Where the War on Sexism is Being Lost

Nov 22, 2013 By Dan Lucas
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I’m not sure if anyone noticed, but sexism in the music industry is in the news at the moment. As part of the wider feminist movement that occupies the 2013 media, from inequality and discrimination in the work place to Robin Thicke and Lily Allen, to what the concept of “feminism” actually is, column inches and the blogosphere alike are bulging with near-unanimity towards the notion that sexism is a very real issue. For the record, I’m firmly entrenched in the Guardianista camp behind this sentiment. There is a very real and important debate to be had on sexism in the music industry and this is by no means an ill-advised “men’s rights” column, but rather a pro-feminist discussion on how the war is being lost and the debate disappointingly undermined; not by the bigoted minority but by the well-intentioned who fuck up their own arguments. 

With the nature of the internet being what it is, the volume of content out there on gender equality is unsurprisingly vast. If we were being simplistic, I’d point out that a Google search for “feminism” yields 15.9m results, “sexism” 7.2m, and “sexism music industry” – a recommended search option no less – just over one million results. If we dig a little deeper we’ll see that The Guardian – the UK’s most prominent liberal news and media source and, according to regulator Ofcom, the most trustworthy national newspaper – has 456 online comment features on gender issues, as well as 1,649 features tagged “feminism” and 1,020 on “rape”. In short, to the casual reader, and indeed the casual music fan, the sheer weight of discussion could well have swelled to become overwhelming.

This is a minor issue though. Whilst it could be argued that such voluminous argument could deter readers, the same can be said of any number of global issues, and there is a strong case for saying that the likes of the “Everyday Sexism” Twitter account build an ever-increasingly strong portfolio of evidence that cannot be ignored. The problem rather lies with the content: how many times is someone going to read the absolutely valid comment that “I was objectified and this is absolutely not on” from a female singer before they feel a sense of déjà vu? Whilst it’s unfair to criticise anyone for speaking out against objectification, the very nature of “everyday sexism” means that the subject will become repetitive and, without adding anything new to the debate, the point cannot help but become belaboured and overwhelming. The Everyday Sexism Project has a worthy goal, but its ilk offer little in the way of tangible ideas for progress beyond the censorship of anything they deem offensive.

Part of the blame for the above has to lie with the pop music industry itself and its sad-but-fair conclusion that shock factor equals massive sales. As Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, and Lily Allen perpetually court greater controversy in the name of setting the social networks alight, so we apparently reach saturation point in the number of things there are to say. This is probably best exemplified by Sinéad O’Connor’s five (though it may be more by the time you reach the end of this paragraph) open letters, twerking her nose in where it wasn’t needed or wanted, to Miley Cyrus. I find Cyrus’s recent videos gaudy and tasteless, but the Irish singer’s intervention felt awfully close to slut shaming. This isn’t to say the debate has ground to a halt; this recent piece on “Blurred Lines” by a rape victim is stunning and moving, but such a powerful voice is becoming ever more difficult to hear above the crowd.

When it comes to misogyny in the music industry, the debates centres – rightly or wrongly – on Thicke’s song, which happens to also be 2013’s biggest-selling single. As you’re no doubt aware by now, its lyrics have been seen by many as an endorsement of rape culture. I’ll add a caveat here and say I do like the song and think that it’s been misinterpreted, in some cases perhaps wilfully, in order to make a convenient coat peg to hang all ire upon. My own instinct upon hearing the song is that it reflects the embarrassing drunken adolescent dancefloor uncertainty over whether or not a girl the narrator sees is interested. I’m willing to bet such a feeling is one many readers will, if they’re willing, admit they recognise. Similarly some of the more outlandish lyrics seem knowingly bad but oddly familiar: “I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two” seems to be a crap brag about the size of TI’s penis rather than a threat, “You wanna hug me... what rhymes with hug me?” is knowingly inept, “I know you want it” is a terrible come-on line that most women will have heard without threat, mere idiocy, before. Thicke himself has a rather touching romantic history, being happily married to his childhood sweetheart actor Paula Patton. His protagonist isn’t a rapist, he’s stupid.

