Drawing lines in the sand

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It’s a bit hard to believe that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was released in March. Yet, one infamous video and uncomfortable MTV Video Music Awards performance later, the 2013 song of the summer continues to attract global controversy. The song has been banned from campus bars at five British universities. A dance coach in Wisconsin was dismissed for choreographing a routine to an edited version of the song. Scathing parodies and video critiques of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” continue to find their way from blogs to Facebook pages, although at a considerably lower rate than during the peak of the song’s popularity. Upon first listen, the song sounded like the 21st century answer to “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Vega:  a breezy and sexy summer tune by an ultimately forgettable act. And the videos for these songs are overall fairly similar. So, why the ire?

It’s pretty clear that the music video objectifies women (although something about these criticisms strikes me as incredibly prudish and presumptuous). Additionally, Robin Thicke himself seems more than happy to provoke audiences and critics by making outrageous tongue-in-cheek statements to extend his 15 minutes of fame. But criticisms that the song promulgates rape culture and misogyny, and makes light of consent just don’t stand up to significant scrutiny. As Slate blogger Jennifer Lai puts it, “Someone who says ‘I know you want it’ is probably overly cocky and presumptuous as hell by assuming you/she wants ‘it,’ but nothing about ‘I know you want it’ is saying ‘I know you want it, and I’m going to force you to have it’ or ‘I had sex with you and you didn’t consent, but I know you wanted it.’“

This quote more or less summarizes my feelings on the humourless and hysterical overreaction to the song. When I first heard the lyrics, it sounded like some slightly arrogant dude depicting the thrill of pursuit in a bar or a nightclub. I think it goes without saying that flirtation and modern courtship (for lack of a less dated term) are not mechanical procedures governed by formal agreements; pursuit is ad hoc and goes both ways. It involves risk, which by definition is acting in the face of uncertainty. Elements of ambiguity (or, blurred lines, if you will) do exist when you pursue or are being pursued by someone you share a mutual attraction with. And guess what? Uncertainty is exciting. As Grace Rasmus at xoJane, an online magazine, wrote, “Not that a woman needs another man to ‘liberate’ her, of course, but to me these lyrics seem more like temptation after a lame relationship as opposed to impending sexual assault.” Risqué banter and stepping over the line are parts of testing the waters and getting someone’s attention. I’ve been on both sides of that.

A problem arises when someone goes too far over the line and stops listening; the problem becomes a tragedy when the same person stops listening, commits rape, and then blames the victim. But that’s not what I hear in these lyrics. These lyrics clearly indicate more than a modicum of reciprocation: “The way you grab me, must wanna get nasty, go ahead get at me,” and “I feel so lucky, you wanna hug me.” I’m not exactly reading “No means yes,” here. Nor am I reading that she’s “asking for it.” Nor am I reading about rape being condoned, trivialized, rationalized, downplayed, apologized for, romanticized, or joked about. What I have read are feminist critiques of “Blurred Lines” that are attempting to communicate urgently important ideas on rape culture. These ideas might otherwise be ignored, which is a concern. However, they are being superimposed on a song that’s simply racier than the average. I get it: “I know you want it” is ambiguous and is considered a part of rapist rhetoric. However, the intentions of the lyrics, in this case, can easily be inferred from context of the song. More dialogue about rape culture and empowerment is necessary and good, but mislabelling something and distorting its meaning—unintentionally or not—is a shame, no matter how high the stakes.

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