Shortly after the late March release of Robin Thicke’s chart-topping single “Blurred Lines,” Lisa Huyne asked on her Feminist in L.A. blog, “Has anyone heard Robin Thicke’s new rape song?” This was the first return volley in a fairly low-profile public discussion about rape and “Blurred Lines,” the first shots being the song itself and two accompanying music videos. The most prominent rape-related criticism came in mid-June with Tricia Romano’s piece in The Daily Beast, followed shortly after by coverage in The Independent and The Huffington Post. Thicke dismissed these criticisms as “ridiculous” in a July 8, 2013, interview with the BBC. And indeed, neither the song nor video is much more, to use Romano’s term, “rapey” than average. Both fall within what American society currently deems an acceptable level of rape. Herein lies the problem.
Before examining “Blurred Lines,” its videos and Thicke’s thick response, let’s look at the context in which this is all happening, rape culture. What is rape culture? Mohadesa Najumi offers a good primer on The Feminist Wire. She writes, “Rape culture is the condoning and normalizing of physical, emotional and sexual terrorism against women and girls and marginalized subjects. It is the production and maintenance of an environment where sexual assault is so normative that people ultimately believe that rape is inevitable.” At least some rapes are prosecutable in all US jurisdictions which, at first glance, doesn’t sound very “condoning” or “normalizing.” But according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, fewer than one-fifth of reported rapes – more than half of all rapes are not reported – are prosecuted, and only three of every 100 rapes lead to jail time for rapists. That only nine of every 100 are even prosecuted is, at best, tacit complicity (incarceration passing for accountability in the US despite better alternatives). This lack of accountability suggests the condoning and normalizing identified by Najumi.
In late 2011, McClatchy newspapers reported that only one in four reported rapes in the US military were prosecuted and just less than half of those resulted in any convictions (about one in eight of total reported rapes) and slightly more than half of those were convictions for “serious crimes” (about one in 16 of total reported rapes). This despite the “military’s conviction rate for all crimes [being] more than 90 percent.” Yet the article, published by the United States’ third-largest newspaper chain, was framed as a story of one person falsely accused of rape being harmed by an overly aggressive prosecutorial system. Numerous lawyers and high-ranking military personnel asserted prosecutors were under too much pressure to prosecute rapists leading to a bunch of “bogus” charges. This coverage of a “justice system […] tilted unfairly in favor of the accuser” was a year and a half before this year’s publicizing of a military rape epidemic. In just one week in May, the leader of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was arrested for sexual assault and the Pentagon released a report estimating that 70 sexual assaults are committed daily in the military, less than 1 percent of which end up in courts martial. In summary, the military rape epidemic has gone on for years. And despite statistics showing a gross lack of rapist accountability, military prosecutors were portrayed as overly ambitious in their efforts toward accountability.
Conservative Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill shared the outrage of many after the revelations about mass military rape. She noted this concern during nomination hearings for Lt. Gen. Susan Helms because Helms had reduced a sexual assault conviction to one of an “indecent act.” For not supporting Helms’s nomination, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto called McCaskill “more than a little histrionic,” accused her of conducting a “war on men,” warned against “an effort to criminalize male sexuality,” and reduced the sexual assault in question to some “hanky-panky” that was “her word against his.” Implied is that sexual assault is male sexuality, probably not the conclusion he was going for, but a good paraphrasing of Najumi’s point about rape culture’s normative, inevitable rape. Rape culture is Taranto’s “spirited defense” of someone convicted of sexual assault. Rape culture is the military’s rape epidemic and the mainstream press’ headlines warning that the “Military’s newly aggressive rape prosecution has pitfalls.” Rape culture is Taranto imagining sexual assault as ‘he said-she said’ debates and castigating those pushing for a measure of rapist accountability. Rape culture is the humiliation and shaming of survivors as sluts who wanted it, asked for it or deserved it. Rape culture is Rick Ross celebrating rape in rhyme. Rape culture is me not pointing out until this sentence that the above discussion of military rape doesn’t include military personnel and local allies raping Iraqi, Afghan, Okinawan and other women, men and children or how rape intersects with racist, colonialist and capitalist oppression. Rape culture is the police, inside interrogation rooms and on police procedurals, threatening people with a rape waiting for them in prison to coerce confessions and snitching or, alternately put, using rape as a coercive tool of state power. Rape culture is men flooding columnist Lindy West with rape threats last month after she suggested mild caution to comedians aspiring to make rape jokes. Rape culture is the media taking the side of the rapists in Steubenville. Rape culture is the world into which Robin Thicke brought “Blurred Lines.”
Where “Blurred Lines” Fits In
According to a June GQ interview, “Blurred Lines” came from Thicke and Pharell Williams deciding to put together a party track. The result is an infectious neo-discobeat, a near-perfect summer groove. But the beat is where the party ends. The lyrics, per Thicke, are inspired by and intend to reproduce men objectifying female passers-by. “We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, ‘Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!’ ” This is also the genesis of the “old man dances” in the videos, the best of which is T.I.’s “You hear that Elizabeth? I’m coming to join you!” There are two versions of the video directed by Diane Martel. Both feature Thicke, Williams and T.I. alongside models Elle Evans, Jessi M’Bengue and Emily Ratajkowski. The only substantial differences between the two are that Evans, M’Bengue and Ratajkowski are mostly bare-breasted in one version while the other features a clumsy Remy Martin product placement. That Thicke and T.I. offer largely vacuous lyrics cautions against over-analysis. But the Bluest-Eyed soul singer offers some context in interviews by which we can engage what substantive content is there.
