by April Gregory, ’13
A recent onslaught of tits-in-your-face (TIYF) music videos has catalyzed much hullabaloo in the blogosphere. If you haven’t seen Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Justin Timberlake’s “Tunnel Vision,” or The-Dream’s “Pussy” (yes, just “Pussy”), you may wish to view them now. On Vevo or Vimeo, though, because they were pulled from YouTube. And not in a place where your supervisor might drop in to give you some Chobani coupons, because they are very, very TIYF.
To start, I should make one thing exceedingly clear: for years I was a more or less passive acceptor of the contradictions inherent in my favorite music genres. I love hip hop and R&B. LOVE. I love booming bass and releasing my inner Bey on the d-floor whenever possible. Consequently, I had — and still have — a tendency to ignore the often unsavory lyrics that float atop said booming bass. “She eyein’ me like her n***a don’t exist / Girl, I know you want this dick,” to name a recent favorite.
At Stanford I had the opportunity to learn from and connect with some of the world’s foremost hip hop scholars, who dropped more knowledge on me than I knew what to do with. They encouraged me to engage more critically with the voices in my earbuds, which in turn inspired some original musings about hip hop and feminism. The more I thought about the dissonance between my personal ideologies and the hot misogynist mess that is mainstream hip hop and R&B, the less passive I became.
Coming to terms with a genre that, as the fabulous Joan Morgan so aptly wrote, “repeatedly reduces me to tits and ass” has been a long and arduous process. “Sex positivity!” one of my many shoulder devils would tell me. “If the women in the videos are okay with it, then it’s fine!” Sure, but to what extent and on whose watch? Should we assume that video girls are formally debriefed on the risks and implications of their on-camera exposure? Unlike a Snapchat of my repulsive tailbone bruise, those images won’t disappear into cyberspace.
What I feel compelled to investigate, however, is not just the fucked up gender and sexuality politics of the music video industry at large. I am more interested in my personal, visceral reaction to these TIYF videos. I have few to no qualms with nakedness and consider myself quite supportive of women’s sexual freedom. But there is something about the broader context of our contemporary moment that makes these videos exceptional.
It’s been a bad year for women. Law after law and soundbite after soundbite, we have been told that we don’t know what’s best for our own bodies. It’s relentless, it’s exhausting and it’s infuriating. I’m still not even close to getting over Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” fuckery.
So perhaps I am not alone in feeling that in a writhing, naked woman superimposed on Justin Timberlake’s face is sufficient reason to release my feminist kraken. Roxana Gay’s article in Salon brilliantly exposes the unsettling parallels between Robin Thicke’s treatment of women’s bodies and, say, Rick Perry’s. In one of her many snaps-worthy moments, Gay describes the omnipresence of misogyny in this American life:
“It’s hard not to feel humorless as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening, it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”
So in the same way I feel sick when I hear Texas State Senator Bill Zedler call Wendy Davis and her supporters “terrorists,” I also feel sick when I watch an extraordinarily beautiful woman prance around in front of big silver balloons that spell out, “Robin Thicke has a big dick.” Naked.
I feel sick because the female director of the video tells me it’s “very, very funny and subtly ridiculing,” and I want to believe her so badly. I really do. But no degree of subtlety can flip the pervasive script we witness in the video: objectification and exploitation of female bodies for male pleasure and profit. Even if she claims the girls in the video “are in the power position” because they’re looking directly at the camera. Even if she says the video is “meta and playful.”
I feel sick because I know millions of men (and women) are watching this video, listening to Robin creepily croon, “I know you want it,” and thinking the whole thing is just so awesome. I feel sick because regardless of the director’s intentions, the women in the video will inevitably be perceived as human equivalents of the balloons celebrating Robin’s penis: decorations that exist only to adorn and endorse a man’s sexual prowess. There’s nothing fucking “meta” about that.
(For the record, both “Tunnel Vision” and “Pussy” were directed by men.)
The women in each of these music videos are not the problem; patriarchy is the problem. To me, the fact that these videos have proliferated now, in our precise political moment, is no mere coincidence. The unprecedented exploitation of the female body we witness in the videos is symptomatic of a much bigger, much scarier reality. After all, art imitates life.
I will not pretend to be blind to the absolute insanity going on around me, because frankly, I just can’t anymore. I will talk about it with my mother, my friends, and all the precious women in my life. I will not entertain the idea that perhaps I am overreacting. And, like Roxana Gay, I will not tolerate being told to “lighten up.”
I will also act an absolute fool whenever “Fuckin’ Problems” comes on in the car or at a party. But do not mistake my ability to recite Kendrick’s verse verbatim as an endorsement of its content. I will have it both ways, because men have been having it every which way for quite some time.
To me, the lines between agency and exploitation are not as blurry as we pretend they are. Whether it’s rape culture, abortion legislation, or something as seemingly innocuous as a music video, we owe it to ourselves and the women we love to unblur those lines and call bullshit whenever we see it. We deserve better, and we deserve it on our own terms.
April Gregory received her B.A. in American Studies less than two months ago. She is moving to New York City in August to teach second grade.