Earlier this week, when Lily Allen released the music video for her first new single since her 2009 album It’s Not Me, It’s You, it was clear that she meant to make a statement. The song, “Hard Out Here,” references the 2005 Three 6 Mafia song “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” while taking direct aim at some of the most controversial topics in more recent pop music, like Robin Thicke’s video for ”Blurred Lines” and, of course, twerking.
The lyrics are largely focused on the double standards that affect women when it comes to appearances (“You should probably lose some weight / Because we can’t see your bones” and a plastic-surgery scene) and sexuality (“If I told you about my sex life you’d call me a slut / When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss”), with a final message that such inequality is “here to stay.”
Much of the initial response to the video’s message was positive. PolicyMic‘s headline was that the video will “make feminists proud” and Uproxx and Spin gave it a seal of approval. Though the Washington Post found the song itself “bland,” their critic gave Allen props for “righteously targeting the patriarchal double standards of 21st-century celebrity culture.” Yahoo! proclaimed that it was “the song with world needs right now.”
But, though there has been little philosophical objection to the actual song, not everyone who doesn’t like double standards is happy with the video. As The Root put it: “Singer Attacks Sexism With Racist and Sexist Video.”
The particular aspect of the video that has drawn the most criticism is the juxtaposition of Allen and her back-up dancers, a group of scantily-clad ladies — mostly non-white women — who would not be out of place in one of the videos that Allen is mocking. The source of this anger is this: because Allen, who earlier in the song implies that she doesn’t have to twerk because she’s too smart for that, is fully dressed and does not perform the same level of suggestive movement that her back-up dancers do, the women in her video are actually being used as props the way women of color often are non-satirically, and objectified even as the singer laments objectification. (Ironically enough, it’s a similar uproar to the one that Robin Thicke faced over the “Blurred Lines” clip — that, even though the video’s director said the appearance in the video of naked women was meant to poke fun at what goes on in music videos, the clip still benefitted from the use of the very thing it was mocking.)
Allen responded to the criticism by saying that she simply chose the best dancers without considering race, that she didn’t dance like them because she’s not good enough, that she meant to provoke conversation and that “it has nothing to do with race, at all.” Some of the dancers in the video have also come to Allen’s defense:
@Adam_M_Ali this ia real life issues raised in the song. ALL races of women are sexualised in da industry.
— Seliza Sebastian (@SelizaShowtime) November 14, 2013
Questions about the way feminism addresses race issues are certainly not new, and Allen’s self-proclaimed effort not to include race in the discussion backfired in a way that fits in with what many see as an long-standing myopia among the well-meaning but privileged. But the uproar over Allen’s video, taken alongside her response to it, highlights one of the more prominent reasons this kind of controversy pops up — and the deeper reason why some people are angry about it, and some eager to defend her against such anger.
There’s no question that Allen’s intent was to be sarcastic; she says as much in the lyrics, and her critics know as much. In some places — as in her use of Thicke-style balloon letters — her intentions translate directly to the finished product; in others the satire seems, to many, to not be far enough from the target. Leaving the audience to get the point her based on context means the point the audience gets can be a different one from what the artist intended. Doing a thing you don’t like ironically, without actually changing it much, is still doing the thing you don’t like; others who also don’t like that thing may therefore not like what you’re doing either.
So in this case the question of intent is pretty easy to sort out; the question of what viewers will get out of the video is less so. And, at its heart, the conflict over whether the “Hard Out Here” video is racist is one about the definition, implications and proper execution of satire — and that’s a question that, as the folks at Girls and The Onion could have told Lily Allen, is perhaps the hardest of all.
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