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Blurred lines of empowerment

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JULY 31, 2013

Despite the title of Robin Thicke’s new song, when a friend of mine first mentioned the “rapey” undertones of “Blurred Lines,” I was taken aback. The fact that the song’s music video is grotesque and objectifying wasn’t new to me, but I had failed to recognize these more problematic undertones as I heard the catchy tune around Berkeley.

However, after taking a closer look at the lyrics and reading Tricia Romano’s take of the song in The Daily Beast, I have come to understand its impact more fully. Sure enough, the song is suggesting that the line between rape and consensual sex is “blurred.” This is blatantly portrayed when a model is carrying a stop sign on her back only to have Thicke sing “I know you want it.”

Lyrics aside, the footage alone is objectifying. Three women are orbiting around the three singers in nude thongs and heels, shaking their asses and licking their fingers as the men move around in full-body suits and sunglasses. The women are exposed, sometimes on their knees, playful and vapid. The men stand tall and assured, promising, “Just let me liberate you,” and referring to their physical proportions in a way that asserts their masculine dominance. It’s fair to say the balance of power isn’t exactly in the women’s favor.

But what’s that line about liberation all about?

In an interview with GQ, Thicke said of his song, “We just wanted to turn (everything that was taboo) over on its head and make people go, ‘Women and their bodies are beautiful. Men are always gonna want to follow them around.’” He added, “Right now, with terrorism and poverty and Wall Street and Social Security having problems, nudity should not be the issue.”

First of all, the issue with the video is not the nudity per se but the context surrounding the nudity — how the nudity creates an imbalance of power. If the purpose of nudity was to point out the beauty of the human body like Thicke claims, then why were the men fully clothed? Why not expose their beauty as well? And why were the screenshots moving so fast between one beautiful nude body to the other without sufficient time to actually reflect on it the way you would below Michelangelo’s David or the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Thicke speaks of his song as if it were revolutionary, “blurring the lines between men and women,” when it really adheres to longstanding patriarchal standards.

I can see why Thicke would think his song is empowering. The song’s about a “bad girl,” one who’s challenging the social norm by practicing sexual freedom — even though this sexual freedom is being offered to her by a man — in a society that expects her to remain monogamous at the least and otherwise dubs her a “slut.”

Sounds like a misguided attempt at empowerment, right? But Thicke isn’t the first to consider sexuality when trying to “empower women.”

The idea of empowerment through sexual acts is endorsed on a daily basis by some of the most iconically “feminist” female artists. Take Beyonce Knowles, for example. Yes, I said it: Beyonce, the “symbol” of female empowerment. Looking at her “Single Ladies” music video, I found nothing empowering about three women in leotards and high heels shaking their asses yet again. Granted, this video had no men in it at all, but who was the sensual choreography targeting? What was it meant to achieve? And what messages does Beyonce’s video send to young women who use such an influential figure as a role model?

When you listen to songs like “Run the World (Girls)” you immediately think of female empowerment. The lyrics seem to be giving and not taking away agency from women. But the music video says a completely different story — starting with the woman in her underwear trapped in a cage to the army of women dancing in strapped leggings and skintight dresses. The message? Yes, girls run the world, but only using their sex appeal. And listeners go on to use this message as a model for empowerment!

Now, there’s nothing wrong with practicing sexual freedom — at least what Beyonce is modeling doesn’t undermine consent. What I find problematic is when sexual acts are marketed as the only means of practicing freedom and equality — entirely ignoring education or self-sufficiency. Perhaps women aren’t represented as sexual objects in Beyonce’s songs, but sexuality is still used as the primary tool for women to yield any type of power, which isn’t much better, in my opinion.

So yes, Robin Thicke’s song — as well as half the hip-hop and rap industry — is extremely problematic. It perpetuates the objectification of women and rape culture. That is clear enough. What is more perturbing are songs that are not identifiably objectifying, songs that are seen as empowering even though they perpetuate the same problematic norms.There is much more to empowerment than the body, be it female, male or transgender empowerment. And as far as I’m concerned, the truly blurred lines are the messages we choose to admit into our lives in the name of empowerment.

Amy Mostafa writes a Thursday column on cultural issues. Contact Amy Mostafa at [email protected].

AUGUST 03, 2013