Fifty eight years ago today, Rosa Parks kicked off a plan to bring down Jim Crow segregation by refusing to move to the back of the bus. @ShawneeSoc sent us a link to the Washington Post, where they featured her original arrest documents. A very cool piece of history.
Bonus, here’s the law that Parks was arrested for violating and an explanation (thanks to Martín A. for the link):
If the past few months in the music industry have left you demoralized — what with the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and all — Lily Allen might make you feel better, emphasis on might. Her single, with the sarcastic refrain “It’s hard out here for a bitch,” satirizes all of it and takes some ugly missteps along the way. In doing so, she reinvigorates an important conversation about satire, race politics, and feminism.
2. She points to the extreme standards of beauty for pop stars, singing the lyrics “You should probably lose some weight/’Cause we can’t see your bones” and beginning the video in surgery alongside a discussion about her “terrifying” post-baby body:
Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?
This is a retort to Thicke’s line, “I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two.”
4. She refers to the Sinead O’Connor/Amanda Palmer debate about whether women in the music industry have agency. Breaking the fourth wall, the video features a middle-aged, white male executive in a suit telling her to treat a banana like a penis and showing her and her dancers how to twerk.
5. Finally, she goes after materialism and product placement:
Her final lines:
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay Always trust injustice/in justice ’cause it’s not goin’ away
Interestingly, I’m not sure if the lyric is “injustice” or “in justice.” Or both!
What to Make of It All?
Not everyone is loving this video. Some are arguing that she is using her race and class privilege to take advantage of the debate; her use of women of color as props, for example, is no different than Cyrus’. Even if the frame is satire, the visual is the same.
Some of her lyrics mock rap and hip hop generally, making it a racialized scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in the world, which happens. She sings, “I won’t be bragging about my cars/Or talking about my chains.” In one scene she washes rims surrounded by champagne, in another she mocks the car culture associated with hip hop.
Even if her satire were straight on, there’s always the risk that people won’t get it, despite the fact that she refers to it directly. This is a serious risk as indicated by the fact that a significant proportion of politically conservative viewers of The Colbert Reportdon’ t know he’s kidding.
I’ll be interested to see the conversation about the song and video as it plays out. In the meantime, I’m pleased for the reminder that the music industry isn’t monolithic.
First, there are people in the industry that object to racism, sexism, and materialism: Lily Allen, I think, but also likely many of the people who worked with her to make this song and video happen.
Second, there’s money in fighting back. This highly produced single and video would not be here if executives didn’t think it would be profitable. They think there are people out there who are sick of exploitation in the music industry… and they’re right.
Alternatively, this is just a modified version of the same exploitation that Cyrus is guilty of: a feminism that serves white women well, but continues to marginalize women of color.
Read this with the movie trailer voice in your head: In a world where men and masculinity are valued above women and femininity and the voice of god sounds like a man. Can there be any sense of justice? Can a hero rise from the ashes that were this country’s dreams of equality?
Now read this with nerdy sociologist voice: In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses how we manipulate our voices to perform gender and asks us to think about what our vocal performances say about patriarchy in our culture.
My Mom’s Phone Voice
Voice & The Performance of Gender
We have talked extensively on SociologyInFocus about how gender is a performance. That is, we “do gender”. Right now if you wanted to act feminine or to act masculine you could change your clothing, how you move, how you sit, the facial expressions you use, but arguably the first thing you would change is your voice. Gender is a performance and like any performance there are costumes, lines, mannerisms, etc. that you embody to perform the role. The rules of gender performance are so clear and present throughout society that even my 5 year old can recite them:
Patriarchy, Cultural Symbols, and In A World
As a sociologist concerned with inequality, I think the juiciest question to ask is, are all voices treated equally? That is, do we empower some gender presentations and disempower others? This question is the central question explored in the movie In A World:
The movie, which was written and directed by it’s star Lake Bell, is about a young woman who is trying to break into the voice over acting world, but struggles mightily because the industry is male dominated. In the movie and in reality, when Hollywood wants an authoritative voice, a powerful voice, or simply “the voice of god”, they turn to male voice over actors more often than not. We should stop and ask, why is it this way? Are masculine voices just naturally more powerful? Nah. If you’ve spent anytime with opera singers you know that both male and female voices can rattle your ribcage. The answer then must be cultural.
So what does it say about our culture if we associate power with masculinity? The answer is simple, it suggests that we live in a patriarchal society (i.e. a society that values men and masculinity above women and femininity). That’s why it was so surprising to me when I read/watched interviews with Lake Bell where she put the blame back on women and something she calls the “sexy baby vocal virus.”
