Sex ed via Blurred Lines

I was late in the day to the Blurred Lines phenomenon. At a conference where I was talking about gender and sexual consent a colleague mentioned that I should really check it out. Since then I have followed some of the commentary online, not to mention the numerous parodies that have been produced (as with last year’s Gangnam Style). I was moved to write this post about how this might prompt some very interesting and useful conversations about sex (perhaps in the context of youth work or teaching on sex and gender in higher education).

For those who aren’t aware, Blurred Lines is a song, and music video, by Robin Thicke which has topped the charts this summer across 14 countries. It caused controversy both because of the inclusion of a group of skinny, near-naked female models in the video, and because of the lyrics which seem to suggest non-consensual sex. The repeated line ‘you know you want it’ next to ‘but you’re a good girl’ seems to support the common problematic assumptions that ‘good’ women shouldn’t be sexual, and that women can want sex even when they are refusing it. The ‘blurred lines’ idea seems t suggest that it isn’t always clear whether it is okay to have sex with somebody or not, which is a problematic message given the high rates of sexual violence.

 

It can be difficult to raise these kinds of issues – around gender and power, and around consent and sex – with people who enjoy the catchiness of the song and don’t particularly see a problem with the lyrics or video. Given how widespread these kinds of images of women – and messages about sex – are, there are many who struggle to see the difficulties.

For this reason it has been particularly useful that two of the (many) parodies of the song and video explicitly address gender and consent. The parodies, themselves, are not unproblematic, as we will see, But I think that – used together – a viewing and discussion of all three clips can open up some helpful conversations.

Gender

The gender dynamics in the song and video were usefully highlighted by this response by Mod Carousel. The video switches the genders of both the people singing, and being sung to, and the lyrics (‘you’re a good boy’, etc.)

 

This video is part of a wider internet meme of gender switching images, words, and videos in order to demonstrate problematic gender dynamics. I had a go myself on this blog when I was analysing Fifty Shades of Grey last year, and there are many examples on blogs like Sociological Images.

Caitlin Welsh wrote an article recently, highlighting the Mod Carousel video and claiming that gender flipping could be the most important meme ever, for the powerful way in which it reveals how women are treated differently to men. As she says, when we are visually confronted with how ludicrous men look in similar poses to women, for example, we are able to recognise the problems with things that often go unnoticed and unremarked in our culture.  This school project on advertising is a great example of this.

 

Dustin Hoffman’s reflections on filming the movie Tootsie were another recent example suggesting that experiencing the world as another gender can enable us to realise things that explanations in words can never quite convey. This art project where couples switch clothes is another interesting example.

However, the gender switching in the Mod Carousel version of Blurred Lines raises some important issues itself.  It is interesting that they chose to masculinise the women (some are wearing suits) and feminise the men (by having them wearing the same outfits and make-up as the women in the original version). On the one hand this is useful in raising issues about women being required to wear such shoes, make-up etc. as a potentially problematic aspect of femininity (another whole conversation about choice and social pressure). On the other hand, perhaps the video suggests an intrinsic link between femininity and submission given that – in order to present the women as powerful and the men as passive recipients of power – they have to masculinise the women and feminise the men.

Also there is an issue that any gender switching implicitly accepts (and reinforces?) the idea that there are two, opposite, genders, rather than alternative views such as gender being on a continuum, or there being multiple possible experiences of gender. However, of course, the video does present the idea that women can be masculine and men can be feminine which is a step forward from the original.

There is a very interesting article by Nico Lang on the limitations of the gender switched Blurred Lines here. Nico says:

If we really want to critique rape culture, we must not just critique men but the culture of toxic masculinity that allows Thicke’s song to exist in the first place. By having these women continue to perform predatory male behavior, it only upholds male patriarchy. Mod Carousel seems to suggest that the song’s content is okay and that you can sing “I know you want it,” just as long as you’re female, but what it does is uphold a world where femininity continues to be predated.

When I saw it I felt the Mod Carousel version was trying to demonstrate the problems with the original by showing how troubling it would be if these kinds of things were said to men, rather than to women. But I also think that Nico has a point here and it would be possible to read the switched video as accepting the underlying assumptions of the original; as long as everyone can say these things to everyone else they are not problematic. This is the issue of whether women and people of other genders should be fighting for the same rights as men (e.g. fighting for one’s country or being the ‘breadwinner’), or whether some of those ‘rights’ themselves should be questioned.

