A few months ago, one of my friends sent me the now-infamous *extremely NSFW* Robin Thicke "Blurred Lines" video. It was late and I was probably starting my first round of night cheese, and I quickly dismissed it as soon as I saw the first pair of boobs appear beside a fully clothed man. He wrote back: "You need to complicate your POV," and then launched into a lengthly analysis of aesthetics and identity and hyper-mediation. "My POV is fine," I mumbled into my second night cheese and grumpily x'ed out of the browser.
For those of you who aren't familiar, the controversy surrounding the video is as follows: the lyrics of "Blurred Line" condone using coercion to overcome a "good girl's" discomfort with wild sex, because Thicke apparently "knows" that she "wants it." Here are some prize selections:
You're a good girl...
Talk about getting blasted
I hate these blurred lines
I know you want it (x 3)
But you're a good girl
The way you grab me
Must wanna get nasty.
Lyrically, well...it's not wonderful, but there's a lot worse out there. Through the hazy lens of first night cheese, however, the music video seems pretty gross. It features three topless women cavorting around in nothing but tan thongs and (occasionally) shoes, while Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. pretty much stand there in suits and wiggle their limbs to the music. The topless women play with a variety of sexualized objects: a stuffed lamb, children's toys, a giant syringe, etc., and there's a scene where they dance in front of a wall on which "ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG DICK" is spelled out of letter-shaped balloons.
In a YouTube video titled "Robin Thicke is a dick," Canadian model Amy Davison argues that the women "are clearly being used as objects to reinforce the status of men in the video. The men have all the control and status because they are not vulnerable—they are completely covered. Whereas the women have no status and are totally open to be exploited ogled and used."
Robin Thicke himself didn't help the matter by saying in an interview with GQ that, in order to write the song, he and Pharrell "started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls" and claiming that the video contained taboos on purpose: "Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women." If you're not already offended, he added, "What a pleasure it is to degrade women."
Does Robin Thicke need to complicate his POV? Does everyone need to complicate his/her POV? According to the video's director, Diane Martel, probably. In a Grantland Q&A, she stated that she meant for the video to be tongue-in-cheek, ridiculing, and subversive:
I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men. Look at Emily Ratajkowski’s [the brunette] performance; it’s very, very funny and subtly ridiculing. That’s what is fresh to me. It also forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators. I directed the girls to look into the camera, this is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I don’t think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck. That said, I respect women who are watching out for negative images in pop culture and who find the nudity offensive, but I find [the video] meta and playful.
Does it work, though? Is meta-nudity a thing? Watching the video again after reading Martel's commentary, I did feel like I was in on the joke. The eye contact made it significantly more difficult to view the women as mere props — Ratajkowski, in fact, seems to roll her eyes twice, and a lot of the time, she's staring straight into the camera with a faintly fed up expression. Through this interpretation, when Elle Evans (the blonde woman) bats her eyes as she clutches a taxidermied lamb to her naked chest, she's mocking the entire conceit of the song, a caricature of the "good girl" who knows that the entire idea is preposterous. And the farce becomes funnier when you take into consideration the fact that Thicke is apparently not even in on it (at least, not according to the comments he made to GQ). He becomes the bumbling old man character he temporarily inhabited while writing the song, falsely believing that the women he catcalls at have any interest in him.
But is there such thing as "ironic objectification," or does it exist in the same realm as hipster racism: a joke that's not really a joke because longstanding systems of sexism and oppression are still in place? If the director has to tell us that it's a joke, is it effective? If thousands of people — including the star of the video — can interpret it as merely degrading and/or titillating, another sexist NSFW video amongst a sea of sexist NSFW videos, can it really be subversive?