Kim

Puritan censure cloaked as liberalism: Blurred Lines and the end of sex

My older sister has always provided me with musical gems that I’d have been oblivious to on my own.  She had ‘discovered’ John Mayer with the rest of the world a day introduced me to the airy sweetness of ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’, the angst ‘Heartbreak Warfare’ and his earlier polemic ‘Waiting On The World To Change’. From her playlists I heard Leann Rimes covering Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ and more recently, she and Rihanna asked me to Stay. And then one day mid last year I heard Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines coming out her phone’s tinny speakers, the song that was drawing stinging rebukes for counts of misogyny, sexism and advocating ‘rape culture’.

Since it hit the records last year July claiming to be a fun summer hit, the ire that Blurred lines has attracted from critics, notably feminists has led to no less than 22 universities slapping blanket bans on the song on campuses in the UK. So was my sister complicit in encouraging sexism, misogyny and rape by insisting on listening to Blurred Lines?

Let’s examine the syntax of the song that has made up most of the heat for the aggrieved counts of felony, by blogosphere jurisprudence at least (the rest went toward Blurred Lines’ provocative video). The initial furor over the lyrics is fairly understandable: the lines: “You’re an animal/Baby it’s in your nature/Just let me liberate you” and “Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you/ he don’t smack that a** and pull your hair like that” pronounced Robin Thicke’s arrival as the antithesis to the effete, self-conscious man; he’s arrogantly sure of himself in a way the sensitive man attuned to the rivalry of power between the sexes cannot afford to be.

The refrain “I know you want/…the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty” is what carries this outrageous song beyond the language of sex and persuasion, refusal and rebuttal, kinks and taboos, into the realm of sexual politics that feminists desperately wish to be un-opaque, explicit and simple.

The blogger Lisa June has said, “Call me a cynic but that phrase [“blurred lines”] does not exactly encompass the notion of consent in sexual activity.” This is a reasonable claim; the words blurred lines can provoke the image of sleazy old men with sticky fingers being pummeled or led away in handcuffs decrying, “But it seemed like she wanted it!” For American feminists, it is this swift connection to the acquaintance rape ‘epidemic’ at university campuses in the US in the 1990s that has powered the move to ban the song on campuses for fear of distressing rape victims and to ‘shut down myths and stereotypes around sexual violence’, says the Edinburgh University Students’ Association. I’ve always thought of universities as the ultimate space for conflicting liberties, and also the place for reconciling them, free from the administration’s blanket disapproval to shape discourse, and yet at Edinburgh University among others, a student union is carrying out the censoring, taking the lead usually left to the administration in this dystopic repression of free speech.

Robin Thicke himself has somewhat ineffective in his defense of the song’s title, justifying ‘blurred lines’ as putting men and women on equal grounds, though I can see a fair explanation under the gaucherie of his statements to the press. Still, you’d really think the songwriter of such a presciently outrageous song would prepare his media statements before he led with that. Diane Martel, the video’s director has claimed that all power in the video, which features all but nude models prancing around with the fully dressed Thicke and Pharrell Williams, the song’s co-writer, belongs to the women and that the song is simply about silly, ridiculous fun.

The nudity of the women has unsurprisingly drawn outrage for their “objectification”- which has to be the most overplayed word in the sexual pundits’ politically correct lexicon. Not only is it overdone but it is also complex, capacious and strangely compelling; it draws the user to it again and again once they’ve crossed that threshold of recognizing and confronting sexism, but as the indignant utterer continues to use the word, the distinctions between indignation and puritanical censure will inevitably be erased.

I think that the blurred lines that Thicke repudiates, “hates”, is that heady frustrating feeling two people experience when navigating sexual tension but communication isn’t stellar, it lacks much for transparency, and it seems like there’s a duality at present, an elephant in the space between them that mocks over-cautiousness and colours half plays with the stain of blush. This feeling that there are two languages being communicated, one verbal and its darker, nascent twin, is what Robin Thicke meant, as anyone who’s ever flirted with sex and unconsciously and subconsciously signalled mutual consent without ever explicitly stating so at every stage, should know is so, so ordinary. This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for such frank conversation between two people in this situation; it’s even welcome (sometimes) but in most sexual and social situations, it’s in a definite minority.

