An Open Letter to Robin Thicke

This piece was published by The Good Men Project on September 5, 2013 under a different title. You can view it here.

Author’s Note: This is a revamped version of last week’s blog post: The Real “Ick” Factor of “Blurred Lines.”  It is a condensed version that addresses Thicke directly.

Dear Robin,

I remember a world before “Blurred Lines,” don’t you? Before the “hey hey heys” and the catchy walking bass line? It wasn’t so long ago. But these days, nearly six months after its initial release, I can’t seem to swing a foam finger without running into your summer anthem. With a simple three-word suggestion, everybody gets up and grinds to the retro beat you may or may not have lifted from Marvin Gaye.

You’ve very publicly come under fire for your 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.” Your defense was that “lyrics can get misconstrued” and that you were really aiming to parody the degradation of women in music. After all, you’re married and have a child, and we all know that married men and fathers are automatically exempt from being creepy. But what you haven’t acknowledged 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, what really got under my skin about your music video was its display of women. No, not the fact that they’re topless. Women’s bodies are beautiful. It was how you chose to display these women – as nothing but bodies for the viewer’s consumption – that bothered me.

Let’s climb into the DeLorean and go back to 1988, when Robert Palmer released the video to “Simply Irresistible.” You were born in 1977, so you should remember this song well. Robert 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 passive boredom, rolling their eyes or drooping their lids, 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.

Nudity aside, there isn’t much difference between the women in Palmer’s video and the women in yours. They too look bored, parading around you, T.I., and Pharrell, striking mannequin-like poses, batting their eyelashes, and absentmindedly fluffing their hair. They stick their fingers in their mouths. They run their tongues across their teeth. Yet for all this emphasis on the mouth, these women are silent barring the brunette’s brief “Meow!” after you liken her to a “domesticated animal.”

Words, like clothes, are reserved only for your video’s male stars.

Ever heard of the male gaze, Robin? I’ll give you a little overview. In order for the male gaze to operate most effectively in popular culture, the woman must be disarmed. Her clothes are removed, her individuality is lost, and she is split into fragmented body parts. Though crucial in the transformation from human being to consumable object, none of these processes, contrary to your claim that your song/video “makes people feel good,” are gratifying or empowering to a female audience.

At 3:19 in your unrated video, one of the women dons a mask that covers her entire face. Her mask reminded me of Pauline Réage’s Story of O, a 1954 erotic novel about 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.”

Robin, the women in your music video belong to us, if we like, because they do not own themselves or their bodies. And despite your 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 your willing participation in Miley Cyrus’ VMA train wreck, write a far different story.

Want to satirize the degradation of women in popular media? 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 it for you. I’m sorry, but 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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