Lily Allen has responded to controversy around her new video by saying that its imagery — a fully-clothed Allen surrounded by scantily clad mostly-nonwhite backup dancers twerking — "had nothing to do with race, at all." Unfortunately for Allen, extenuating circumstances surrounding its creation don't get to dictate how art is perceived, and artists don't get to decide what is and isn't about race — the audience does.
Yesterday, after the internet exploded upon the release of Lily Allen's new video for "Hard Out Here," critics didn't respond with uniform accolades or universal "You Go, Girl!" sentiments. Reception was mixed — some gave Allen the benefit of the doubt and lauded the video's middle finger to the sexism endemic to the music industry, and some saw it as, well, kinda racist. There was enough ambiguity in the video's presentation that people on both sides — it's racist! vs. it's great! — could make cases to support their viewpoints.
At least, there was until Allen responded to criticism today with a short blog post that ended up making things worse:
1. If anyone thinks for a second that I requested specific ethnicities for the video, they're wrong.
2. If anyone thinks that after asking the girls to audition, I was going to send any of them away because of the colour of their skin, they're wrong.
3. The message is clear. Whilst I don't want to offend anyone. I do strive to provoke thought and conversation. The video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture. It has nothing to do with race, at all.
4. If I could dance like the ladies can, it would have been my arse on your screens; I actually rehearsed for two weeks trying to perfect my twerk, but failed miserably. If I was a little braver, I would have been wearing a bikini too, but I do not and I have chronic cellulite, which nobody wants to see. What I'm trying to say is that me being covered up has nothing to do with me wanting to disassociate myself from the girls, it has more to do with my own insecurities and I just wanted to feel as comfortable as possible on the shoot day.
5. I'm not going to apologise because I think that would imply that I'm guilty of something, but I promise you this, in no way do I feel superior to anyone, except paedophiles, rapists murderers etc., and I would not only be surprised but deeply saddened if I thought anyone came away from that video feeling taken advantage of,or compromised in any way.
6. Ask the ladies yourselves @shalaeuroasia @monique_Lawz @ceodancers @TempleArtist@SelizaShowtime @melycrisp
So we've established now that Lily Allen didn't mean to be racist, according to Lily Allen. (Ask any of her black friends!) In fact, Lily Allen wasn't even thinking about the racial implications of the video when she released it. So neither should we, the audience!
But does it matter what Lily Allen meant if the finished product felt pretty racist to a lot of people who have found themselves at the receiving end of racism? One tumblr user (who happens to be black) wrote on a massively shared and quoted post,
The video is meant to be a critique and satire of popular culture and manages some deserved jabs at Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" videos among others, but in the end it just reduces itself down to elevating Lily Allen's white female body and objectifying and utterly denigrating those of the black female dancers she deliberately surrounds herself with from start to finish.
The video's director wouldn't have had to do much to alleviate the problem of silent, sexualized backup dancers serving as a backdrop to Allen. If the point of the visual was to show that the dancers' agency had been taken away and they were used as props and that's just ridiculous that the music industry does that, they could have given the dancers a 2-second backstory. What if they were all wearing caps and gowns, only to have them cartoonishly ripped off before they're told by Old Man Music Industry to dance? What if one had a microphone, only to have it snatched from her and tossed out of frame? What if they're reading books and the books are taken away? I thought of these fixes in literally ten seconds. Allen and company could have made a much better video by alleviating the possibility that viewers would be troubled by its racial implications rather than nodding along to its indictment of sexism.
From Birdee Mag,
Lily's treatment of the Women of Colour in her film clip is a classic case of ironic racism, where she claims to be progressive and sarcastically challenging the norms, but she doesn't do anything more than present them. The dancers around her are used like props, especially when she slaps them and giggles (gross). Like with ironic sexism, ironic racism is an act that says, "I know you know that I know I'm being racist, so it's not really racist." It is racist.
Here's Michelle Dean at Flavorwire,
...beyond the mocking frame, if you think about the result for the women who are actually dancing in the video, it is still the same as your average Miley Cyrus/Gwen Stefani/Madonna exploitation of women of color. Let's get abstract for a second: Here's a white lady, singing about how she resents having to lose weight and generally be treated as a sex object. And she's dancing with a number of comparatively voiceless and nameless black women.
But Lily Allen didn't mean to! you might counter, frustrated, She says it right in her blog post!
Doesn't matter. Artists don't get to dictate to their audience how their art is perceived. The art is the speech, is the explanation. And while backstories are interesting if you're on a tour of a museum or watching Pop Up Video, they can't be central to the audience's accurate understanding of the artist's message. If it's not good enough to stand on its own, well, then it's not very good art.
Very few people who aren't Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter wake up in the morning intending to be racist or sexist, yet, racist shit continues to happen. Allen, I'd imagine, doesn't fancy herself a racist or fathom that anything she didn't intend could be perceived as racism, especially since last year, she reported racist tweets to the British army when a soldier began slinging abuse on Twitter. But thinking of yourself as an anti-racist doesn't mean that you're incapable of doing racist things. Case in point: this (NSFW) Tweet Allen sent during her feud with Azealia Banks (who is black) last year.
— Lily Allen (@lilyallen) July 13, 2013
Further, Allen's intentions don't matter if the end result looks kind of exactly like the object of "satire." If I push a person down the stairs and say it's satire, bones still break. If I drive my car off a cliff and say that what I was intending to do was drive it successfully around a corner, the car is still wrecked. If I compliment someone but it's perceived as an insult, then it's an insult. If a video an artist "intended" to be anti-sexist critique utilizes tropes the audience finds racist, then it's not satire on sexism, it's reinforcement of racism. What Allen was trying to do was talk about music industry sexism, but what she really did was comment on Pop Feminism's Race Problem (a problem that I know I've been guilty of embodying myself, which sucks and is embarrassing and which I continue to work on).
Is commentary on the hypersexualization of nonwhite women's bodies in popular music necessary? Absolutely. Can the shitty treatment of women of color by the music industry be satirized? Yup, as it has been before. But does the way to do that successfully involve placing a fully clothed white woman in the middle of a group of nonspeaking mostly nonwhite women (who, by the way, will make way less money from the video than the fully clothed white lady that has a voice)? As we've seen from the fallout from this video's release, the answer is a resounding Nope.