Thursday, 21 November 2013

Lily Allen kicks up a storm!

Lily Allen's Video Hard Out Here - if you haven't seen it here's a YouTube clip

Or, better, listen to this emotional response from skilled poet Deanna Rodger

Lily's caused an outcry. And a flurry of very well-written, well-argued critiques. Like this one here. And this one here. And this one here. And she has defended herself. And then there are people who support her for making a feminist stand. Google them, if you must.

But, I was asked to share my opinion on the matter. Then I ignored the question for a few days, then I thought, what the heck - if I'm going to be made to think about her and her video, I better take my time on it. And so, instead of the simple answer I was going to give, I've ended up with these thoughts....

Some context #1 - Personal

I don't have a TV at home, so I have to make a decisive effort to watch the world as it happens on the Internet. My old-school habit of turning on the telly for random noise is now gone.

Since last year in particular, I've felt a little out of touch, but I like the feeling. I have no clue about X Factor and who's winning, losing or whining their way into the affections of the British public; I remain especially indifferent to Great British Bake Offs and anything else that involves pastry.

However, I have taken perverse pleasure watching Gogglebox, where friends and families sit in their living rooms, watch TV and comment about it while they're watching. (I'm hoping someone will film me watching the show and then make a TV programme out of it; in return, I'll film whoever films me and we can keep going ad infinitum.)

#2 - Global/ Getting some real perspective

I've stopped picking up free newspapers. If I want to be informed, I log on and watch the news online or I read it from my phone. I generally know what's going on, and I select what I want to know more about.

The aftermath of the storm in the Philippines is difficult to get my head around. When a disaster creates deaths in single or double figures, it hits me more, as I can easily picture ten or a hundred people; when deaths gets to the thousands, however, it's difficult to conceptualise, even if you have a close connection with the place (I don't). I'm not unique feeling this way; the phenomenon has been referred to as donor or disaster fatigue.

Despite this, I know millions of people need immediate help - people with far bigger problems than my own - or Lily Allen's (the link above has some information on how to donate). It's hard out here, indeed!

Given all of the above, forgive me if I fail to care too much about what Lily Allen does in her videos...

(I would leave it there, but...)


Everything we do is a conversation with the past.

(We talk about the film we watched last night with friends/colleagues/ourselves. We elaborate. We forget details. We respond to it based on how much better or worse it was than the last thing, or the original version. Or the prequel. And, as we get older, we compare it to films we idealised as kids.)

#4 - Trends

'Tis the season of music video controversy. In case you didn't realise there was a season, we've had a few twerks, then a few blurred lines, and a wrecking ball. All of these have hit news headlines lately and created gossip, debate, censorship and fury.

But there have been debates about music videos going back decades. And there have been arguments about the objectification of women whose buttocks feature in these videos. And, of course, arguments about the consequences of women seeking to follow the new ideal of hip-hop video-friendly buttocks, including this exceptionally sad story about a woman from Hackney, reported to have been "an aspiring hip-hop star", which just sprung to mind.

Given the above, I won't be saying anything new... And I doubt many other people can, either. So why bother weighing in on something that is already yesterday's news (until some other singer sticks a gyrating butt into the continuing dialogue between sexism and race)?

(And, having said that...)

#5 - Youth

"Sir! Sir! Have you seen this?"

A girl points me to the friend sitting next to her, in my class (where she should be writing).

"Look - I can twerk my finger!" the girl says.

"She's been doing it all day, sir!"

A miracle... Balanced on one thumb, her index performs an impressive - if not disturbing - wobble.

I rewind to when I was an eleven year old. I probably would have parodied some of the arse-shaking antics of the music videos I saw in a similar, relatively innocent way. But I wouldn't have shared this with an adult, which says a lot about protocol and boundaries, but it also says something about our common language.

It was assumed I knew what the term "twerking" meant - and, given its addition to the Oxford Dictionary, and given that I haven't had my head completely buried in some drawer for the past few months, it was a fair assumption - and an acceptable term to use. When I was eleven, I don't recall there being a similar term in popular use across generations, even if people have been shaking their booty for aeons. Household names like Miley Cyrus have given universal access to this aspect of "black" culture (the inverted commas are a place mark for debate on the grey area of what "black culture" is. And artists from Elvis to Eminem have been stirring that debate for ages... That's almost another argument altogether.)