The BBC asked Thicke what the lyrics mean. He replied, “For me it was about blurring the lines between – two things – one between men and women and how much we’re the same. Like my wife, she’s as strong as I am, as smart – if not smarter, stronger and she’s an animal too and she doesn’t need a man to define her or to define her existence. So the song was really about women are everything a man is and can do anything a man can do. And then there’s the other side of it which is the blurred lines between a good girl and bad girl which, you know, even very good girls have a little bad side to them. You know you just have to know how to pull it out of them.” The interviewer followed up asking about criticism of his song as a rape anthem. Thicke answered, “Yeah I think they should all – I mean, I can’t dignify that with a response, that’s ridiculous.”
Given the chorus – “I hate these blurred lines” – it’s hard to decipher Thicke’s interview. His hatred of the blurred lines means he greatly prefers clear gender lines and hates his wife’s strength and smarts. Alternately, Thicke wrote lyrics meaning the opposite of his intent and doesn’t know it. Alternately again, Thicke wrote lyrics that fairly represented his intent which he misrepresented to the BBC. One of these has to be true.
gender-based public harassment – inclusive in his goal of making “music with more humor and lightheartedness.” Thicke further commented, “We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections and everything that is completely derogatory toward women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, ‘We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.’ People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.’ So we just wanted to turn it over on its head and make people go, ‘Women and their bodies are beautiful. Men are always gonna want to follow them around.'” He remarked on the balloons arranged to say “Robin Thicke has a big dick” that it “wasn’t my idea! […] The whole point was to go over the top, knock down the ceiling, jump over the wall and say, we’re gonna do things everyone is afraid to do, as brash and fearless as possible.” All that said…GQ noted that the “catcalling old man vibe definitely comes through in the video” to which Thicke replied, “That’s what I wanted to create.” Thicke thus sees catcalling –
There is no discernible overturning of sexism in “Blurred Lines.” The genders Thicke asserted to be indistinguishable are clearly marked in the videos. The females gaze at the camera while the males ogle the females’ bodies. The males have vocabularies; a lone female meows. Most notably, the males are fully clothed; the females are not. All of this – the penis-size joke, subordinate roles for women, women as objects of the male gaze, models with specific body types, etc. – is depressingly normal, not challenging and certainly not “brash and fearless.” Unless that brashness is masculine aggression directed at feminism – in which case it does make sense. The only (minor and common) deviations are that Evans, M’Bengue and Ratajkowski generally do not strut in normative sexy ways but instead do goofy or outlandish faux-sexy poses and walks, and that one of the sex objects – those bodies that “Men are always gonna want to follow […] around” – is black.
The lyrics are a series of misogynistic tropes. Both Thicke and T.I. embrace the gendered slur “bitch.” They do so in different ways, but both are problematic, as when Thicke shouts “You the hottest bitch in this place!” at Evans and Ratajkowski. Perhaps worst is the repetition (18 times) of that most common of male imaginings of women’s desires – no matter their actual preferences –- “I know you want it.” Katie Russell of the U.K. organization Rape Crisis noted that, “certain lyrics are explicitly sexually violent and appear to reinforce victim-blaming rape myths, for example about women giving ‘mixed signals’ through their dress or behavior, saying ‘no’ when they really mean ‘yes’ and so on.”
Russell’s concerns apply to the segment just before Thicke sings “I hate these blurred lines.” Ratajkowski appears propped on her elbows with an upset expression, then with a stop sign over her bare ass.
It takes an extraordinary imagination to read this as something other than the ‘blurred lines’ of ‘no’ means ‘yes.’ This is amplified when paired with T.I.’s offer to “give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” In a different song, this could be an unimaginative, braggadocio metaphor for vigorous, consensual anal sex. In the context of a (unintended though it may be) rape anthem based on catcalling released into rape culture, offering to tear a woman’s ass in two carries an entirely different meaning.
Thicke defended himself to the BBC, saying, “I’ve always been a gentleman. I’ve been in love with the same woman since I was a teenager.” This brings up a basic problem: Thicke deciding that a group of men can define what constitutes violations of female bodies because they all have families, which makes them “genntlemen.” He’s also positioning himself in a way analogous to “I’m not racist, I have black friends!” Thicke also acknowledges sexism is a problem and says he wants to turn it upside-down. But his attempt is simply a faithful reproduction of his target and, to the significant degree that he embraces rape symbols, language and apologia, an amplification even. His certainty that his views on gendered violence are adequate are another part of patriarchy, male privilege. His voice, no matter his (absent) expertise, is adequate to define the boundaries of legitimate discourse whereas he dismisses an actual expert on gendered violence, Russell from Rape Crisis, as “ridiculous” and not deserving of a response.
Were it only “Blurred Lines” in question – or just popular music (see “Baby It’s Cold Outside” for a widely beloved rape song) – the problem would be easily surmountable. But rape culture pervades society; so transforming it must as well. It’s necessary to bring feminist, anti-rape practices and messages into all parts of our lives.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence offers a tremendous intersectional toolbox for organizing against gendered violence and towards “safer, more liberatory communities.” Its approach starts with those most targeted by gendered violence – black, brown and colonized women and gender minorities. There’s no better place to start destroying rape culture and transforming ourselves to a society where hot beats, women comically strutting with whatever level of clothing they prefer and old man dances have nothing to do with rape.