After nearly two decades of the (apparent) cultural dominance of a highly conservative and divisive ‘postfeminist sensibility’ in the US and the UK, the starting point for my Contemporary Theatre Review article, ‘Post- Postfeminism? Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose, April de Angelis’s Jumpy and Karin Young’s The Awkward Squad’, was signs of a resurgence of feminist activism in general as reflected through a revival of interest in exploring feminist issues within the theatre in particular. Since I researched this essay evidence for this revival has continued to mount; in the UK, the past year has seen, amongst others, events such as the ‘Calm Down, Dear’ Feminist Theatre Festival at Camden People’s Theatre (2013); touring productions such as The Ugly Sister’s Rash Dash (2013), Victoria Melody’s Major Tom (2013), and Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model (2013-4); and new works such as Abi Morgan’s The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court (2014), Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Hampstead Theatre (2014), and Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines at the National Theatre’s Shed (2014).
Described as ‘a blistering journey through contemporary gender politics’, the National’s website confirms that this latter show was ‘inspired’ by Robin Thicke’s controversial single ‘Blurred Lines’. In fact, especially considering its publicity declares this show’s interest in women’s lives in relation to ‘cyberspace’, it is as likely to have been inspired by the responses to this song produced by what has been referred to as the ‘feminist blogosphere’, as by Thicke’s original. Bearing this in mind, I would like to take this opportunity to offer a brief (and inconclusive) overview of some of these responses, first placing them in context of ‘cyberspace’ as a venue for popular feminist performance.
As indicated by the proliferation of online feminist magazines, blogs, campaigns, and projects, the web has become a dynamic resource for feminism, playing a central role in the recent revitalisation of this politics. In terms of a ‘waning’ of a style of postfeminism which claimed to speak for all ‘today’s young women’ but was actually articulated from one very particular raced and classed cultural perspective, obviously the importance of this ‘blogosphere’ is that it embraces a wide variety of voices and (in theory) reaches across all sorts of boundaries. Initiatives like Laura Bates’s ‘Everyday Sexism’ project exemplify the way it also offers a (relatively) safe and anonymous space to share experiences and explore feminists issues against a socio-cultural background where, for some time, to publically identify as feminist in everyday life has been to risk a degree of scorn, and even hostility. This is especially an issue for young(er) women who might not have the confidence to resist peer pressure.
From my professional perspective I am especially interested in the way that so much of the activism produced, facilitated or disseminated by the feminist blogosphere consists of, or is linked to some kind of performance. This includes performance as part of live events that are linked to online campaigns, as in the case of the One Billion Rising campaign (which called on one billion people to dance to demand an end to violence against women) but obviously also embraces a large amount of material specifically created for the web. This is symptomatic of the way that, broadly speaking, ‘cyberspace’ has become the primary ‘stage’ for contemporary popular performance, in the sense that large numbers of people not only consume but also actively produce performance online.
Like the feminist blogosphere itself, this outpouring of creative activity is enabled by the fact that as a ‘space’ (in theory) the web appears to be free of the economic, social and institutional controls that govern who can act or speak – or rather who has access to the means to be seen and heard – in most other spheres of life. Nevertheless, the use of this space for popular performances concerned with political critique potentially foregrounds some of the ironies and paradoxes of contemporary digital culture far more sharply than when, as has often been the case in performance studies, the emphasis is on cutting edge ‘experimental’ production.
In her famous 1985 essay ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, Donna Haraway raised important political questions about ideological, infrastructural and economic roots of then emerging information technologies. Nevertheless, she insisted on the crucial importance of feminist engagement with these technologies, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s her more positive remarks were endlessly quoted as part of a utopian vision of the web as enabling a world of infinitely multiplying and shifting identities, supposedly floating free from (and ‘post’) gender, class, and race. Haraway may now be disappointed but probably not surprised, that thirty years later not only has this utopia failed to arrive but also that there remains a gendered ‘digital divide’. This especially affects women in so-called ‘developing’ countries but even in wealthier nations, where women may be keen users of these technologies, they are still in a tiny majority when it comes to positions of power and influence in their development and application.
