At its best, the media we consume stays with us and gains value over time, as we grow along with it. Roger Ebert long cited La Dolce Vita as his favorite movie because he returned to it at different stages in his life and continually reaped new meanings with each viewing. Like a fine wine or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it only gets better with age. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum is The Crash Law of Instant Depreciation, where a piece of media instantly loses value after its first viewing, like Indian take out that goes bad the very next day. It’s powerful and provocative once, but then stinks up your apartment later. You don’t throw it out altogether — but the flavor is gone. For example, see: American Beauty, The Kids Are All Right, Knocked Up.
I thought about “The Crash Law” when I watched the gender-swapped “Blurred Lines” video, which attempts to subvert the rampant misogyny in the now ubiquitous Robin Thicke rape anthem. For those who stay off the internet and are unfamiliar with the controversy, Thicke has drawn massive criticism for the song (now at it’s 7th week atop the Billboard Hot 100) for lines like, “I know you want it/But you’re a good girl.” Thicke hopes to solve this insurmountable problem of female goodness by taking her and domesticating her.
If there were any doubt that the song was about date rape, the tune is called “Blurred Lines,” fergodsakes. The song is about how Robin Thicke doesn’t know if the object of his affection wants to play rumpy-pumpy with him, but he’s going to have sex with her anyway. The song is the musical equivalent of herpes — because it’s also sinfully catchy. It’s the perfect symbol of rape culture: horrifying, yet inescapable.
The song’s accompanying ups the rapey ante with two versions. In the much-lambasted NSFW version, Thicke’s dancers perform totally naked, but in the mom-approved version, they are only basically naked. They have clothes on now. Progress! Thicke has claimed that this was an intentional choice used to empower women. According to Thicke, it’s a “pleasure” to degrade women for popular consumption. Thicke told GQ, “I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.” Some have claimed that Thicke was only joking — just pretending to be a privileged dickweed — but if so, he’s still not touching the problem with a douchey 10 ft. pole.
However, after watching Mod Carousel’s response video, I wonder if they really get it either. In the clip, the boylesque troupe switches the gender roles in the video, casting the dancers as men and Thicke and his buddies as women in suits. It’s an interesting idea and a clever way to get the audience thinking about gender, and the first time I watched it, I couldn’t stop smiling. A friend of mine wrote an article the other day about a bad date she went on, for which she was pounced on in the comments for ridiculous reasons, and we both wondered what the difference would be if she were male. Would her experiences be open to criticism in the same way? Would people feel they have the right to speak for her?
I’ve written about dating many, many times, and rarely have I ever been challenged or criticized for my gender. Whenever it’s brought up, I’m applauded for being a man who “gets it.” My masculinity is allowed to be positive. However, whenever her femininity is invoked, it’s always negative. She’s just a “stuck up bitch.” As Niki Fritz and Leah Pickett recently wrote, it’s hard to be a girl — especially on the internet, where bullying is relatively free from real-world policing. We can see what it really feels like for a girl in this world.
I wish that for one day, every man had the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a woman. I want them to know what’s its like to feel street harassed and feel powerless to stop it — in a society that normalizes psychological violence against women as harmless male antics. I want them to know what it’s like to have to walk in heels and feel like you’re less than unless you have to conform to these set standards of femininity. I want them to know what it’s like to have a period, have cramps, go through PMS and then be told that those facets of your body mean you have no right to be president. If every man could be a woman for one day, I don’t think that society would change overnight, but it would breed a greater culture of empathy.
However, my problem with the video is that Mod Carousel’s foray into body switching normalizes that behavior in ways that don’t quite critique the fact that these power dynamics exist in the first place, a world where femininity is policed and exploited. In the video, the male dancers are all highly feminized and perform in the boylesque garb of heavy eyeliner and makeup and female leggings. Mod Carousel then pairs them with women in suits, who take on the roles of male predators, wearing suits and performing aggressively toward their male objects.
After watching the video a number of times (see: The Crash Law), this decision made me wonder why power had to be male, even when the genders are swapped. 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.
If Mod Carousel wanted to critique the system, they would show us a world where both women and femininity are powerful, and you don’t have to act like a man to be the master of your domain.
This is especially dangerous because Mod Carousel isn’t talking about a fictional universe where men are not raped. In their lifetime, 1 in 6 men can expect to be a victim of sexual assault before the age of 18, and many of them will be raped not for sexual pleasure but the gratification of power. As a queer male, I’ve been sexually assaulted three times, all by men who operated in a world of toxic masculinity. They felt like they had power over my body and instant access to my sexuality. I once woke up to a friend of mine giving me a blowjob, and it never occurred to him to ask.
Another time a friend forced himself on me, despite my assertion that I had a boyfriend who I loved. We were sharing a bowl in my ex’s frat house, and as he passed it to me, he told me that my boyfriend never had to know. In all of these situations, I was the bottom, the receptacle of masculinity, a position that’s often looked down upon in the community for its association with femaleness. A self-identified “femme,” I’ve been called a “bitchy bottom” for being too assertive and “such a girl” for wanting to wait until I’m in a relationship to have sex. My father doesn’t have a problem that I have sex with men. He has a problem that I watch Sex and the City. I can be queer, as long as I’m not a girl about it.
Before he raped me, the last thing my abuser told me was: “Stop being a pussy.”
Whether you are male, female or somewhere on the spectrum, the gender implications of rape culture are everywhere in our culture. I’ve written about This Is the End’s rape foibles before, but they are hardly alone. In Jack Reacher, last winter’s Tom Cruise vehicle, a female character is disposed of for being a “slut,” punched in the head and tossed off by a male aggressor. Her character is comically skinny, like an Anime heroine, and her cartoonish femininity is seen as pathetic, worthy of scorn.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake similarly disposed of its hyper-sexual female character, but it’s done with a wink and a nudge, an homage to slut-shaming. It’s meant to be a critique of how we dispose of female bodies, but only upholds the tradition by allowing it to continue. Never is her character treated with anything less than utter contempt for her overt displays of femaleness (she barely has on clothes during the movie), and when she’s ripped apart by Leatherface, the movie seems to smile, as if its taking pleasure in her death. The misogyny stays in the picture.
If this is what feminist critique looks like, then count me out.
The “Blurred Lines” video has the exact same problem. Even though misogyny is dished out with a knowing smile, it’s still misogyny — but packaged differently. It’s Diet Misogyny, slimming on the hips but with all the insidious aspartame. While I respect Mod Carousel’s attempt to engage with the song’s message and get us talking about sexual assault, we don’t just need a new video. If we really want to breed a culture of empathy and create a world where femininity can be truly respected, we need a new message.