The controversy over Robin Thicke’s hit ‘Blurred Lines’ has been going back and forth for some time now. Is it plagiarized from that Marvin Gaye record? Is it truly catchy or just overplayed? Is it the final proof of pop’s retromanic obsession with recycling its own past under some dancefloor amendment to the Thirty Year Rule? Is it incredibly annoying when American summer school students dance to it in my favourite cocktail bar? Beyond all this, there’s a more serious question which has been tackled by outlets from Vagenda to HuffPo, and commentators from Melinda Hughes to Lisa Stead: whether “Blurred Lines” is, quite frankly, a rather rapey tune.
Slate defended it in their Culture Gabfest this week as “douchey”, not “rapey”, with a further request that the word “rapey” be expunged from the vocabulary of pop cultural criticism. They admitted that the video involved some regressive ways of looking at women’s bodies and the lyrics continued an irritating tradition of wiping out female agency by offering them the option of being “stolen” from their boyfriend as the height of liberation. To which we could add the fetishization of women’s past sexual experiences as the centre of their moral and personal being: the song’s “you’re an animal”…“you’re a good girl” neatly bracket the Madonna-whore dichotomy which has been a fixture in misogynistic art for centuries and somehow apply them to the same person.
In the end, though, Slate concluded that the song read like something being whispered in the ear of a woman the singer was dancing with at a club – sleazy yes, but no suggestion that his advances were being rejected or that the imagined consummation of this encounter would be non-consensual. The “blurred lines” referred to the fact that she was coming on to him whilst in a relationship with someone else, and therefore it could be given a pass (with the additional stipulation that “rapey” was a rubbish word and to be retired). I have to disagree on both counts: I think “rapey” is the perfect word for this song. It sums up the way this tune is embedded in sexual attitudes which can’t even imagine positive, consensual sex. “Blurred Lines” doesn’t advocate rape because it doesn’t have to.
The passages I think exemplify this come in the third verse: “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”, “Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you/ He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that”. But the repetition of “I’m gon’ take a good girl” and “I know you want it” all the way through contribute to the same atmosphere. The best sex which this song can envision is acts which do physical damage to a woman. This isn’t a question of kink or BDSM, it’s an assumption that the better heterosexual sex is, the less it has to do with a woman’s desires and the more likely it is to harm her. It’s the mindset which writes articles in men’s magazines about how to “get your girlfriend to let you do this to her”, conceptualizing sex as a series of acts whose relative sexiness is evidenced by how much women don’t want to be involved in them. This attitude doesn’t advocate sexual violence, only because it can’t see the difference between sex and violence. “Sexual assault” is practically a tautology in this song. It’s redundant to ask whether the encounter imagined by “Blurred Lines” is non-consensual, since the song doesn’t seem to admit the concept of consent.
This doesn’t mean that “Blurred Lines” will turn people into rapists, or that a single hit song can imprint an ideology on the summer. But it does mean the song is a perfect example of that much-derided critical term “rape culture”. It channels and speaks to an entire system of attitudes, conventions and experiences which normalize violence towards women and valorize male aggression. “Rapey” is the word.