In the meantime, the advances that led to Web 2.0 were greatly boosted by investment in and capitalisation of ‘cyberspace’ by the pornography and advertising industries. This remains the case, even as the feminist blogosphere persistently calls attention to the links between advertising and pornography (especially the easy accessibility of online pornography), the sexualisation and exploitation of the female body, and the circulation of myths that support ‘rape culture’ and other forms of violence against women. Equally, if social media is now a major conduit for feminist connection, it is also one that allows for new forms of misogynistic bullying — as demonstrated by the experience of public figures like Mary Beard (an Oxford classicist whose television appearances have provoked vicious ‘trolling’ attacks), or by frequent incidences of teenage ‘slut shaming’ and/or posting of revealing or sexual images of young women without their consent. In short, the web provides a fascinating contemporary example of Michel Foucault’s analysis of the complexity of the relationship between power and resistance, and this is clearly evinced in the case of Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’.
Created as a collaboration with Pharell Williams and rapper T.I., Thicke released this single in March 2013 and it rapidly rose in the US and the UK charts, selling over 14 million copies. Musically it is easy to understand why this song was a classic ‘summer hit’. Thicke’s voice floats lightly over catchy, bouncy rhythms, and the number is studded with upbeat but ‘cool’ vocal flourishes of ‘hey, hey hey’ and occasional ‘whoops’, the use of male falsetto and a dynamic rap break. The song’s lyrics are another matter, however, immediately provoking strong objections from within the feminist blogosphere on the basis that they condone rape and sexual violence.
Addressing a woman described as ‘the hottest bitch in the place’, Thicke’s lyrics propose to ‘liberate her’ from her ‘domestication’ by her boyfriend, and the chorus insists ‘I’m going to take a good girl / I know you want it / I know you want it / I know you want it.’ T.I.’s rap break also includes lines such as ‘I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two’. Taken as a whole, the implication is that the ‘blurred lines’ in question are a matter of this woman pretending to be a ‘good girl’ who doesn’t want ‘it’, when Thicke can tell that really she does ‘want to get nasty’, because she is ‘an animal, baby, it’s in your nature’. As demonstrated by Project Unbreakable these lyrics directly echo comments that have actually been made by rapists to their victims.
Two music videos, a ‘cut’ and an ‘uncut’ version, directed by Diana Martel, were released at the same time. Complementing the musical composition of the song, the overall mood of the accompanying videos is self-consciously ‘playful’. These feature Thicke, Williams and T.I., as well as three non-singing, non-dancing, non-speaking women (Emily Ratajkowski, Elle Evans and Jessi M’Bengue) larking about with props such as a real goat, a stuffed dog, giant dice, a bicycle and a giant syringe. All this jollity is enhanced by the way the screen is frequently filled with large red post-edited hashtags of Thicke’s name. The ‘uncut’ version also includes a shot of an illuminated sign that states ‘Robin Thicke has a big dick’. While in both videos the male performers are fully dressed, the women are wearing white shorts, bra tops and see-through plastic mini dresses in the cut version, and in the uncut version they are all topless, clothed only in pale pink thongs and very high shoes. Add to this the sorts of positions and poses taken up by Ratajowski, Evans, and M’Bengue, the way they are shot, and the editing of the videos and there is no doubt that these women are presented as passive and available sexual ‘objects’.
A significant proportion of the Blurred Lines parodies are not concerned with its politics. For example the ‘optometry version’ is really a pastiche; picking up on Thicke’s lyrics ‘Maybe I’m going deaf/Maybe I’m going blind’, it reworks this song into an extended musical advert for an optician. The DWW drag queen troupe’s ‘Blurred Bynes’ could be interpreted as a comment on the sex-gender roles in the original video(s) but it is actually preoccupied with someone called Amanda Bynes, and any satire goes right over my head because I have never heard of her. In other cases the videos might be better described either as ‘spoofs’, purely designed to entertain, or where there may be political intent this is ambiguous. These include the Fair Lawn Senior Center remake, the Doctor Who remake ‘Timelines’, a version that replaces the women in the videos with puppets, and one that replaces them with live animals.
