More of the Same.
All eyes are on Robin Thicke this summer: with his song Blurred Lines at #1 in the Billboard Top 40 for weeks, he’s found his ticket and now he’s a household name. When the song and its infamous video were released this spring, it was widely criticized for its misogynist, degrading content, and for condoning violence against women by reinforcing rape myths. For now, it seems he’s brushed off most of the criticism, or managed the spin to his benefit. But it’s a slippery slope, sanitizing and trivializing violence against women. The practice of doing so is both ancient and maddeningly enduring, and Blurred Lines is just more of the same.
Blurred Lines is not a Libertine call to sexual freedom, just the latest installment of an ancient myth: heroic rape, brilliantly characterized by Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will. It’s not up for debate whether Blurred Lines is “rapey.” Many rape victims have reported their attackers using this very same language while being assaulted: “I always wanted a good girl…You the hottest b—h…I know you want it…I’ll give you something to tear your a– in two…Do it like it hurt.” Some say critics are too puritanical to tolerate some dirty talk and nudity; alas signage in visual culture is never neutral. Whether Blurred Lines is titillating for some is irrelevant and distracts us from a productive conversation about sexual politics that Thicke says he welcomes. One’s own fantasies and private sexual response to pornography, or an urge to dance to Top 40, do not serve as a valid standard for an actual ethical stance on sexism, sexual violence and the objectification of women.
Sexual violence has been sanitized and aestheticized throughout the history of visual culture. Blurred Lines is no exception, and Mr. Thicke knows it: “People ask if it’s degrading. Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman.” Sexual inequity and misogynist content in the media and entertainment are pervasive and often pass unnoticed by consumers drowning in messaging fatigue. When neither the mainstream media, nor a critical mass of viewers take up the debate, the continued debasement of women in entertainment and other cultural contexts will persist. This process is significant, not to be trivialized, and has a real impact on the lives of women and girls in this country and around the world.
In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes. The vast majority of victims are young girls: approximately 1 in 4 women experience sexual assault by the time they reach 18. I know women who have experienced the horrible endgame of how Thicke’s brand of rhetoric stokes violence; sexual assault exacts a brutal physical and psychological toll on its victims. This rhetoric also serves as a contributing cultural catalyst for other challenges many women face, such as body dismorphia, eating disorders, mood disorders, and sexual harassment.
Degrading spectacle is one way to build a music career in a competitive entertainment landscape distended with content. Blurred Lines has drawn some criticism along with a few safe parodies, but none delivers a sting sharp enough to wake us from our complicity and toward consensus. The pervasive impact of a sexist male gaze is too embedded in our collective worldview. How low must an effective parody stoop? Imagine this: a trio of young, nude teenage boys teasing and tending to a pair of Holy Fathers who sing the same lyrics: “I’ve always wanted a good boy, I know you want it, I’ll give you something to tear your a– in two.” Offended, anyone?
Lately, Thicke finds himself in good company with Justin Timberlake’s new, narcissistic video Tunnel Vision, in which JT’s own face appears projected onto topless dancing women’s bodies. In April, rapper Rick Ross had his sponsorship with Reebok cancelled after widespread complaints and protests about these lyrics from the song U.O.E.N.O.: Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it. / I took her home and enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it. But now Ross may be back with Reebok; he’s recently appeared in a new campaign video.
Will sexist pornography and sexual violence become the New Normal in mainstream entertainment, and what’s next once we’re numb to this? The implications extend far beyond sexual politics. Everyone has a stake. Where sexism persists, other interlocking systems of privilege, power and oppression follow suit: racism, class discrimination and more. Can we stay vigilant enough to identify and dismantle so many Trojan Horses in our midst?
For now, Robin Thicke is winning listeners, but maybe not for long. He’s on thin ice, and his best defense is his own wife’s complicit, hollow approval. I’m not fooled: women will not always take a stand on sexual politics when private interests trump our common interests, or our better natures. When that’s the case, we must instead look to others among us who recognize the universal impact of oppression and degradation: some of us are women, and perhaps just as many are reasonable men.