This week, Lily Allen debuted the video for her new song “Hard Out Here,” to extremely mixed reactions. Some, like our own Rachel, saw her song about pop music’s policing of women’s bodies and double standards about sexuality as a “feminist anthem.” Others are deeply offended by her use of mostly women of color backup dancers, arguing that satire is not an excuse for using their bodies in disrespectful ways.
In the video, Lily Allen does some pretty dances moves and is corrected throughout by a white man in a suit (an actor playing her agent or manager, we assume) on how to suck off a banana or shake her ass while she’s twerking. All throughout the video, women of color dancers (perhaps including one white dancer and maybe some Asian dancers — it’s hard to tell) gyrate around Allen in typical video vixen moves, shaking their asses, pouring bubbly on their boobs, and licking the sides of champagne bottles, while taking cues from the guy in the suit as well.
It’s pretty obvious that Allen’s intent is to satirize the sexualization of women’s bodies in music videos. I would not call her message on that point subtle at all. Yet there’s still a lot of moments in the video which are racially uncomfortable. There are numerous closeup and slowed-down shots of women of color’s rear ends twerking and being slapped (a la Miley Cyrus onstage at the VMAs) and an awful lot of ass shots on camera in general. You can’t really lampoon something while still using the same imagery in your video over and over again and for that reason, Allen seems to be glorifying what she also is mocking.
Blogger Cate at Batty Mamzelle wrote a critique of the “Hard Out Here” video today.
[T]here’s a lot that rubs me the wrong way, most specifically her use of black women as props. Here is Lily Allen, a white (presumably feminist) woman, making a statement about her autonomy, sexual agency and self worth, while mocking the very same in black women. The lyrics of the song are all about rejecting objectification and yet, here she is, objectifying women of colour. It’s not lost on me that throughout the video, Allen and her two white dancers are wearing far more clothing than all of the black women who are present. … Lily croons on about how much better she is than all that because she’s above the need to sexualize herself. We get close up shots of jiggling asses and black women licking money all while Lily is fully clothed, professing her superiority. … So what does it say that she has put black women in her video in an explicitly sexual context? That she’s better than them? What does it mean when she sings “Don’t need to shake my ass for you, cause I’ve got a brain“ while surrounded by black women doing exactly that?
Jezebel defended the video as “satire” (which, um, duh). Tumblr blogger Black In Asia addressed that argument over Twitter today, which I’ve posted altogether:
I dream of a day when people realize that “satire” is not an excuse or usable cover for racism. “Ironic” racism is STILL (ding ding) RACIST. And pretending otherwise is just SO indicative of one’s barely veiled privilege, entitlement and…Wait for it…internalized RACISM. I really have no time for flacid “excuses” like that AT ALL especially when people’s humanity is the underlying topic of discussion. But people will say and do anything to protect and enshrine their privilege even at the cost of marginalized peoples. It’s sickening. So fuck ‘em.
Lily Allen has responded to the criticism today in a series of tweets, which I’ve listed below:
Privilege, Superiority and Misconceptions
1. If anyone thinks for a second that I requested specific ethnicities for the video, they’re wrong.
2. If anyone thinks that after asking the girls to audition, I was going to send any of them away because of the colour of their skin, they’re wrong.
3. The message is clear. Whilst I don’t want to offend anyone. I do strive to provoke thought and conversation. The video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture. It has nothing to do with race, at all.
4. If I could dance like the ladies can, it would have been my arse on your screens; I actually rehearsed for two weeks trying to perfect my twerk, but failed miserably. If I was a little braver, I would have been wearing a bikini too, but I do not and I have chronic cellulite, which nobody wants to see. What I’m trying to say is that me being covered up has nothing to do with me wanting to disassociate myself from the girls, it has more to do with my own insecurities and I just wanted to feel as comfortable as possible on the shoot day.
5. I’m not going to apologise because I think that would imply that I’m guilty of something, but I promise you this, in no way do I feel superior to anyone, except paedophiles, rapists murderers etc., and I would not only be surprised but deeply saddened if I thought anyone came away from that video feeling taken advantage of,or compromised in any way.
I’ll take her at her word about why she was wearing more clothes than other women, including the women of color, in the video. Lily Allen has long been vocal about her body image struggles and the pressure from fans and the music industry itself to lose weight (I mean, the entire first part about the “Hard Out Here” video is about liposuction). I don’t begrudge someone for wanting to cover their body up — yet by doing so while the women of color in the video are less clothed, she is commenting on them. Is Lily Allen serious that the video “has nothing to do with race, at all”? I know she’s the same person who once tweeted a picture (NSFW) of a penis dressed up in blackface so she’s clearly tone deaf, but really?
A music video fronted by a white woman, with mostly women of color backup dancers, performing moves historically and controversially known to originate from hip hop culture and appropriated by white pop stars is going to be about race and it’s especially going to be about race when the white person is dressed less provocatively. Lily Allen gets the voice in this narrative while the women of color’s asses are being used like props in the video. I’m not sure whether Allen is being disingenuous or just ignorant in her protestations, though I suspect a little from Column A and a little from column B.
In either case, I completely see Batty Mamzelle’s argument that “it feels as though black women are the joke in this video.” The statement in “Hard Out Here” could be read as “Otherwise Respectable White Pop Stars Are Being Pressured To Behave Like Slutty Black Women By Twerking & Here Are Some Black Asses Just To Drive Home The Point Of How Slutty They Are.” That’s not just, as Bust Magazine’s blog put it, “comically ironic twerking.”
I love the parts in Allen’s video where sexism and body-hating are bluntly critiqued. I also really like the lyrics of the actual song. But ultimately, the video is racially squicky and her argument that the “message is clear” in the video — that it should just be viewed in one way — is dismissive of these other legitimate critiques. It’s a shame that Lily Allen, in her rush to make a provocative statement, didn’t fully think through exactly what kind of statement she was making.
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