Needless to say, navigating these pathways can be nerve-wracking for the unsure and the uninitiated but much, too much of the US’s and UK’s national dialogues on sexual consent and relations, which most developing countries inadvertently import, blatantly ignores the agency and personal freedoms of individuals (more the adult women than men) in their haste to apply bureaucratic, formulaic definitions to sex. If the song’s number 1 stay on the charts in numerous countries is anything to go by, there are hundreds of millions, and surely there are some women in there, who don’t share the opinion of the track’s critics, yet feminists have always berated women for what they see as their giving up of autonomy and complicity in their own ‘objectification.’ It’s a particular blend of arrogance and out-of-touchness in a movement that I’ve always had much respect for that could lead to such crude blanket censorship and constant politically correct policing that feminism stands for today.

Blurred Lines is not a lyrically remarkably song though it is ridiculously catchy and I like it all the more for being provocative and for rattling fragile sensibilities.

 

11 thoughts on “Puritan censure cloaked as liberalism: Blurred Lines and the end of sex

  1. It’s pretty easy to comment on this article. I disagree. It is clear to me that the song reinforces stereotypical and patriarchal influence over women. That said, there is no way I would be playing this song in my personal leisure time. Sure, he has the freedom to express whatever lyrics he wants, but to sing about savage-like, sexual dominance over a woman is to ridicule women’s agency and personhood by portraying them as primarily suited for sexual pleasure to appease your personal sexual desire. That, my friend, is objectification in its finest. Blurred lines is no exception. What people do with their kinky sex lives is up to two consenting individuals. Blurred lines offers a scenario in which notions of personhood and consent are neglected and the woman as a mere sex toy, waiting to be dominated by the savage man.

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  2. It’s interesting how the same piece can be open to all kinds of interpretation. Actually, that’s inaccurate; it seems like there are only two ways to feel about this unremarkable song. What I don’t like is that you’ve dismissed the song by reaching into your feminist bag and hauling out the dictionary; essentially you’ve given me the stock analysis for every censored song, and that bothers me because this kind of strong exception to sexuality portrayed in music and art is like a drone strike in Pakistan that mows down indiscriminately.
    Female sexuality is not the passive thing you’d like to be: it attacks and participates all on its own but that’s conveniently ignored when people discuss this song. The woman in the song isn’t divested of agency because a man is offering sex, or even that he claims to know what she wants. True, we can’t know definitively that the woman in the song is consenting but there are some lyrics that point to that. It’s unimaginable though that you’d expect explicit consent in a song but it’s a song sung by a man, and an extremely arrogant one at that, and that I think is the crux of the matter.

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    1. Sorry, what exactly are you offering besides “because I like it” and “feminism bad” to demonstrate that the song is not sexist, and that, if sexist, we shouldn’t listen to it? Not sure where female sexuality comes into all of this since, last time I checked, Robin Thicke was not female. By the way, “puritan” is a cop out ad hominem attack which isn’t even remotely accurate. Sites like Jezebel threw Thicke under the bus and, if you check them out, they’re all about sex, sex and more sex. Try again.

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  3. There are not *two ways of interpreting this song. There is a clear cut way without requiring a degree. Let’s examine.
    “OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
    But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature
    Just let me liberate you”
    Are women to be considered domesticated animals? Is it in a woman’s nature to be domesticated? These lines of lyrics reinforces common patriarchal influence over a woman and her body through objectification. And why does the man want to liberate the woman? This line reinforces the absurd idea that women lack agency.
    “What do they make dreams for
    When you got them jeans on
    What do we need steam for
    You the hottest bitch in this place”
    How do you interpret that, Ms. Kim?
    No objectification? No sexism? No assault on women’s agency? No demeaning factor? Perhaps if you would take the time to evaluate and research the importance of the feminist movement (which really is a representation of equality, justice and the demolishing of patriarchal influence), then you may find this particular song problematic. Don’t limit yourself to media articles.

