“Blurred Lines” in Context | By Kenneth Ernst

Robin Thicke’s single “Blurred Lines” has been receiving a lot of attention this summer, as much for its dance club popularity as its message, which many argue is misogynistic.

The most common argument against Thicke’s video is that it objectifies women by virtue of their nudity. Cries of objectification are common anywhere the video is discussed, however I disagree that this objectification is necessarily a result of nudity. In western culture, nudity is sexualized in and of itself, in fact Emily Ratajkowski, one of the dancers featured in the video, disagrees that nudity objectifies, saying “I think there’s different kinds of nudity, and there’s different kinds of sexiness”1. I would even argue that a video which features female nudity without sexualization would further the feminist cause, by working to dissolve the connection between the pure female form and sexuality. Unfortunately Thicke’s video clearly fails this “without sexualization” condition.

In truth, the objectification in the video stems from the intersection of the lyrical content with the gaze of the male singers. The dancers are not at any point moving in a specifically sexual way, but the lyrics, with the actions of the males present, focus exclusively on their value as sex objects. In fact, the women in the video seem almost overwhelmingly disinterested, with few scenes depicting their active involvement. The entirety of the video suggests that the dancers’ nudity gives license to stare and pursue. Feminist scholar Judith Butler describes this in Undoing Gender as “the body [being] the site where ‘doing’ and ‘being done to’ become equivocal. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own.”

There is a further parallel here to Butler’s writings wherein the author states,

“when we struggle for rights, we are not simply struggling for rights that attach to my person, but we are struggling to be conceived of as persons. […] to be called unreal and to have that call, as it were, institutionalized as a form of differential treatment, is to become the other against whom (or against which) the human is made.”(Emphasis in original)2.

To objectify a person is to imply that they are not fully human, not truly real, and while dehumanizing may seem an excessive charge to level at a music video, Thicke’s lyrics include the phrase “tried to domesticate you / but you’re an animal / baby it’s in your nature”, which in the video is synced with shots of the male singers brushing the dancer’s hair as though they were a pet. This stands in stark opposition to Butler’s call to “understand how the ‘viability’ of a woman’s life depends upon an exercise of bodily autonomy and on social conditions that enable that autonomy”. The women in the video are denied this exercise of bodily autonomy by virtue of the male gaze. If these women are being liberated, as Thicke seems to believe and the lyrics attempt to imply, it is only liberation to an animalistic nature, which places women on the wrong side of the relation between ‘life’ and ‘human’.

Although the original video was removed from YouTube for nudity, the most offensive aspect of the song is the lyrics, and not the dancers’ state of undress. Featuring such lyrics as:

“I’m gonna take a good girl / I know you want it / […] Can’t let it get past me /  […] Talk about getting blasted / I hate these blurred lines / I know you want it /  […] The way you grab me / Must wanna get nasty”.

These lyrics seem to suggest that it is possible for someone to non-verbally communicate consent, the implication being that if a woman initiates physical contact it is a tacit agreement to have sex. The possibility that the phrase “grab me” refers to grabbing attention, as opposed to literal physical grabbing, is even more troubling. It is unclear to me what “blurred lines” Thicke despises, if not those of where consent is or is not given (hint: the lines are not that blurry). The words “must wanna get nasty” in combination with “I know you want it”, as well as the stated desire to “take” a good girl and not “let it” get past him paint an aggressive, even predatory, picture. One particularly troubling shot that was used in the video displays a woman, who is clearly fully nude, with a stop sign on the small of her back. Associating the word ‘stop’ with the only fully nude person in the entire video, combined with the dancer’s displeased expression, seems a shocking lack of forethought.

Thicke defended the video in an interview on The Today Show, saying:

“Sometimes the lyrics can get misconstrued when you’re just trying to put people on the dance floor and have a good time. […] It’s supposed to stir conversation, it’s supposed to make us talk about what’s important and what the relationship between men and women is” 3.

Unfortunately, the desire to put people on the dance floor does not excuse any artist from fully considering the implications of the message in their work, especially when that artist then refers to said work as “great art [that is] supposed to stir conversation” in the same interview. However, in another interview originally published by The Times Of London, Thicke suggested that the video is “as silly as can possibly be” and that the lack of “sexy dancing” on the part of the female dancers made the men “look the fools” 4. This disconnect, between funny and therefore harmless on the one hand, and supposedly thought-provoking social commentary on the other, seems irresolvable when one considers that the audio and video are inevitably presented together. Even if it was possible to consider the video in a completely abstract, socially-disconnected way, attempting to analyze a music video without the audio misrepresents the art form. It is this inevitable simultaneity that makes the video so troubling, the specific context of the language alongside which it is presented. In the aforementioned interview on The Today Show,  Thicke even goes so far as to say that the lyric “that man is not your maker” is a “feminist movement in itself”, which is quite simply not true. While any one of these messages could have been communicated independently, the supposedly pro-feminist message is overpowered by the frequent use of controlling and predatory language.

In conclusion, Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, while potentially well-intentioned, dehumanizes and objectifies women; perpetuating the socially and politically constructed idea that women are somehow less than fully human, not completely real. The latent benefit of media such as this is that it does give us an opportunity to discuss these social ideas, and in so doing to slowly move towards a more equitable cultural situation.

 

References

1. Servantes, I. 2013, July 22. Interview: “Blurred Lines” Star Emily Ratajkowski Talks Controversy, Nudity, and “Rapey” Lyrics.
2. Butler, J. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York, NY: Routledge.
3. The Today Show interview with Robin Thicke
4. Kiplinger, A. 2013, July 31. The controversy of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”: too racy for audio or video?

 

Image courtesy of Best Music Ever News on flickr

Kenneth Ernst (@kennysprotips) is studying Psychology at the University of Alberta. 

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  • Darla Gunson

    Very well written piece, Kenny! I’ve missed reading your writing…glad I stumbled upon this link on face book.