The song’s video is undeniably misogynistic, but only the most po-faced commenter could ever take it seriously. To recap, a bunch of topless women dance around the song’s three vocalists and partake in such degrading activity as riding a cheap, fake plastic dog and grinding against a giant inflatable comedy syringe, often in front of big balloon letters that ineloquently boast that “Robin Thicke has a big dick”. It’s absurd, over the top and cartoonish, and to suggest that this promotes rape is akin to suggesting Tarantino is a racist for his excessive use of the word “nigger” in Django Unchained, or that Stallone is an advocate of gang culture because he made The Expendables. Lily Allen has been widely praised for her “Hard Out Here” video that purports to hit back at Thicke, but is arguably far more offensive and was wonderfully eviscerated, hypocrisy laid bare, by Alex Macpherson.

I’m not for one minute suggesting that there is no debate to be had on “Blurred Lines”, and Amy Britton’s piece perfectly demonstrates that there are convincing and valid arguments on both sides. As the song’s title suggests, the lyrics are ambiguous and its huge popularity makes it a good starting point amidst the wider issue. Indeed Thicke doesn’t appear to help himself in interviews, and describing the song as “a feminist movement in itself” is stretching credibility, but to decry a slightly cheesy R&B singer as the face of an evil culture is both excessive and hypocritical, as is the decision by more than 20 student unions in the UK to ban the song.

When I was a student, DJs would regularly play a song about whipping and raping slave women and I’ve no doubt that “Brown Sugar” is still enjoyed almost a decade later. “I want a girl who will laugh for no one else/When I’m away she puts her makeup on the shelf/When I’m away she never leaves the house” sang Weezer on “No One Else” back in 1994. “Tell Me More” from Grease, Dean Martin’s protagonist from “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, George Michael’s “Father Figure” and “My Sharona” all contain far more explicit, enthusiastic, lyrics about non-consensual sex. How many of those calling for Thicke to be censored idolise the alleged wife-beater John Lennon, or revel in early James Bond films starring a man who once said, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong in hitting a woman, though I don’t recommend you do it the same way that you hit a man.”? Such vitriol against one target purely because he happens to be part of the zeitgeist fatally undermines the feminist movement.

Feminism is being infiltrated by that fashion so prominently in the British tabloid media for rushing to be the first one offended. It’s being torpedoed not only by hypocrisy and clamour but by the misappropriation of whatever subject they apparently pull out of a hat in the name of forcing some sort of vague point. Caitlin Moran is one of the finest feminist writers out there but she has unwittingly, through no fault of her own, spawned a number of wannabe writers with misguided attempts at furthering the feminist cause. Take the criticism of Breaking Bad – a wonderful show that centres very firmly on the slightly outlandish character of a terminally ill chemistry teacher who becomes a violent drug kingpin – for not having an identifiable female character as an example, or this xkcd comic strip entitled “How it works”, that for some bizarre reason appropriates the concept of math as a feminist issue, as examples of how feminism can shoot itself in the foot.

The music industry is only part of a greater picture, but it needs to succeed. It may seem surprising, but one of the best comments on the issue came from the unfairly-maligned Miley Cyrus herself in her Rolling Stone interview this September. She criticises censorship, citing the example of Breaking Bad’s network AMC muting swear words but showing graphic violence. She also questions why her controversial VMA performance with Thicke led to widespread criticism of her “twerking” whilst the man whose crotch was her dance partner on this occasion got a relatively easy ride from the media. The evidence, from her original and intelligent thoughts to her cynical-but-correct unspoken acknowledgement that the controversy she generates benefits her career, suggests that Cyrus is a far more astute woman than she gets credit for. We could learn a lot from her.

Follow Dan Lucas on Twitter @DanLucas86 or find him at danlucaswriting.wordpress.com.



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The Silver Conductor
November 22nd 2013
4:34pm

Now that is funny a saggy what? C’mon now, we ALL have had enough of the sexist wars. We are in the age of Aquarius, you do know what that means right? Even though men are pulling the strings along with other things that get them off,WOMEN RULE.
MusicLuv, The SC.

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