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    1. No need to check my feminist credentials, ferlin, they’re quite intact. And for that reason, I bristled slightly when I heard the song. Until I realized how ridiculously literal I was I was being. And if words like ‘animal’, ‘bitch’, ‘domesticated’, ‘liberate’ bother you to this extent, I suggest you immerse yourself in pop culture, music and the environment around u, for a little bit and consider the ribald vocabulary a learning lesson. On the issue of sex, there’s a whole spectrum. There’s boring sex, hot sex, weird sex etc. It’s clear to me that this song is a Robin Thicke’s persuasion to a woman to transition from boring sex to some hotter sex. With him. That’s it. The song is just about some sex. And the animal he calls her is a sexual being. Please, he’s not equating her to a sheep, or a deer or heh, a mosquito.

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      1. Pop culture? So what? Does pop culture provide us a framework for what’s ethically just and unjust? No it doesn’t! Are you saying because it’s socially acceptable my the masses, that the masses dictate whether it’s a good or bad (really awful) song? The masses have a less say on what’s moral and ethical in many other areas. Your inability to see beyond the curtain is very disappointing, at least to me. You have feminist credentials? Ha. Okay. Terrible bluff. I do hope you revise those credentials of yours because they’re really expressions of an anti-feminist. Just sex? The song is just about sex? Do you always oversimplify every social issue? The oversimplification you’ve presented is just ridiculous given the context of the discussion.

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      2. Actually that’s exactly what I’m saying. Music has a finger on the pulse of the world. Morality and purity aside, if you’re genuinely interested in how people think and feel when they’re not solipsistically posturing, music is a good place to start. When I suggested you listen more closely I meant that language has evolved beyond 1950s fragilties.

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      3. Blurred Lines isn’t art. You need to realize that. You cannot justify its message by stating what music is meant for. It’s totally oversimplifying the problems associated with the lyrical message of the song, in which the masses accepts. You need to understand that art and music (media and entertainment in general) affects society’s outlook on prevailing matters that affect real people. Take for instance the popular acceptance in Caribbean culture to despise homosexuals through dancehall and soca musical lyrics. It’s not the rhythm that’s the problem. It’s the *message*. Please, try to think outside of the pop culture box because you’re just going to represent yourself as a blind follower of the masses.

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  4. “What I don’t like is that you’ve dismissed the song by reaching into your feminist bag and hauling out the dictionary; essentially you’ve given me the stock analysis for every censored song, and that bothers me because this kind of strong exception to sexuality portrayed in music and art is like a drone strike in Pakistan that mows down indiscriminately.”

    What I don’t like is that you’ve dismissed responding to the points I made and assume I went into my “feminist bag” of tricks to back what I’m saying. FYI: I’m male. I’ve examined notions of equality and justice, academically too. Feminist theory is integral in the notion of equality. Virtually all academics agree that feminist theory is vital in the pursuit of equality. You have a misrepresentation of what feminism is about. You take it to be a radical movement out to dismantle sex, which in fact it doesn’t and cannot. It is important that one finds the time to do a proper analysis of what one finds problematic before making radical conclusions through misrepresentation of an essential and much needed movement. Onto now, you haven’t responded to my points. Instead you have been straying away from the matter by assuming I’m some sex demolisher (your theory of feminism that’s actually wrong). If it wasn’t for the feminist movement, years ago you would not have been able to publish publicly your perspective because women were seen as lesser and unequal beings compared to the man. Here are some starting points to better understand what feminism is and isn’t:
    http://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/artsci/gws/resources/myths.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/11/laci-green-feminism_n_5577565.html

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  5. And Ferlin, I realized that you are male. And that doesn’t make you less of a feminist – clearly. Not that I’ve said anything to this effect. If it looks like I’ve avoided addressing your claims of ‘sexism’, ‘objectification’ and what was it, right ‘patriarchal influence’, it’s because I think my answers are in the essay and also because those words block Fruitful discussion, as they are intended to. To your claim that I’m an anti-feminist I can only say that I’m not surprised because it’s clear you can’t see past your sanctimonious rhetoric. As delightful as this conversation is, this might be my last comment because I have no intention of getting into a pissing contest to prove my feminism. Btw: it does your argument no credit that you’re citing popular blogs. Because I’ve seen the nonsense out there that does no credit to the equity-based feminism the movement once stood for, and laci green is no exception.

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    1. I’m glad it’s your last comment because you have nothing to argue, and definitely need to revise feminism and its movements. Citations I provided to you are meant to educate you. One was from a university’s website, and the other from a blog post (not posts). Here’s one more I hope you partake in, freely available: https://www.coursera.org/course/womencivilrights

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