#6 - Appropriation

But I'll touch on that argument briefly. Well, just enough to say that we still have an issue with how marginalised groups use language - and whether those whose balance of power is greater should be able to employ the same language. The subject is discussed extensively in this recent radio programme with regard to the word "nigger" - a word which features heavily in the show, despite being censored in the title: "Nobody's N-Word." More humorously, this article discusses the same issue with derogatory terms for gay people.

How the above points relate to the video depends on how we answer the questions below:

i) How far can you criticise attitudes/behaviour you disagree with through mimickry/satire/parody, without becoming a part of that behaviour yourself?

ii) How much is a white, privileged (in multiple senses of the word) woman entitled to appropriate and parody the (visual) language of what is mostly seen as a "black" form of art?

iii) How more/less acceptable would this be if races were inverted in the video (i.e. if Lily Allen were black, and the dancers were white)?  

In a conclusion, of sorts

The last question has been used to dismiss claims of racism in the video. ("People will always find something to be offended by. Even if they were all white 'they' would be offended") This is the attitude I find more distasteful than any one-off music video. I mean, I get it - Lily's just trying to make a record, some money and a name for herself. And she may well be in a vacuum where the implications of her choice of choreography - given the subject matter - aren't fully thought-out (although I'm disinclined to give her the benefit of the doubt after she tweeted the penis in blackface.) But for others to invalidate a sizeable group's misgivings by saying they aren't genuine is another matter.

When people are offended, I tend to find out why; I may not agree, but I would never go down the road of belittling the validity of their feelings. Go back to #3 - there might be some historical context which can shed light on why some people take umbrage. Think about Deanna's video, for example - she provides an account of feeling judged and degraded from a young age; for her, 'Hard Out Here' is a personal insult, a belittling of her experience.    

I saw a Facebook post a while ago, and then haven't been able to find it again. However, it read something like this:
Being black means you get to be offended by things white people don't. And to then be told that you need to lighten up (pardon the pun).
Of course, in a post-feminist, post-racist world, if you can't see your own privilege, it simply doesn't exist! I remember being shocked when I remarked how safe (central) London streets are at night and a woman I was speaking to reeled off a list of recent incidents where she'd been intimidated and even followed home by men. She doesn't feel as safe as I do; and I imagine many others wouldn't, either. How I see things isn't how another person will. That doesn't negate their experience.

All that said, I want to take the argument away from the singer who inspired the backlash. She's just another cog in the wheel, as Deanna would say. The real issue is that some black women - and men -  feel under-represented, marginalised, objectified. The real issue is that, when this is brought to public attention, eyes roll, people sigh and assume the "race card" position.

The real issue is that we can no longer call out "racism" and "sexism" in a straightforward way. I've decided that I don't know any racists. Or misogynists. Or homophobes. Or even bullies. These words have become flames. People who unwittingly display oppressive behaviour fail to recognise themselves in these terms because we associate them with cross-burning Neanderthals, fascists, angry skinheads with H-A-T-E H-A-T-E tattoos on each knuckle. We know that people who are racist are BAD. Just like if you ask any school child if bullying is wrong (it's National Anti-bullying week by the way!) they will also tell you how awful it is. And still bitch about someone in their class. Or write less-than-friendly messages on Facebook, or Twitter (watch this if you're able to understand Spanish - the ultimate teacher revenge!) Or simply forward an inflammatory email, or hack someone's account. When we call out racism for what it is, it gets people's backs up. So we need to be a little cleverer.

Since I've been an adult, I've never been intentionally racist, or sexist. But oppression doesn't work like that. Oppression comes in many forms, and the most insidious one is indirect complicity, a blindness which enables us to accept the status quo.

That all said, when all the fizz dies down, another singer will come along next month and pour more champagne over a girl's buttocks and the debate will continue, I'm sure. Meanwhile, as much as I don't like the video, it's just one video of many others, a small pixel in the screen that shows the picture of our world. I'm glad people are questioning how we represent race and gender issues, and I'd like to see us challenge more behaviour that makes society unjust. Because there are plenty of other, glaringly obvious examples.

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