Frisky Rant: On The Great Robin Thicke Feminist Knee-Jerk Fiasco Of 2013

The first time I really listened to the lyrics of “Blurred Lines,” I was like, “This is my JAM!” It only took a few minutes of Googling and reading my favorite feminist blogs, though, before I started becoming horrified and dismayed at the feminist community’s reaction to the song. The Daily Beast kicked off a knee-jerk party by calling it a “rape song,” and from there it was over. Feminist blog after feminist blog started jumping on the bandwagon, then the fervor spread to major news outlets, and all summer I was mired in language that made me feel excluded from a community into which I’ve invested not only my time and energy, but also my identity.

Let me be clear, Robin Thicke as a person seems like a giant douchenozzle and his latest album is pathetic. But I looooove “Blurred Lines.” The accusation that it’s “rapey” is unfounded if you look at the entire song in context: It’s about two sexually expressive people flirting. That’s it. At no point in the song does the male narrator imply that he’s willing or going to bypass consent. The idea that it’s about the “blurred lines of consent” was projected onto it by people who came to the song with prior hangups. The “blurred line” he’s referring to is the line of knowing or not knowing if the person you’re flirting with is into you. Like, “I’m pretty sure I know you want it, but you haven’t expressly said so, so we’re still in this hazy flirting territory.” He doesn’t say — at all, ever — “I know you want it, and whether or not that’s actually true, I’m going to take it.” But nonetheless, that’s what it was made out to be.

The complaint was, furthermore, with lines like “you’re a good girl,” “let me liberate you,” and “he don’t smack your ass and pull your hair like that” — lyrics that are aggressive, assertive, and dominant on the part of the male narrator. Part of the hullaballoo surrounding “Blurred Lines” became a blog in which rape victims disassembled the song, taking it piece by piece to reflect that the lyrics resembled things they’d been told by their rapists. I call it “hullaballoo” not to invalidate these survivors’ experiences (they have my unconditional support and sympathy), but to say that this isn’t a valid critique of the song or a justification of calling it “rapey.” You could take lyrics out of context in almost any song and have it resemble something that a rapist has said. One of my rapists said, “It’ll be fine.” Should I hold every songwriter who’s ever expressed that sort of sentiment accountable for triggering me?

Before anyone says anything like, “Well, ‘it’ll be fine’ is obviously not a sexual statement in most songs, whereas ‘Blurred Lines’ is a sexual and sexually aggressive song,” I have to point out the main thing that upsets me in this discussion: There are happy, healthy, responsible, safe, consensual male dominant/female submissive sexual relationships in this world that are just as valid as any other healthy, responsible, safe, consensual sexual relationship. Yes, the lyrics of “Blurred Lines” are aggressively sexual. They’re also the kind of thing that I and a lot of other women engage with in our sex lives, happily and voluntarily, in loving relationships.

This is why context matters. Because sometimes “It’ll be fine” is a way of reassuring someone, and sometimes it’s a way of telling a scared 16-year-old to shut up and take it. Sometimes things like “you’re a good girl” or “I know you want it” are coercive, and sometimes they’re part of very arousing sexual play. Conflating the two means conflating voluntarily submissive women with rape victims, conflating a consensual act with non-consent, making submissive women complicit in rape and rape culture when, in their submission in their real sex lives, clear conversation about expectations and clear consent comes well before the sex act. It’s accusatory toward dominant men and submissive women, it’s sex-negative, and it’s lazy.

This isn’t the only time it’s been done, either. Bill O’Reilly isn’t the only person who thought Beyoncé was setting a bad example with songs like “Partition”; I’ve seen artists and feminists claiming that Beyonce’s lyric, “Take all of me, I just wanna be the girl you like,” is a thing that “feminists don’t say.” This runs along the same lines as the “Why is she objectifying herself?” conversations that we’ve had about Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, and for that matter about strippers and sex workers. Can you objectify yourself and be a feminist? Can you ask a man to dominate you and be a feminist? Yes. That’s the point of third-wave feminism: that women should be able to make independent, informed choices about their identities, their sexualities, and their presentation, whatever they may be, without being subjected to criticism about what women “should” be. Claiming that feminists “shouldn’t” or “don’t” engage in submissive sexualities is just as bad as misogynists historically saying that women should be submissive.

To label this precisely, this sexuality is part of the BDSM and kink spectrum. I bring this up because I want to hammer the point that voluntary female submission is not rare, that by making that conflation between submission and complicity in rape, the community pointed its fingers at a large, sex-positive, and often feminist-identifying group of people. And while it was viewed as cool and progressive that people from all walks of life were reading 50 Shades of Grey in public and acquainting themselves with this alternative sexuality, it’s like that sexuality has to be a novelty or feminists need serious Brechtian distance from the people who participate in it in order for it to be comprehensible or OK. As soon as it becomes a more realistic setting — as in “Blurred Lines,” a story in which a dominant man was expressing sexual desire in the context of flirting — it gets manipulated into a story of “dominance/submission = rape,” and that’s a deplorable attitude to have if you’re going to call yourself a feminist or sex-positive.

Having someone call you a “good girl” during sex or being naked for an extended period of time around clothed men isn’t everyone’s thing, I get that. I would never say something like “Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it,” because — this is important — I’m not going to tell people what to or not to try in their sex lives. I’m just going to say “don’t knock it.” Maybe “Your Body Is A Wonderland” turns you on (while it’s creepy to me). The range of human sexuality is so nuanced and diverse that you can’t expect it to work for everyone. It’s well past time that we got past our hand-wringing over submission and dominance, started actually acting like the sex-positive people we are, and moved on from this hate-obsession with Robin Thicke — at least for “Blurred Lines.” Paula, on the other hand…

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler.  You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.