Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dehumanisation & Empowerment, Inextricable?

I have been thinking about Lily Allen's 'Hard out here' (the song and its video) for the past week or so. I won't be addressing the video's problematic treatment of black bodies (many have already done that), but I'd like to focus on the lyrics instead.



The very first line introduces the word 'bitch', which is used liberally all over the song for its so-called empowering qualities. The movement to reclaim 'bitch' doesn't help to denounce the dehumanisation that is associated with being female. In a world where women are treated as 85-59% of men (see the Global Gender Gap report), reducing them to the status of an animal simply emphasises their disempowerment (and quite cruelly at that).

Fortunately, the song gets better, and it's in some of these witty lines to follow that I find an epiphany: It's impossible to be 100% empowering, or even 100% disempowering. Everyone has their own mix of emboldenment and cowardice, and any text they create will almost always represent that. More specifically in the context of feminism, every woman is disempowered in some way (we have all experienced sadistic male social aggression, for example), yet has special gifts which have allowed her to sail on relatively unscathed in some other way.

Anyway, I enjoy the dismissal of the traditional sphere of cooking as Lily Allen's role. She sings about being 'in the studio and not in the kitchen', a line I could relate to if I had a job (blogging notwithstanding), since I try to spend as little time preparing food as possible. I prefer to buy food from outside if there's nothing available in the fridge.

I think Jessica Valenti would be proud of the line 'If I told you about my sex life / you'd call me a slut / but when boys be talking about their bitches / no-one's making a fuss' - she was the first major feminist commentator to point out the double standards with which female and male sexualities are treated. The line is a postmodern reference to 'Not Fair', in which Lily complains about not being sexually satisfied in an otherwise good relationship, for which she obviously received a lot of backlash.

'You're not a size 6 / ... / You should probably lose some weight / Cause we can't see your bones / You should probably fix your face / or you'll end up on your own' - This is the kind of abusive attitude women have to put up with all the time. Constant criticisms about not living up to the beauty standards of the day, which are impossible to reach anyway, considering almost all women's magazines use Photoshop on their models. These lines bear a special importance coming from Allen, who has battled with anorexia herself.

'Don't you want to have somebody who objectifies you?' - I have to confess that I think about what my body looks like way too much, even when no-one else is sharing the same space. I adopt poses which I believe make my body look more aesthetically pleasing, as if it's somehow my function to be. This line reminds me of how complicit I am in attracting people who objectify me... it's a condition which I find hard to shake.

'Have you thought about your butt / Who's gonna tear it in two' - this is a criticism of the rap in Blurred Lines, when (I think it was) T.I. sings 'I'll give you something that'll tear your ass in two'. It postulates that women are *not* interested in experiencing pain during their sex lives (unless they're into a certain kind of S&M), whatever is encouraged by misogynistic lyrics or pornography.

'We've never had it so good / We're out of the woods / And if you can't detect the sarcasm / you've misunderstood' - I love the first two lines because I hear this kind of post-feminist excuse-making all the time. 'Equality already exists, there's no need to fight for anything anymore' -  that's the sort of thing I'm used to hearing, and I'm glad to hear Lily sending it up. It seems like Lily is aware of how her lyrics might be taken out of context, and so wishes to affirm her sarcastic/satirical message.

Her last two lines make her stand out as a keen cultural critic indeed: 'Inequality promises that it's here to stay / Always trust the injustice 'cause it's not going away'

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