There is one statement in this film and I am vocal about it: There is a vocal plague going on that I call the sexy baby plague, where very smart women have taken on this affectation that evokes submission and sexual titillation to the male species,” she says.
“This voice says ‘I’m not that smart,’ and ‘don’t feel threatened’ and ‘don’t worry, I don’t want to take charge,’ which is a problem for me because it’s telling women to take on this bimbo persona in order to please a man.
The problem of the sexy baby voice
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Bell’s criticism of the women who use the “sexy baby” voice. She asserts that “these women” have been “victimized” and “fallen pray to something”, but then clearly seems to be angry at them for their use of the voice. Furthermore Bell’s critique of women’s voices takes a social issue (patriarchy and the devaluing of all things feminine) and redefines it as an individual problem. If the women who use the “sexy baby” voice are using it to present themselves as non-threatening or highly sexual, then where did they get the idea in the first place? I’m not sure if Bell is arguing that the “sexy baby” voice is a reaction to a patriarchal society or that it the creates a patriarchal society.
In a world working through the issue of patriarchy, it would seem that even movies that are critiquing patriarchy can reinforce it.
The Redskins have been in the news lately – on the front page of the Times, for example — and not for their prowess on the gridiron. It’s their name. Many native Americans find it offensive, understandably so. “Redskins” was not a name they chose. It was a label invented by the European-Americans who took their land and slaughtered them in numbers that today would be considered genocide.
President Obama offered the most tepid hint of criticism of the name. He did not say they should change their name. He said that if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But that was enough for non-Indians to dismiss the idea as yet one more instance of “political correctness.”
Defenders of the name also argue that the name is not intended to be offensive, and besides, a survey shows that most Americans are not bothered by it. I would guess that most Americans also have no problem with the Cleveland Indians logo, another sports emblem that real Indians find offensive.
In response the National Congress of American Indians offers these possibilities. The Cleveland cap is the real thing. The other two are imagined variations on the same theme.
The pro-Redskins arguments could also apply here. The New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen and their logos are not intended to offend, and a survey would probably find a majority of Americans untroubled by these names and logos. And those who do object are just victims of “the tyranny of political correctness.” This last phrase comes from a tweet by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American. His response seems to make all the more relevant the suggestion of years ago by the American Indian Movement’s Russell Means: “Why don’t they call them The Washington Niggers?”
Trigger warning: Graphic descriptions of sexual assault. Note: The opinions expressed in this post belong to Sezin Koehler alone and should not be attributed to anyone involved with Project Unbreakable.
Robin Thicke’s summer hit Blurred Lines addresses what he considers to be sounds like a grey area between consensual sex and assault. The images in this post place the song into a real-life context. They are from Project Unbreakable, an online photo essay exhibit, and feature images of women and men holding signs with sentences that their rapist said before, during, or after their assault. Let’s begin.
I know you want it.
Thicke sings “I know you want it,” a phrase that many sexual assault survivors report their rapists saying to justify their actions, as demonstrated over and over in the Project Unbreakable testimonials.
You’re a good girl.
Thicke further sings “You’re a good girl,” suggesting that a good girl won’t show her reciprocal desire (if it exists). This becomes further proof in his mind that she wants sex: for good girls, silence is consent and “no” really means “yes.”
Calling an adult a “good girl” in this context resonates with the the virgin/whore dichotomy. The implication in Blurred Lines is that because the woman is not responding to a man’s sexual advances, which of course are irresistible, she’s hiding her true sexual desire under a facade of disinterest. Thicke is singing about forcing a woman to perform both the good girl and bad girl roles in order to satisfy the man’s desires.
Thicke and company, as all-knowing patriarchs, will give her what he knows she wants (sex), even though she’s not actively consenting, and she may well be rejecting the man outright.
Do it like it hurt, do it like it hurt, what you don’t like work?
This lyric suggests that women are supposed to enjoy pain during sex or that pain is part of sex:
The woman’s desires play no part in this scenario – except insofar as he projects whatever he pleases onto her — another parallel to the act of rape: sexual assault is generally not about sex, but rather about a physical and emotional demonstration of power.
The way you grab me.
Must wanna get nasty.
This is victim-blaming. Everybody knows that if a woman dances with a man it means she wants to sleep with him, right? And if she wears a short skirt or tight dress she’s asking for it, right? And if she even smiles at him it means she wants it, right? Wrong. A dance, an outfit, a smile — sexy or not — does not indicate consent. This idea, though, is pervasive and believed by rapists.
