I know I’m a little late to the party, but there seems to be a controversy about a depiction of men in suits cavorting with nearly naked women. A lot of people got very worked up about it when it was first shown . . . in 1863.
150 years after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, there’s a similar controversy involving men in suits and nude women, Robin Thicke’s video for his single “Blurred Lines” (NFSW, but you probably already know that by now).
On April 2, shortly after the song’s late March release, Feminist in LA blogger Lisa Huynh posted:
Basically, the majority of the song (creepily named ‘Blurred Lines’) has the R&B singer murmuring ‘I know you want it’ over and over into a girl’s ear. Call me a cynic, but that phrase does not exactly encompass the notion of consent in sexual activity.”
That phrase does not exactly encompass the notion of force either, or even coercion.
To the contrary, this sounds like last chance pleading to me, a man at last call trying far too hard to convince a woman to go home with him. Consent is not at issue, much less force.
Thicke is just the latest in a very long line of pleading soul men, going back at least to James Brown pleading: “Please, please, please . . .” And including Marvin Gaye, whose song, “Got to Give It Up” (does this song title also ignore consent?), provides the sample “Blurred Lines” is built on.
When I ask my students what music is best to set a romantic mood, Marvin Gaye is inevitably the first name mentioned. Is “Let’s Get It On” an invitation or is he pressuring his partner?
And don’t these lyrics from his later hit “I Want You” mirror the sentiments of “Blurred Lines”?
You don’t want me now
But I’m gonna change your mind
Someway, somehow, oh baby
I want you – the right way
I want you
But I want you to want me too
Want you to want me, baby
Just like I want you”
Are these classic soul love songs also condoning rape?
So is it really the lyrics of “Blurred Lines” that are so objectionable or is it the video that accompanies them?
The predictable ban from YouTube led to massive free publicity which pushed the song to #1 earlier this month. That is when lines started being drawn. On June 16, the video, along with the song, was criticized on The Vagenda and on June 17, The Daily Beast’s Tricia Romano declared it “kind of rapey,” the hashtag that has stuck and appeared in the majority of the later headlines about the controversy.
These complaints all mirrored Huynh’s initial complaint:
Oh, and the music video! Not only does it feature three girls baring bare breasts throughout the entire song (along with nude-colored thongs), but it also obnoxiously interrupts the already disturbing scene to blare #THICKE in big, bold, red letters every 10 seconds. Is this some Big Brother brainwashing technique? Who told him that this was a good idea? Not to mention an entire clip dedicated to balloon letters spelling out ‘Robin Thicke has a big dick.’ Nothing embodies class better than telling the entire web that you have a big schlong! Makes one wonder if he’s overcompensating, or if his wife would agree with that statement? Seriously, this song is disgusting— though admittedly very catchy.”
Interesting that Huynh brought up Thicke’s wife, because part of the video’s original framing narrative was that it was approved by Thicke’s wife, Paula Patton. Indeed, she allegedly pushed Thicke to release it. Apparently, he had been leaning towards the (scantily) clothed version.
And it was the female director of the video, Diane Martel, who suggested the nudity in the first place. Thicke’s response? “As long as it’s fun and the girls are comfortable, let’s do something silly, let’s take some chances.”
Sure, this was probably just an attempt to inoculate expected criticism, and smacks more than a bit of the “stripper/porn star empowerment” argument, but the video is so ridiculously over the top, I find it very hard to believe anyone takes it seriously. How can anyone see a bunch of balloons spelling out “Robin Thicke has a big dick” and not acknowledge it as a joke? It may or may not be a funny joke, but it’s hard not to recognize it as a tongue in cheek pricking of male posturing, not serious posturing of a male prick.
But rape? Rape is a very real issue. Doesn’t it minimize that seriousness to interpret such a benign song as endorsement when there are so many other media depictions that are indeed “rapey”? “I know you want it” is a far cry from “I’m going to give it to you,” much less “I am going to force you to take it.” Doesn’t blurring the lines between these three make it easier to dismiss legitimate complaints about real depictions of forced sexual acts like Audi’s Super Bowl ad where we are clearly supposed to cheer on a young boy kissing the surprised girl he had a crush on – it’s okay, though, she seemed to like it!
And as wholly gratuitous as the nudity is in the “Blurred Lines” video, it does not support a rape narrative either. The men are almost entirely passive, mostly just standing there while the largely indifferent women strut around them. There is no forcing of attentions here.
When I was in third grade, my mother took me to see the French Impressionists. I remember walking into a room with Dejeuner sur l’herbe. It is a huge painting, over six feet tall and eight feet wide. I asked my mother, “Why are the ladies naked while the men have clothes on?” She replied very matter of factly, “Men like to look at women’s bodies.” This has since come to summarize the history of the nude in art for me.
No, that long history does not make objectification proper, but neither does it imply a lack of consent on the part of the nudes.