Until this week, I was only peripherally aware of Lily Allen. Sure, I’d downloaded “Fuck You” and “Smile,” her funny pop confections with a bracing dash of intelligence. But I never qualified as a Lily Allen fan, and in fact had kind of forgotten she was a thing until the Internet blew up with a heated debated about the video for her new song “Hard Out Here.”
The song itself is a pretty straightforward send-up of sexism in the music industry. The problem lies in the video, also a parody, but one that adds the visual element of race. Allen, fully clothed, is flanked by mostly black backup dancers clad in bathing suits who are twerking, fondling themselves, pouring champagne down their chests—a cornucopia of clichéd sexist imagery offered up with a sly smirk. The difficult element is Allen’s whiteness. As a member of the dominant culture can she manage parody here, or is she actually reinscribing racist tropes, serving up more exploitative power dynamics for her audience to unthinkingly consume?
Is it parody or a racist reinforcement? If you were ever a certain kind of student (humanities) viewing culture through a certain kind of lens (postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial, really any of the “posts”) this was a question you probably asked yourself a lot. Sometime in the 1970s, parody (and its more polite French cousin pastiche) spread from the fine arts into mass culture and changed Western pop consciousness forever. Suddenly, to be cool you had to be self-referential, not just creating art but also commenting on it. Over the years this has presented some problems, first and foremost for artists, because parody is damned tricky and not everyone can pull it off.
But our taste for the meta has also caused problems for consumers of culture, because you can’t always tell on a first viewing whether a given cultural product is a parody of something you want to condemn or the condemnable thing itself. So, as a pro-feminist, anti-racist student sitting in your humanities seminar you’d ask yourself, before you weighed in on the self-referential postcolonial short film or whatever, whether it was a successful skewering of values you reject (parody) or if it reinforced those values by merely trotting them out for your entertainment (reinscription). In asking that question you were also asking something about yourself: am I a self-aware consumer of parody, or the racist ass who’s getting duped? Is this intentionally bad or just plain bad? Am I allowed to like this or not?
This week, a lot of us former humanities students are asking ourselves if we’re allowed to like Allen’s video. For the record I do like it, but that seems almost beside the point at this stage, because we’re no longer talking about the video on the merits, we’re talking about power and representation in general. I’m not surprised the video’s controversial. The images are challenging, by design, and I understand why many feminists of color find them hard to stomach. But I have been surprised at the tone of some of the criticism leveled at Allen—who is, after all, a pop star using her platform to talk about sexism, which you’d expect feminists would applaud, even if they don’t think “Hard Out Here” is 100 percent successful as parody. Many critics have taken her task, running the gamut from angry and vociferous to snide with some offering more supportive critique.
Allen didn’t help matters when she piped up to respond, saying the video was about sexism and not about race “at all.” This set off another round of criticism, which in my view was more on-point than the original complaints. I’m willing to believe that Allen’s intent was not to critique race, but when she cast black dancers to do that particular choreography, race became a factor. To believe otherwise is naive at best, and tellingly unaware. The meaning of creative works is built collaboratively by the artist and her audience. If the women of color in Allen’s audience find a meaning she wasn’t aware of, she would be wise to accommodate or at least try to understand it. Personally, I’m optimistic that Allen will come around, because I think she’s feminist and anti-racist, and I see her as an ally. But there are plenty of others who don’t see her that way, and they’re making their displeasure known.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad news for Allen this week. Lots of people are on her side, though it’s hard not to notice that many of the writers leading the pro-Allen charge are white, while women of color are expressing the most discomfort.
Lily Allen is 28 years old. When I was 28 I knew all about feminism and intersectionality because I’d chosen to pursue a doctorate in cultural studies, a decision I’d soon regret (I dropped out in my third year). Allen has, wisely, chosen a different path, so she maybe hasn’t gotten around to reading bell hooks. Does that make her our adversary? Does her failure to achieve total self-awareness and conscious intersectionality mean we should tell her the new video is racist crap? Too often in social change movements we take what could be opportunities for education and turn them into occasions for censure, and I think that’s a shame. How many potential allies do you think we’ve alienated this way over the years? Thousands? Tens of thousands? At any rate, more than a mass movement can afford to spare.
Look, I get it. The impulse to make note of how terrible everything is can be hard one to curb once you’ve started. Viewed in a certain light, everything is pretty terrible, especially when it comes to race and gender. Women of color, and black women in particular, are told we’re unacceptable in every conceivable way. We’re desexualized, then hypersexualized, told on the one hand that we’re ugly, only to be displayed as sex props in someone’s exoticized fantasy. It frankly sucks, and I’m as tired of it as anyone. But you just aren’t going to get many perfectly feminist, racially correct mainstream hit songs or movies produced in our racist, sexist society. So if you want to engage culture where it’s happening, to examine it and inhabit it and formulate an opinion, you’ll eventually have to allow yourself to like some stuff that’s less than perfect. Call it cultural criticism for a fallen world. A degree of complicity is just the price of doing business, of being alive and feminist in America. Nobody said it would be easy, but maybe we could all work together on making it a little less hard.
Camille Hayes is a domestic violence advocate, newspaper columnist, author and blogger, covering politics and women’s issues at her blog Lady Troubles. She’s a contributing author for two essay anthologies, and her writing has been featured online on The Good Men Project, the Huffington Post, and the Ms. Magazine blog.