Robin #THICKE and the position of feminism

It’s taken Everyday Analysis a while to get around to discussing #THICKE, the most talked about piece of popular culture in 2013. Thicke’s performance with Miley Cyrus at the MTV VMA Awards surpassed Beyoncé’s famous Superbowl act as the most tweeted-about event in history. It’s the single ‘Blurred Lines,’ performed that night, which has been the major point of discussion in Thicke’s brief time at the top of pop. Even putting aside seemingly legitimate accusations and a lawsuit from the Marvin Gaye family that the song stole a significant part of ‘Got To Give It Up,’ ‘Blurred Lines’ has been condemned for its lyrics, which without a stretch of the imagination can be read as condoning rape, as well as generally taking part in the wider objectification of women in pop music, an issue which has raised its head again this week with Lily Allen’s somewhat problematic attempt to weigh in on the issue.

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This article, whilst not ignoring the need to take a stand against ‘Blurred Lines’ and Robin Thicke himself, focuses on the fact that Robin Thicke is not solely or even principally to blame here, and nor are the admittedly much more valid targets of Sony Records and contemporary hip-hop legend Pharell Williams, who should have known better but have got off scott-free while Thicke takes the blame. There are structures in place here on a far more entrenched level that need a feminist analysis. This article focuses on an inadequacy of our responses to the song. The response that we have seen, as a collective group joining hands against ‘Blurred Lines’, has almost universally been one of pretending that we are not complicit in the mechanisms which have produced it.

Attacks on Robin Thicke have emphasized his stupidity, with the obvious joke that the clue is in his name in regular employ across social media. In the unlikely event that you haven’t had the conversation yourself, a quick look at the comments at the bottom of any article on the topic will show that Thicke’s sympathizers have also been characterized as blind to the effects of the song. The gesture we make to those who like it is: ‘you just don’t understand what’s wrong with it’. Of course, this has the (in some way) positive effect of placing a kind of feminism in the position of enlightenment, condemning those incapable of seeing the song’s misogyny.

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But this position of ‘enlightenment’ can serve to limit feminism and keep it where it is, as something assimilated into normative rationality and not something which continually questions that normality.  Further, in emphasizing the enlightenment of the knowing commentator and the naivety of the popular and those who enjoy it, the divide between the intelligencia and the everyday is widened. The aftermath of #THICKE also brought out a number of reiterations of feminism as the general position of the conscientious subject, such as the website areyouafeminist.com, viral last week, which frames anyone not feminist as an idiot. There is of course a value in making the feminist position a kind of common sense, but in distancing ourselves from the ‘idiots’ who don’t know how it really is we simply make ourselves free of admitting any part in what we criticize.  We also avoid doing anything about it, since presumably the audience for our accusations of idiocy will not be the ‘idiots’ but our fellow enlightened classes. Even if this weren’t so, and the ‘idiots’ actually heard our accusations of idiocy, they would presumably not take much interest in such antagonistic and patronizing criticisms.

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And the #THICKE saga took another intriguing turn showing exactly this problem when Robin Thicke attempted to switch from one register (the blind and stupid everyday) to the other (the intelligent and conscientious) by claiming that the song’s intention was to exaggerate and mock the way the music industry objectifies and unfairly treats women, that the song was in fact a kind of feminism itself. Whether we believe it or not, there was nothing to stop Thicke making this switch; he could easily occupy this position instead. The point of course is that this would not change anything; the song could still be interpreted as it first was, operating to condone misogyny and even rape. In other words, Thicke’s intention has nothing to do with it, whatever side of the divide he himself is on (the side who can see its misogyny or the fools who don’t understand how problematic it is), the divide itself is still re-inscribed. Thicke’s attempt to get out of trouble, implying that it’s not his fault if idiots misread it, actually shows the problem with all of our responses in the first place, that they were little more than a distancing of ourselves from the issue which does nothing to solve it.

Whilst it might have served a purpose to align feminism with common sense, what feminism needs to do next, and specifically in cases like this, is not reiterate that the world is full of ‘idiots’ who don’t understand feminism. Instead it needs to continually question what complex patriarchal and misogynistic structures exist inside what we call ‘idiocy,’ which we may ourselves be complicit in, and which allows these problematic norms to exist in the first place. Analysing idiocy, and not just saying it exists, has been feminisms strength from the start.

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