the drugged out edginess she’s trying to portray exists in a whole rainbow of colors.

But the fashion, and the dances and the music and…..  These things do not stay purely in the domain of one culture for very long, ever. Culture is an organic concept that is constantly changing. Perhaps that’s the anthropologist in me speaking, but I was always taught, and have always believed that culture as we know it is always temporary. Much like our children as we know them will evolve into something else as the world around them influences them.

Culture is what happens when we come together. It’s a verb, not a noun. At least it acts that way. It is something we experience collectively, not something we own and protect.

But somewhere in the dialog about appropriation, as the tapestry of our cultures weave together to make a future, there sounds like a call for separatism and racial purity that makes my teeth hurt. White people can’t do things that black people do, that’s appropriation. (But black people must do the things that white people do in order to be accepted? What’s that? Hypocrisy? Racism? Wrong!) I dunno, it doesn’t work that way for me. Especially in music and dance and art, which is where so much of our exposure to new ideas and foreign ideas begins. Safely. It can’t be a black and white / good and bad thing, there must be nuance.

Further, Miley’s character isn’t given any more substance than the back up actors. They’re all just sort of stylized props, and it’s all conflated and fucked up. It’s a little hard to criticize (though I would and do) that the black culture iconography is shallow and one-sided in a corrupt sort of way, when so to is Miley’s. Her’s is not a character of depth and nuance of virtue either. She is totally that “hot young thing” packed for sale in a video. She is one of the standard variety of young girl sold in media, right alongside “weepy and heart-broken,” “solitary and defiant.” In that way, they all seem equally fucked up and it’s all more emblematic of the selling of archetypes in mass media. “Young fuckable girl ready to party, order up.”

Just like the Robin Thicke video, there are plenty of things I would have changed. I would have created more racial diversity all over the place.  (I also would have taken out all the product placement, jeesh, way to hit people over the head.)

But to say that she is trashy and slutty is just stupid. And to call her racist, I don’t know. I really don’t. Misguided, sure. But unless we’re really gonna argue for a world in which our cultures – whether they’re racial, social, religious or national – stay discreet so we are like ingredients on an elementary school lunch tray, I’m not sure that appropriation is the right argument.

And calling everything racist isn’t the right argument. Nor is calling everything sexist. Nor is saying the expression of sexuality is inherently slutty or predatory.  It isn’t serving us.

But then again, I’m a white chick who has been trying to wash out the bad taste of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus out of my brain by watching Daft Punk videos set to old Soul Train footage, so what do I know. I just know what I like, and it’s usually a well-seasoned mixture of things. Daft Punk and Soul Train, yum.


This piece was my opening monologue for Sexxx Talk Radio on July 3, 2013.  Not quite word for word, because I always wind up winging my speaking a bit.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Marcus permalink
    July 4, 2013 3:51 pm

    Regarding how you would have done the Thicke video differently, I like the last suggestion of switching halfway or so through to the men dancing around in banana hammocks and the models clothed. It would have been in keeping with the humor of the piece, as well as thematically consistent with the “blurred lines” theme. I think either of the other two ideas would greatly reduce the size of the audience who find it appealing and watchable, which would make it commercially inferior, at the expense of scoring some moral brownie points.

    There’s also an element of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. Half of the people appearing in the Thicke video are black, but that’s not enough variety. Most of the background people in the Cyrus video (which I haven’t made it all the way through) are black, so the criticism is that they’re mere props and she’s “appropriating” culture she oughtn’t to. I know that’s not *your* criticism, but my point is that if your ideas were incorporated into the Thicke video, I’d still expect criticism for something like tokenism, having all the non-whites in supporting roles, etc.

    Overall I agree with you, though, especially this: “But somewhere in the dialog about appropriation, as the tapestry of our cultures weave together to make a future, there sounds like a call for separatism and racial purity that makes my teeth hurt.” When it’s a majority group calling for such separation, it seems more obviously racist and objectionable, but it still doesn’t sit right with me when it’s a minority group doing it. I sympathize with the fear of losing one’s culture that seems to be behind it, but cultural segregation just seems like a bad idea to me no matter who’s calling for it.

  2. Alyssa Royse permalink
    July 4, 2013 3:56 pm

    Thanks. And yes, I know my ideas are less marketable. Which is why they would never happen. I wonder when we get to hold “the market” accountable? The market being, of course, the general public. If we stopped “buying” it, they’d eventually stop making it.

    And also, yes, we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. I just wish we’d get to the place that, since we’re gonna piss people off no matter what, we’d start opting for things that create positive change. That said, really, I had no problem with either video. Certainly not worth getting outraged about. They’re no different in any substantive way than any other video out there.

    Then again, I’m not addicted to outrage, which might be a larger underlying issue.

  3. Sarah permalink
    July 16, 2013 9:43 am

    That’s a really interesting analysis and I really appreciated it. I haven’t seen the Miley video, but in terms of Robin Thicke’s, I don’t entirely agree with you. I won’t say I’m outraged because honestly, it’s a pop song and not worth the level of reaction that outrage implies.

    However, that video doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This is a society says that it’s wrong for the government to regulate guns, but necessary to regulate women’s health (because only a slutty person needs an abortion and only a slutty person gets raped). There was moral outrage that two boys who raped a drunk girl got sentenced to jail because they “had their lives ruined”. So, our society has a lot of people that really believe that girls in short skirts drinking at a club are only there because “they want it”.

    Most people – especially douchey guys – are not going to have as nuanced, thoughtful reaction to it as you did. To them, it’s just an anthem: “And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl/I know you want it” that validates exactly how they feel about women – that women in short skirts owe them and they’re entitled to do whatever they want. You’re totally right – a rapist can say any random sentence. But that’s not really the point here. The phrase “you know you want it” in one context is pretty rapey but not in another, true. In the context of this song? It’s kind of on the rapey side of the divide and I get why women have reacted negatively to it.

    I think you’re very right about this: “The very fact that we have a multi-billion dollar industry telling women to be sexy in order to get men, and men that they are not winners unless they get the girl, while simultaneously slut-shaming women and telling men they can’t touch the sexy girl is a mixed message.” I think if we solved that contradiction, we’d be a long way to fixing these problems.

    I guess I’m saying that in theory, I agree with you. But then I look at the youtube comments that women get when they say they aren’t comfortable with this video and I think, nope, some people – the kind of people who will listen to this crappy song, the kind of guys who think that they’re entitled to do anything to a woman if she qualifies as a “slut” in their mind – are not going to get the subtleties of the video.

    p.s. I realize upon rereading this that it makes it sound like I’m advocating that artists need to censor themselves in case some asshat misinterprets it. I don’t believe that… I think individuals are responsible for their own actions. I guess I just wanted to explain why the song and video didn’t sit right with me in a way that wasn’t typical hysterical outrage – to me, it’s just adding to a current culture that’s really doubling down on misogyny. That’s a choice Robin Thicke is totally allowed to make and one I’m allowed to disagree with.

  4. Scott permalink
    August 1, 2013 9:40 pm

    Great, great piece Alyssa. Finally read it and loved it.

  5. Marcus permalink
    August 7, 2013 11:58 am

    Did you see the Jimmy Kimmel version? I didn’t discover it until today, but it just replaced the PG version as my second favorite version of the video.

    I have to admit that the song, which made very little impression on me at first, has grown on me. As with most pop songs, the words barely register at all, but I’ve had that hook stuck in my head more than once, with the descending bass run and the titular lyrics along with “You know you want it.” Miraculously, it has not increased my acceptance of or inclination toward rape.

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