Sunday, October 27, 2013

John Legend, Robin Thicke, and Sex Positivity

(Warning: I'm going to include some still shots of the unrated version of "Blurred Lines" later in this post that might be NSFW.)

I've pretty much stayed away from the fallout over Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," linking to a few posts about its use of the clothed men/naked women trope and a bone-chilling comparison of the lyrics to words spoken by rapists to their victims.

I then read a few feminist defenses of the song. These were focused on an alternative interpretation of the lyrics (primarily) and video as sex positive.

This post from Polemique has the tagline "Dear capital-F Feminists, Please Stop the Slut-Shaming. Love, a lower-case-f feminist."

The author goes on to claim that the lyrics sound "like a women's lib anthem," explaining:

And that is exactly what Robin Thicke’s character is saying! “That man is not your maker”—he’s saying her boyfriend doesn’t own her! Granted he has a vested interest in saying that, in that he wants her to stray from her relationship to be with him, but essentially he’s reminding her that she’s an independent person who can make her own decisions about her sexuality, regardless of whether she has a boyfriend.
She then says that all of the insistence that the pop culture images of sexual encounters focus on mutual respect and equality ignore the fact that some women want to be dominated in their sexual exploration:
Who made you the bedroom police? Did it ever occur to you that there are a lot of women who like that? Who are in healthy relationships in which each partner has mutual respect for the other as a human being? It is none of your business to decide what the boundaries of respect are in a consensual relationship!

These article gave me pause. Was I slut shaming by being adamantly opposed to this song/video combo? For turning the radio dial as fast as I could if my daughter was around to hear it (and pretty fast even if it was just me in the car)? Was I shutting my mind to valid expressions of sexuality and reinforcing a good girl/bad girl dichotomy that I otherwise rail against?

I don't think so. And here's why.

Videos aren't always the best place to judge a song, but in this case, Robin Thicke adamantly defended the video in an interview with GQ, going so far as to say "what a pleasure it is to degrade women" since he normally respects them. When he talks about the inspiration for the song, he says that "We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, 'Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!' That's why, in the video, we're doing all these old men dances. It was great."

So I think it's fair to say that the artist sees the nature of the video and the nature of the song as intricately linked. And the video creeps me the fuck out, and I don't think it's because I'm being a prude.

The fact that Robin Thicke (and the other male performers) are always clothed while the women are naked creates a display of dominance and inequality that isn't about sexual enjoyment to me. Even in bed, Thicke keeps his clothes on:

Then there's the fact that the lyrics are not merely suggestive of a sexual encounter, but the use of drugs to create a predatory atmosphere:
Baby can you breathe/I got this from Jamaica/It always works for me/Dakota to Decatur/No more pretending
He is specifically saying that he is giving women drugs (until they can't breathe) to inhibit their ability to "pretend" they don't want to have sex with him. It "always works" for him, across the country. This is a discussion of serial rape, and I'm supposed to feel guilty for calling it out because I'm not sex positive?

Do You Want to See a Sex Positive Video Done Right?

But I am an unabashed lover of pop culture, and I didn't want to write a post simply tearing down "Blurred Lines" for the montage of sexism that it is. 

I would rather point out where I see pop culture getting it right, and that's in John Legend's "Made to Love." 

This video has nudity and sex that falls out of society's narrow bounds: interracial sex, multiple partners, homosexuality, and voyeurism. But it also has what "Blurred Lines" lacks: intimacy, connection, and depth. Just take a look at some of these stills from the video.

This single is from the album Love in the Future, and it's an album filled with lyrical exploration of sexuality, often in forms that aren't culturally-approved. 

Here are some lyrics from another track ("Save the Night"): "I'm not a one man band/I want to sing a duet/You and me would sound much better/You look so good in my bed." Here's another line from the same song: "How about we go and save the night/I can see you want it and so do I."

That's not all that different from Robin Thicke's crooned "I know you want it," at least not on the surface. But placed among a context of mutual desire, it becomes sexy, not creepy. Legend's lyrics suggest attentiveness to his partner's cues, not a demand to stop "pretending." 

The feminist defenders of "Blurred Lines" insist that we should be open to displays of sexuality that are outside of the narrowly-defined cultural norms, and I agree. But that shouldn't include predatory use of drugs, a display of women as playthings to be discarded, and a demand to ignore pleas of halting a sexual encounter. 

John Legend's display of sexuality demonstrates that consent is sexy. How you let it all shake out after that is up to you, but it has to begin with consent. 

John Legend thinks all men should be feminists and isn't afraid to bare it all himself (or recognize how over-the-top those displays of sexuality can sometimes be with a little humor). 

1 comment:

  1. I had an issue when the DJ at my daughter's junior primary school disco (children aged 5-8) started playing Blurred Lines. Neither the teachers there, the P&F president or the Principal could see why I was concerned. Was less than impressed.