However, many of the other overtly feminist parodies achieve a level of glossiness in terms of background, lighting, shooting, props, costume and make-up, very close to the visual style of the ‘original’ videos. This includes ‘Defined Lines’ produced by Auckland University Law Review students (which was the first one I came across via a ‘share’ on social media); Melinda Hughes’s ‘Lame Lines’; a version by Mod Carousel, a US-based ‘boylesque’ troupe; and ‘Tan Lines’ with this last being something of a borderline case as to whether it is a feminist parody or simply a comic spoof. There is variation across these four videos as to whether the original lyrics are retained in their entirety, slightly modified, or completely rewritten, and the same applies to the video action. Notably, however all of them use a gender reversal with two or three women replacing Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. as fully clothed singers/rappers, and with Ratajkowski, Evans and M’Bengue being replaced by men, who in all cases wear only underpants or thongs (and its mainly on this basis I’m including ‘Tan Lines’ in this category). In the case of the female performers there is a certain degree of parity in that all offer strong, confident and vocally accomplished performances and they are all attractively, even glamorously, presented in terms of dress and makeup. Interestingly, in regard to the male performers the way this reversal is achieved differs in terms of whether they are trying to appear simply ‘comic’, or ‘sexy’, or a mix of both. How far in each case the chosen strategy might be deemed ‘successful’ (and on what grounds) would benefit from more detailed analysis.
All of these parodies offer a high degree of musical and visual pleasure and are witty and intelligent, but the nature and degree of the political critique also varies. Auckland Law Review’s ‘Defined Lines’ is arguably the most outspoken and uncompromising, while the Mod Carousel version is the most ‘subtle’. My own particular favourite, however, is Peters’ version, which may well be a matter of me being a feminist of a certain age and my attachment to particular styles of political performance. For me, its DIY aesthetic, Peters’ self-presentation, and the scornful but relaxed reply to Thicke offered by her lyrics, shifts the territory entirely away from that of the original videos of ‘Blurred Lines’, which is that of advertising and pornography. Peters defines her own ground as an ‘ordinary’ (but talented) young woman in ways that underline the gulf between her own realities and indeed desires (and those of many of her peers), and the values and attitudes represented by the world of Thicke’s video.
Interestingly, the figure cited for ‘Defined Lines’ may not be accurate because this video has been re-posted several times, and at one point was removed from Youtube. This was apparently because it was deemed to have ‘inappropriate content’– in contrast to the original version of ‘Blurred Lines’ and countless other pop videos and other types of posts that might be judged as promoting misogynistic and violent attitudes towards women. The only reason I can see for this decision is that ‘Defined Lines’ contains the word ‘fucking’ in the context of the phrase ‘We ain’t good girls / We are scholastic/ Smart and sarcastic / Not fucking plastic’. Either way, this decision says a lot about what is considered ‘inappropriate’ in our culture in general and that of ‘cyberspace’ in particular.
It is not my intention to detract from the fact that, as part of the feminist blogosphere these parodies created a debate about ‘Blurred Lines’ that spread rapidly across the web and to other media platforms (including the UK’s National Theatre), the impact of which is evinced by the banning of Thicke’s song by over twenty UK University Student Unions by December 2013. I am both convinced of the crucial importance of the feminist blogosphere for this politics and fascinated by the web as a space for popular performance. However, at a time when those of us working in education and in the arts are often encouraged (by policy makers and grant awarding bodies) to wholeheartedly embrace and celebrate ‘digital culture’, I would also suggest that it’s important to keep a wary eye on the overall context of the web as a space for the play of power as well as resistance, and in particular to pay attention to the infrastructures that support this power. Or to put it more simply: be sure to follow the money.
Geraldine Harris is Professor of Theatre Studies, Lancaster University, UK. Her most recent books include Feminist Futures? Theatre, Theory, Performance, co-edited with Elaine Aston (2006), Beyond Representation: The Politics and Aesthetics of Television Drama (2006), Practice and Process: Contemporary [Women] Practitioners, co-authored with Elaine Aston (2007), and A Good Night Out for the Girls: Popular Feminisms in Contemporary Theatre and Performance, co-authored with Elaine Aston (2013). She and Aston blog at http://dramaqueensreview.com/