Consent

A parody which perhaps goes further towards confronting the problems around power and consent in the original is the Ask First video. This alters the lyrics such that those involved are asking for each other’s consent (rather than telling them what they want). It also depicts characters of multiple genders in conversation. While it doesn’t have the production values of Mod Carousel, perhaps it does a better job of revealing the problematic assumptions of the original.

 

There’s a great accompanying article to this video on the Scarleteen website about the problems of consent in the original. Cecilia refers to Thicke’s lines about how he’s going to ‘take’ the woman he’s singing to:

Consensual sex isn’t something we “take” from someone else or they take from us: it’s something where everyone involved is an active agent, doing something together, or, if you prefer, where everyone is giving and accepting, but no one is taking.

Again though, the parody video may not completely capture the complexities of the situation. It promotes the idea of ‘yes means yes’ or ‘enthusiastic’ consent whereby sex is engaged with because everybody wants it (you ask and they enthusiastically say ‘yes’ or vice versa). This is certainly preferable to the Blurred Lines message that you can’t really know if somebody wants sex and just have to guess (either they will enjoy it or you will be a rapist). It is also preferable to the ‘no means no’ version of consent where you go ahead unless somebody actively refuses. In ‘yes means yes’ everyone is actually keen on what they’re going to do.

However, the focus on asking and receiving a yes assumes that people have a pretty good insight into themselves and that no other power dynamics are in play. The problems with this are nicely illustrated if we return to the original Blurred Lines. In wider culture women are often regarded and portrayed as sexual playthings for men, and men are encouraged to be independent and responsible whilst femininity is often still about being vulnerable, delicate, and needing validation from relationships with others. Given this backdrop, are men and women on an equal footing when it comes to conversations about sex? Might men feel pressured to be constantly ‘up for it’ and to say ‘yes’ to things because that is part of masculinity – even when sex is the last thing they want? Might women feel pressured to say ‘yes’ because being ‘nice’ and ‘enthusiastic’ about other people is part of femininity, and because they feel losing a relationship otherwise? Under such social conditions the idea of ‘yes means yes’ becomes more tricky. And the same is true when power dynamics are in play around other things like age, experience, sexuality, race, class, disability, etc.

Conclusions

There aren’t necessarily easy solutions to any of these issues, but I think that our relationships, and our sexual connections, are likely to be improved by thinking them through, rather than accepting the kind of mainstream understandings reflected in Blurred Lines. We need to ask ourselves what media would look like if the genders (or other power dynamics) were switched. We need to consider whether the people represented are equally free to choose. And, if not, we need to ask would have to happen to make them more so, and whose responsibility that would be.

8 Responses to Sex ed via Blurred Lines

  1. bishtraining says:

    Interesting piece Meg. I confess I haven’t heard about this song. (Review – It’s not my thing and I loathe the smug video.)

    It makes me think of the many many conversations I’ve had with young men over the years about consent and agency and how they try to make sense of this with the wifey/slut narrative (and how they wish to re-write that for themselves). These young men are seeking mutually pleasurable sex with young women but are frustrated that the young women they fancy aren’t able to express their wants or needs. “She just lies there Justin.” “She won’t tell me what she wants.”

    This results in them feeling like they have to take all of the responsibility for negotiation and end up trying to guess what it is that they might both find enjoyable – often this guesswork is based on the limited scripts they have about what sex *should* involve. Obviously this is problematic around consent but also it leads to sexual experiences which are regretful because they are so devoid of mutual pleasure. “I don’t even know if she is enjoying it or not.”

    [My approach with these guys.> To help them understand what might be going on in terms of how some people are allowed to have sexual agency and others aren’t I ask them to think of words to describe men who have sex (legend, player) and words to describe women who have sex (sket, slag). It doesn’t take them long to twig that they are trapped by the wifey/slut narrative. They can see that this is something they may contribute to but is also a message that they have internalised from a very early age. I also (obviously) give advice about how they can facilitate a dialogue about how to explore different kinds of sexual expression that may lead to more communication about their mutual desires.]

