The sexual autonomy of a woman is one of the central tenants of feminism, and whilst conversations surrounding rape culture are extremely important, rape may not be the most common way in which the hegemonic institutions of patriarchal society seek to control a woman’s sexual autonomy, though this is not to suggest that rape culture isn’t an ever present issue that forces women to constantly modify their behaviour. Rather than forcing the sex act upon a woman, patriarchal society more often than not imposes chastity onto women. This is done through a number a methods: legislative, in place like India and Pakistan where honour killings are a potential result of a woman exercising sexual autonomy; societal, such as Western countries where slut shaming is prevalent; and through familial pressure, as demonstrated by the ultra-creepy chastity or purity balls (apparently nobody noticed that including the word ‘balls’ in an event meant to encourage chastity was more than a little ironic). Whilst his song ‘Blurred Lines’ (the unrated version is seen below) has received a significant amount of criticism for promoting rape culture, the popular, and simultaneously infamous, Robin Thicke track can be read as a song that promotes the sexual autonomy of women by challenging enforced chastity, rather than a track that promotes rape culture.
In the first pre-chorus, Thicke sings, we might fairly assume to a woman, of a third person who happens to be a man. It is the man’s authority over the woman that Thicke challenges, not the woman’s autonomy. Thicke notes that this man “tried to domesticate” his beloved belusted. Here, Thicke is speaking to how another patriarchal figure has tried to assert his authority over his belusted and has in turn tried to make her subservient to him. Thicke goes onto suggest that subservience is not in the belusted’s ‘nature’ and rather than simply try to replace the authority of the patriarchal figure, Thicke aims to ‘liberate’ his belusted and recognize her autonomy, not force himself onto her. He seeks to restore her autonomy, not usurp it.
It is unclear if the patriarchal figure of which Thicke speaks is a romantic figure, or a parental figure, but what is clear is that the patriarchal figures serves as an unnatural kyriarchal figure head. Thicke asserts that this man is not the belusted’s ‘maker’, and therefore has no claim to authority over her. He likewise suggests that his belusted “don’t need no papers”. This seems to be an allusion to a wedding licence and calls upon the rhetoric employed by Jon Bon Jovi in the song ‘Living In Sin’ (see below), where Bon Jovi writes that he “don’t need not licence to sign”, nor does he “need [a] preacher” to confirm the legitimacy of the belusted’s choice in lovers. It is not the church, not the law, and not a man’s authority that is central to Bon Jovi and Thicke alike, but rather the autonomy of the woman that they value.
In place of these contractual constructs that Thicke speaks of, he encourages embracing nature. Just as he rails contracts, he likewise notes that his belusted is “far from plastic”, suggesting that she is not some mould of a patriarchal ideal, or some constructed identity, but rather her own autonomous being. He also notes that the desire to be a ‘good girl’ is what is causing her to hesitate. This concept of the ‘good girl’ is a social construct that projects values and is the place from where the practice of slut shaming gathers its authority. In a sharp contrast to being ‘plastic’ in the mould of the ‘good girl’, Thicke states that his belusted is an ‘animal’. To reinforce this animalist rhetoric, Thicke refers to his belusted as the “hottest bitch in this place”. This is one of the problematic elements of the song, of course. The word ‘bitch’, though it does have different contexts and meanings, has long been recognized as a misogynistic term that debases women, but though Thicke’s poetic voice may be using a flawed term, he is clearly using it in the context of a compliment, and in the context of the animalist rhetoric presented early, it seems fitting though problematic.