And women, according to Blurred Lines, want to be treated badly.
Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you.
He don’t smack your ass and pull your hair like that.
In this misogynistic fantasy, a woman doesn’t want a “square” who’ll treat her like a human being and with respect. She would rather be degraded and abused for a man’s gratification and amusement, like the women who dance around half naked humping dead animals in the music video.
The piècede résistance of the non-censored version of Blurred Lines is this lyric:
I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two.
What better way to show a woman who’s in charge than violent, non-consensual sodomy?
Ultimately, Robin Thicke’s rape anthem is about male desire and male dominance over a woman’s personal sexual agency. The rigid definition of masculinity makes the man unable to accept the idea that sometimes his advances are not welcome. Thus, instead of treating a woman like a human being and respecting her subjectivity, she’s relegated to the role of living sex doll whose existence is naught but for the pleasure of a man.
In Melinda Hugh’s Lame Lines parody of Thicke’s song she sings, “You think I want it/ I really don’t want it/ Please get off it.” The Law Revue Girls “Defined Lines” response to Blurred Lines notes, “Yeah we don’t want it/ It’s chauvinistic/ You’re such a bigot.” Rosalind Peters says in her one-woman retort, “Let’s clear up something mate/ I’m here to have fun/ I’m not here to get raped.”
There are no “blurred lines.” There is only one line: consent.
“Next to being a Hollywood movie star, nothing was more glamorous.” This breathless statement, quoted in Femininity in Flight, was uttered by a flight attendant in 1945. At the time being a stewardess was quite glamorous. Like motion pictures do today, airlines trafficked in “the business of female spectacle.” They hired only women who they believed to represent ideal femininity. Chosen for their beauty and poise, and only from among the educated, and slender, they were as much of an icon as Miss America. And they were almost all White.
Victoria Vantoch tells the story of the first African American flight attendants in a chapter of her new book, The Jet Sex. Patricia Banks was one of the first Black women to sue an airline for racial discrimination. She graduated from flight attendant training school at the top of her class and applied to several airlines. But it was 1956 and the U.S. airlines had never hired a Black woman. After 10 months of trying, an airline recruiter pulled her aside and admitted that it was because of her race. Which, of course, it was; airlines disqualified any applicants that had broad noses, full lips, coarse hair, or a “hook nose” (to weed out Jews).
Banks sued. After four years of litigation, Capital Airlines was forced to hire her. She postponed her marriage and took the job (airlines only hired single women as flight attendants). When she put on her uniform for the first time, she said:
After all I had gone through, I couldn’t believe I was finally wearing the uniform. I had made it. I was going to fly. It was such an accomplishment.
Individual women weren’t the only ones pushing to integrate the flight attendants corps. International surveys showed that citizens of other countries knew that America had a “race problem” and this was a problem for then-President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. They needed to do something flashy and they turned to flight attendants to do it. If they could make Black women the face of such an iconic and high-profile occupation, they thought, it would help restore America’s reputation. According to Vantoch, Johnson “made stewardess integration his personal cause.”
That was 1961; in 1964 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act mandating equal treatment in the workplace. The following year, in response to even more lawsuits, approximately 50 Black women were hired by airlines. This would make them 0.33% of the workforce.
Patricia Banks and her fellow first African American flight attendants, including Mary Tiller and Marlene White, would continue to face racism, now from co-workers, passengers, and supervisors. Banks would quit after one year, citing exhaustion in the face of emotionally draining feminine work and a constant onslaught of racism. She was a great flight attendant, though, and proud to show the world that a Black woman could shine in the occupation.
If you haven’t watched Robin Thicke’s disaster of a music video for Blurred Lines, you absolutely must. But first, feast your eyes on this quote by Virginia Woolf:
Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses… reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
It’s women’s work to prop up male egos the idea of male superiority. To me, that’s exactly what’s going on in this video. It’s actually quite funny when you look at it that way; it makes the men look so desperate.
Anyhow, I’m glad smart, feminist, fearless women and men are fighting back:
An exercise in gender bending helps expose the ridiculousness as well. Why does it seem silly when men do it, but not when women do? Because it’s women’s job to be fans of men.
Also, because I can’t help but add a little more snark, how does someone with ZERO charisma end up a pop star? There’s got to be a story here about money and connections.
Thanks to Marie N., Bronwyn L., and Natalie S. for sending in the videos!
Today marks a celebration of the momentous 1963 march on Washington for Civil Rights. We’ve linked to a few Civil Rights movement-related posts here and have embedded Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech below.