    So in a way the “I know you want it” and the “but you’re a good girl” is expressing this problem that many young men face when they have agency but their partners have little. When what most young people are taught about sex and consent is ‘no means no’ they are ill-equipped to understand what consent looks, sounds and feels like.

    I wrote more about my thoughts about young people, consent and sex ed here http://bishuk.com/2013/06/11/consent-innit/

    Worst of all, the song is now stuck firmly in my head. Grrr.

    • Brilliant link, thanks Justin. I definitely think we need more awareness of the position that these gender norms put everybody in when it comes to negotiating consent. Cheers so much for this.

  2. Hmm. Agreed in most cases, but I think to assert that the women in the Mod Carousel video are ‘masculinised’ and the men ‘feminised’ is pushing it a bit. Two of the women are in suits – but suits cut for women, and with open necklines in a female style. The other is in a silver evening dress. They dance against the wall in a manner presumably taken from the original video but that I’d argue is much more common for women than men, with the rolling hips and so on. And the men are mostly naked, or in gstrings – how is a naked, notably masculine body (the long-haired chap who does the miaou bit, for example) feminised except in manner and body language? And the whole point of that parody is to draw attention to the problematic artificiality and behaviour we expect from women in the context of sexualised music videos – the point they make, effectively, is that such posing and behaviour is artificial for PEOPLE. To conflate the very problematic artificiality they critique with femininity is….problematic at best.

    • Thanks Sasha. Those were my original thoughts on the gender switch version too, but when I read that critical article I realised there was another way of reading it which some people were coming away with. I definitely agree with your point that such posing and behaviour is artificial for people, and that that becomes so apparent when male people are doing it (as in the excellent superhero comic examples in that other article I link to).

      • Yeah – I was less than convinced by the critical article, actually, although there’s obviously always space for crossreading and far be it from me to deny the potential dysfunctionality of human ideologies in response to this stuff…

  3. Lisa says:

    “Could gender flipping be the most important meme ever?” This makes my blood boil!

    Almost inevitably, whenever we’re invited to react to “feminised” men, in order to showcase the ways in which women are demeaned, some of that reaction draws on social attitudes to trans* women. It doesn’t just reflect the social conditions which cause society to hate trans* women; it draws on specific attitudes to trans* women, and is to some extent based on social “knowledge” that trans* women are ridiculous.

    This also frequently feeds back into the “flipping” meme itself, making it not just a simple “flip”. People aren’t just drawn flipped, but exaggerated in transmisogynistic ways, for example shown with short skirts and very hairy legs. Many of these images are an open invitation to laugh at trans* women.

    Even when they’re not, the idea that “gender flipping could be the most important meme” ever is an insult to transfeminists, in that it takes what we’ve been saying all along, strips it of some of its liberatory possibilities to trans* women, markets it as something “new” and places control of its use in the hands of cis people (see previous paragraph). Sometimes it’s even used to lionise cis men like Hoffman who wore a skirt once and now know how hard life is for women (trans* women are never mentioned). This is insulting, appropriative, silencing and perpetuates transmisogyny.

    What’s more, transfeminist critiques of, for example, the Hawkeye initiative (the first time “gender flipping” recently took off), disappear every time a new thing comes around. There is plenty of critique to be found. But people who aren’t trans* women can just ignore it, and every time the “new” phenomenon is reviewed, we have to make the same critique again. As I’m doing here. And we have to deal with the backlash to it every time as well, or at least emotionally prepare ourselves for it – it’s exhausting.

    I don’t speak for all transfeminists of course. Some probably appreciate this meme and think it provides a gateway for thinking about transmisogyny. Like any group of people we have a variety of views/analysis. But people who aren’t trans* women should be careful not to pick and choose among those views to pick the ones which let them do what they were doing anyway; respecting transfeminism means doing one’s best to respect all of transfeminism, not leadershopping around for a good fit.

    • Thanks very much for this. I was surprised to see this perspective missing from the critical article about the ‘gender flipping’ version of the video so very grateful to you for adding it here.

      • Lisa says:

        Thanks. I didn’t feel able to leave it on the article itself – too many people will instantly counterattack.

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