The Overwrought 'Blurred Lines' Backlash

Just say no to Big Sister.


Robin Thicke
Melissa Rose

The feminist crusade against "the rape culture," whose aggressive zealotry has long eclipsed what positive contributions it may have made to tackling real problems, has now descended into outright silliness with a war on a hit song.  But it's silliness with a nasty authoritarian edge.

Earlier this month, University of North Carolina senior Liz Hawryluk took offense when a DJ at a local spot, Fitzgerald's Irish Pub, began playing Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines"—a song feminists have blasted as pro-rape because of such lyrics as "I know you want it." Hawryluk marched into the DJ's box and demanded that the song be stopped; in response, she claims she was ejected from the pub (according to the management, she was merely asked to leave the DJ's area).  Unbowed, she went on the social media warpath and found numerous supporters who mobbed the pub's Facebook page.  A few days later, a spokeswoman for Fitzgerald's not only issued a public apology to Hawryluk but pledged that the popular song was forever banned from Fitzgerald's, along with the visiting DJ who had played it.

This is only the latest incident of "Blurred Lines" being targeted by campus censors.  Last year, after the R&B single topped the charts in 14 countries including the United States and broke the records for radio audiences, more than twenty student unions in England voted to ban it from their campuses.  In February, some Boston University students petitioned the school to cancel Thicke's March 5 concert and apologize for scheduling it in the first place, calling it "a dishonor to our feminist history." The administration remained unmoved, denying Thicke a historic chance to earn a "Banned in Boston" badge.

So what is this awful crime against womanhood? The male protagonist of "Blurred Lines" is addressing a woman with whom he's dancing in a disco; he thinks she's hot for him but won't let herself act on that attraction because she's a "good girl." (He also thinks her last boyfriend was "too square" for her.) As he invites her to release her inner animal, he repeatedly croons, "I know you want it." For some feminists, this makes "Blurred Lines" a "rape song": the man can go ahead and give the woman what he "knows she wants," dismissing her non-consent as a mere act with "blurred lines" between yes and no.

But this literal-minded reading is not supported by the tone of the song—seductive, not aggressive—or the rest of the lyrics. For instance: "Go ahead, get at me."  Or, from Thicke's co-performer, the rapper T.I.: "So I watch and wait for you to salute the truly pimpin'." It sounds like the protagonist is waiting for the woman to make her move—and it's not even clear if he "gets the girl" after all. (Toward the end Thicke sings, "No more pretending,/Hey, hey, hey,/Cause now you winning,/Hey, hey, hey,/Here's our beginning.") As associate editor Jennifer Lai put it in a refreshing defense of the song: "Cocky, yes. But rapey? No." The phrase "blurred lines" refers to mixed messages which the male protagonist finds frustrating—but nowhere is it suggested that he therefore feels entitled to force himself sexually on the woman.

Some are also offended by the "Blurred Lines" video in which Thicke and two other men cavort fully clothed with scantily clad women; in the unrated version the women are topless most of the time, and one is seen prancing past giant letters that spell out, "Robin Thicke has a big…" well, rhymes-with-Thicke. But here's a fascinating twist: the video was directed by a woman, veteran music video director Diane Martel, who has described it as ironic and "playful," as making the men look "silly" and putting the female models "in the power position." In fact, the women often seem to be pursuing the men.

Thicke and his co-writer and co-performer Pharrell Williams have tried to portray "Blurred Lines" as practically a female-empowerment anthem. All right, maybe not. But calling it a rape anthem is even more absurd—and so is the frenzied backlash against the song (which feminist pop culture critic Geeta Dayal has wished "could be banished from our solar system, and perhaps the universe") and the singer, dubbed "Sexist of the Year" last week by a Canadian women's group.

A particularly inane but popular post compares "Blurred Lines" lyrics to words reportedly used by actual rapists. So if some rapists have said "I know you want it" to their victims, that makes it a line about rape? By that standard, we'll soon end up banning all language because almost every phrase has been used somewhere, by someone in a horrible context. (A website called for sharing personal stories, The Experience Project, features a post titled, "He said he loved me when he raped me.") And some of the comparisons are a stretch: does "The way you grab me,/Must wanna get nasty" really equal, "It wasn't rape. You were being such a tease"?

The backlash has had an uglier side as well: a few social media users have made posts fantasizing about Thicke's murder.

Here's the funny part: That "rapey" line, "I know you want it," also appears—as another sane critic, NPR's Ann Powers, has pointed out—in several recent songs by female singers. Among them is Beyoncé Knowles, probably the biggest feminist pop-culture icon right now.  (Earlier this year she contributed a piece to Maria Shriver's report on women, arguing that we still need to work to achieve equality for women, and has also been a part of Sheryl Sandberg's "Ban Bossy" campaign.) In Beyoncé's hugely successful 2005 song, "Check On It," the cocky female character not only declares, "If you got flaunt it, boy I know you want it," but also tells her love interest, "I can tell you wanna taste it, but I'm gonna make you chase it."

Burn the heretic! Not only does Beyoncé say that she "can tell" what the man wants (doesn't that mean she can force it on him against his will?), but she tells him she'll make him "chase it." The essence of the chase, of course, is saying no when you mean "keep trying" or "convince me"—which, quite a few feminists tell us, leads directly to rape culture  (because convincing and forcing is apparently the same thing).

And let's not even talk about Beyoncé's 2013 hit, "Drunk in Love," which celebrates drunk sex with such lyrics as, "We woke up in the kitchen saying, 'How the hell did this s*** happen?'" and "Last thing I remember is our beautiful bodies grinding up in that club." Isn't it the party line among the anti-rape culture crusaders that intoxicated sex equals rape? Didn't TV's "Dr. Phil" McGraw incur Robin Thicke levels of Internet hate last year for querying, "Is it okay to have sex with a drunk girl?" on Twitter?  So why is Beyoncé a feminist hero and Robin Thicke, Sexist of the Year?

I'm not nominating Thicke for Feminist of the Year. But I did go on and buy the "Blurred Lines" CD—and I'm not even much of an R&B fan. Why not do the same as a message to the would-be censors? Just say no to Big Sister.