With this in mind, there is the obvious concern that Thicke is valuing the belusted strictly for her physical appearance. He compliments how she looks, and defines her desires through her biological needs, which as far as an existentialist reading goes, suggests that the belusted is a slave to her substance or essence, rather than her intellectual or authentic self. Contrary to popular belief, though, Thicke does recognize the woman as more than just a physical entity as he recognizes her autonomy by seeking her consent, and thereby recognizes her as a cognitive being capable of coming to her own conclusions. He asks her to “let him liberate” her, and does not simply state that he will liberate her. The word ‘let’ is a request for consent. He reads her body language by observing the way in which she grabs him. It is this form of communication that Thicke’s poetic voice is listening to. He doesn’t say “you want to get nasty”, but rather, that she “must wanna get nasty”, conceding that this is a conclusion based on her body language, a conclusion which he is seeking confirmation of. He invites her to participate, saying “Go ahead get at me”. He is communicating what he wants, and how he interprets these actions so that the belusted can make an informed choice. Thicke’s poetic voice also recognizes his own potential folly at the onset of the song, stating that if they are not on the ‘same page’, that he may be going ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’, suggesting that if there is a miscommunication, then it is he who is the one who is at fault and is therefore “out of [his] mind”. Thicke makes it clear to the belusted how he interprets the situation, and invites her to engage in further action, thereby giving her the autonomy to decide what is to happen between the two.
Much has been made about the title ‘Blurred Lines’, but what is important to note is that Thicke is not suggesting that ‘blurred lines’ give a man permission to move forward without clarity; he is trying to open a dialogue with his belusted to ensure that her desires are clear to him. He does not make assumptions, but rather notes that he “hates these blurred lines”. Neither Thicke’s poetic voice, nor the belusted are responsible for the blurred lines. The blurred lines are the result of a cultural language that tries to balance innate desire with conformity to cultural constructs. The song recognizes the lack of clarity inherent in our language, especially when our body language often communicates something different that the words we speak. Thicke’s lyrics recognize semiotic theories that address the lack of clarity inherent in any system of signs and signfiers and in turn tries to open a dialogue so that the poetic voice and the belusted can tear down the walls that prevent them from communicating effectively, and make clear what social conformity and language has muddled.
This is not to say that there are not issues with the song. Thicke’s poetic voice does indulge in problematic patriarchal rhetoric. He employs words like ‘baby’ and ‘girl’ throughout, which tend to infanticize the belusted. We assume that the belusted is an adult, and therefore referring to her as ‘baby’, or ‘girl’ can be seen as demeaning or seen as a trivialization of maturity. Still, he is seeking her consent and trying to ensure her autonomy, so the words read more like residue from bygone age, like the dried crusty snot on the sleeve of a jacket worn by a man who was once taken ill but is now in the process of recovering. The use of the word ‘bitch’ is also problematic. There are misogynistic undertones to the word when used by a man, regardless of how some women have used it as a term of empowerment (feel free to watch the Lupe Fiasco video addressing the use of the word ‘bitch’ below), and though Thicke uses it in the context of animalist desire, I cannot say that I am comfortable with the presence of the word in the song. The fact that Thicke’s poetic voice is also employing the language of sexual autonomy with the hopes of consummating his desire for the belusted also suggest that the argument for autonomy put forward is not an altruistic one. Though it is clear that Thicke has one foot stuck in the mud of patriarchy’s past, the fact that he is moving one foot forward, even if it be spurred by his lust, is nevertheless a step in the right direction.
Just because the song speaks to notion of ‘blurred lines’, and just because the poetic voice vocalizes how he is interpreting the body language of the belusted, does not mean that it is endorsing rape culture. Far from it: the song is inviting the belusted to make a choice and to not allow societal pressure put in place by the patriarchal hegemony to influence her decisions. It is also important to note that the belusted’s voice is absent in this. We do not know how she has responded to this. We do not hear a ‘no’, or a ‘yes’, so to assume that sex occurs, or that is it consensual or non-consensual it to make assumptions about the text and project our own biases onto it. Though Thicke’s poetic voice does infanticize the belusted, and though it seems rooted in lust, rather than love, it is clear that he is trying to open a dialogue with his belusted, that he is trying to make an effort to be transparent, and that he is seeking her consent before moving forward. He is combatting the blurred lines, and in turn not only trying to take apart rape culture, but the culture of enforced chastity as well. The song is n doubt problematic, and the aforementioned Lupe Fiasco song, ‘Bitch Bad‘ is a far better example of New Feminism, but the reputation ‘Blurred Lines’ has received as a song that promotes rape culture seems to be the result of a casual surface reading and not a close examination of the lyrics and their context.
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