The Real “Ick Factor” of “Blurred Lines”

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“For an instant she felt them, their identities, almost their substance, pass over her head like a wave. At some time she would be — or no, already she was like that too; she was one of them, her body the same, identical, merged with that other flesh…”

 – Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

I remember a world before “Blurred Lines,” don’t you?  Before the “hey hey heys” and the catchy walking baseline?  It wasn’t so long ago.  But now, nearly six months after its initial release, you can’t swing a foam finger without running into Robin Thicke’s summer anthem. With a simple three-word suggestion, everybody gets up, bounces, and grinds to the retro beat. 

Robin Thicke has publicly come under fire for his song’s creepily coercive and, as a girlfriend of mine described them, “rapey” lyrics like “I know you want it,” and “The way you grab me / Must wanna get nasty.”  His defense was that “lyrics can get misconstrued” and that he was really aiming to parody the degradation of women in music.  After all, he’s married and has a child, and we all know that married men and fathers are automatically exempt from being creepy.  What Thicke doesn’t acknowledge is that in a world where many listeners readily buy into objectifying messages, the lines between parody and more offensive pulp to add to the stack are, in fact, blurred.

“Misconstrued lyrics” and shameless self-promotion aside (the hashtagged pop-up text got old after about thirty seconds), what really got under my skin about the “Blurred Lines” video (NSFW) was its display of women.  No, not the fact that they’re topless.  Women’s bodies are beautiful.  It was how these women are displayed – as nothing but bodies for the viewer’s consumption next to clothed men – that bothered me. 

Let’s climb in the DeLorean and travel back to 1988, when Robert Palmer released the video to “Simply Irresistible.”  Palmer stands in front of three rows of women whose clothing, hair, makeup, and dance moves are completely uniform.  They are linked together in a chain, moving as one being.  They wear identical expressions of boredom and passivity, rolling their eyes or dropping their lids to appear sleepy, their lips pursed in flat, indifferent pouts.  The camera frequently cuts to specific sexualized body parts – thighs, breasts, buttocks – whenever the women dance or gyrate in a way that simulates sex.  Male gaze, anyone?

Nudity aside, there isn’t much difference between the women in Palmer’s video and the women in Thicke’s.  They parade in front of their ogling male counterparts, strike mannequin-like poses, bat their eyelashes, and absentmindedly fluff their own hair.  They stick their fingers in their mouths.  They run their tongues across their teeth.  Yet for all this emphasis on the mouth, the women are silent barring the brunette’s brief “Meow!” after Thicke likens her to a “domesticated animal.”  Words, like clothes, are reserved only for the video’s male stars.   

In order for the male gaze to operate most effectively in popular culture, the woman must be disarmed.  The removal of clothing, loss of individuality, and split of the whole into fragmented body parts are all crucial in the transformation from human being to consumable object.  None of these processes, contrary to Thicke’s claim that the objective of his song/video is to “make people feel good,” are gratifying or empowering to a female audience.  You’d hope that a female director would have understood this. 

Of course, music videos are hardly the only medium guilty of disarming women for male pleasure.  Print advertisements, particularly those selling sexualized products like alcohol and weight loss supplements, frequently place products alongside passive, vulnerable women or their body parts.  Budweiser’s beach towel ad features women who have literally fused with an object – the towel – and uses an overhead camera angle to signify dominance.  Syntha-6 protein shakes are perched on buttocks and held between breasts, and I’ll let you guess at the not-so-subtle meanings behind the slogans “Shake Well,” and “Grab One & Enjoy.”

The promotions for acclaimed series Nip/Tuck were famous for featuring an array of doll-like, disfigured, or dead women dominated by the show’s two male protagonists, Christian Troy and Sean McNamara.  There’s the faceless woman in nothing but heels and briefs being stitched up like a stuffed animal by the male surgeons.  The faceless “fallen angel” who lies either unconscious or dead in the desert, skin scarred from where her wings used to be, while Christian and Sean look on from above.  The naked woman draped elegantly over an examination table while Christian and Sean, clothed in suits, rest their hands on her and stare menacingly at the camera, conveying ownership; predator conquering prey.

And we can’t forget album art.  Metalcore band Asking Alexandria’s From Death to Destiny cover depicts a naked woman trapped inside of a vending machine, an image that leads us to believe she is available for purchase, while a clothed man in the foreground walks freely past her.  Ted Nugent, himself no stranger to controversy, envisioned this image of a bound and gagged naked woman being served on a plate of food as the cover to his 2007 album, Love Grenade.  The picture was later swapped out for a far less offensive cover.  Eminem’s cover for The Slim Shady LP features a clothed man (himself) and a dismembered woman (only her foot is visible) – presumably the body of his ex-wife, Kim, whom he violently kills on the track of the same name.  The Slim Shady cover also bears a striking resemblance to this Jimmy Choo ad, in which a suited man prepares to bury the lifeless shoe model draped inside his trunk. 

At 3:19 in the unrated “Blurred Lines” video, one of the women dons a mask that covers her entire face.  I immediately thought of Pauline Réage’s 1954 erotic novel Story of O, the account of a young French woman bound in sexual service to various masters.  In the novel’s final scene, O is fitted with an owl mask and paraded naked before a crowd of party guests.  When a guest asks O’s master who she “belongs to,” the master responds, “you, if you like.”

The women in Robin Thicke’s music video belong to us, if we like, because they do not own themselves or their bodies.  And despite Thicke’s labeling “Blurred Lines” a “feminist movement,” lyrics like “I’m gon’ take a good girl” and “You the hottest bitch in this place”, not to mention his willing participation in Miley Cyrus’ VMA train wreck, write a far different story.

Want to satirize the degradation of women in popular media, Mr. Thicke?  Shoot a video that shows clothed, autonomous women reacting with disgust to the advances of their pursuers, not one that reinforces the idea of women as morsels for commercial digestion.  Melinda Hughes has already done so.  Your defense of “Blurred Lines” as parody clearly misses the mark, because no matter how many good intentions this road to hell is paved with, the solution is never found by perpetuating the problem.

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