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Sunday, 22 September 2013

'Defined Lines' and Online Activism

'Yeah, I had a bitch, but she ain't bad as you, I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.' Let's take a moment to analyse this quote, Shakespeare, it is not. Taken at face value (I can glean no other poetic meaning from it), it's crude, unpleasant and leaves nothing to the imagination. Imagine someone speaking these words in everyday life. To every parent reading this, would you be happy if someone approached your daughter in the street and said these words to them? If they did the same to your sister? Your mother? I'm going to assume the answer is no.

This quote is taken from one of this summer's most popular songs, 'Blurred Lines', a charming melody by Robin Thicke, featuring Pharrell. The video depicts Thicke and Pharrell surrounded at all times by topless women, all of whom seem to have no other purpose than to prance from side to side and rub themselves up against the two gentleman. Apart from one lucky young lady, who gets to hold a lamb.

The song has spawned many parody videos, and this alone is nothing newsworthy. A quick Youtube search shows that there are hundreds, if not thousands of parody music videos on the internet that include a fairly enjoyable, tongue in cheek (as opposed to out of mouth) take on Miley Cyrus' 'We Can't Stop.' The difference in the video I am focusing your attention on is not that it is amusing, though it is. It is not even that it has so far received nearly three million views. It is that this video has a message that is urgently relevant in today's society, a message that many think is outdated and no longer necessary in today's 'progressive' world.
The parody I refer to is called 'Defined Lines', a video that directly challenges the depiction of women and the ideas that are perpetrated in  the lyrics and video of 'Blurred Lines'. The main issue of contention many commentators found this summer is not the video's overt use of female nudity  (prevalent enough in today's popular music culture, and nothing so tame as a pair of naked breasts are likely to shock those intimate with MTV) but the message its lyrics contain.

 Though I said earlier there is no deep meaning to glean from the songs wording, I meant from a purely poetic angle. What the lyrics do contain and promote is the idea that sexual consent is a 'burred line', that if women would just realise they really do just want it, it would be a lot easier for men to get on with having sex with them and not have to deal with anything as annoying as rape accusations. The lyrics  have already been analysed and criticised by many, and not just bloggers. The song has been accused by Rape Crisis, a charity that raises awareness and understanding of sexual violence, of "reinforcing rape myths". Rape Crisis spokeswoman Katie Russell said: "Both the lyrics and the video seem to objectify and degrade women, using misogynistic language and imagery that many people would find not only distasteful or offensive but also really quite old fashioned. More disturbingly, certain lyrics are explicitly sexually violent and appear to reinforce victim-blaming rape myths, for example about women giving 'mixed signals' through their dress or behaviour, saying 'no' when they really mean 'yes' and so on."

 Thicke has  called the criticism “ridiculous.” In an interview with GQ magazine he claimed the video did not denigrate women “because all three [artists in the video] are happily married with children”. "People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before.” he said. Charming.

'Defined Lines' is the parody video created by three young women from New Zealand as their own creative response to Thicke's offering. The video switches the gender roles, and the lyrics point out what the reality of the harassment means to women - "Just don't harass me, You can't just grab me, That's a sex crime."
 I was able to speak to Adelaide, one of the three who created 'Defined Lines.' We discussed how she feels about how much publicity the video has had, and her thoughts on modern day feminism. I started by asking if she and the other girls ever expected their video would receive such a reaction. "We had no idea the video would make such waves - it was made to be screened in a theatre as part of a skit show and we just put it on YouTube to share around to some people who couldn't make it. If I knew that millions around the world would be watching it I might not have included that castration joke, ha-ha!"

The castration joke she is referring to is 'We’re feelin’ the frustration, From all the exploitation, Prepare for your castration' - though as later lyrics in the parody point out, 'I apologise if you think my lines are crass, Tell me how it feels, to get verbally harassed?'

For this reason, Adelaide says she understands some of the negative comments that the video has received. "I remember during filming realising that what we were creating wasn't strictly feminist in that it showed females dominating males - but that gender flipping was where the humour and the parody value lay, so we continued. I haven't taken much time to read the YouTube comments but from the kind of horrific ones I have seen I understand that the world still has quite a way to go in terms of gender equality. I think that a lot of YouTube commenters feel safe hiding behind the veils of anonymity, so people feel free to write offensive and discriminatory comments. I think those responses also convey how much we need feminism still. On the other hand, the positive responses have been quite inspiring - people have shared their personal stories with us and given us so much support that I have been inspired to fight harder for equality. We're thinking about what steps we can take from here - we've set up a Twitter account (@LawRevueGirls) as a starting point but I'd be keen to get involved in some feminist blogging. This whole thing is still new to us though."

The 'new thing' that she and the other girls are experiencing is being held up as an example of 21st century feminism, the latest wave of the womens' movement that takes advantage of the platform social media offers us all in today's world. Keen not to pigeon hole the group, I asked if she and the other girls actually define themselves as feminists, and if so, why they embrace the term.  "All three of us call ourselves feminists but this video is our first (albeit accidental) foray into publicly addressing women's rights issues. New Zealand is quite a liberal and progressive society, particularly in terms of gender equality - we were the first country to give women the vote. In that sense, when we made this video we didn't think what we were saying was too radical (for our originally intended local audience) - it's interesting that when people overseas view it, they call us heroes and role models, thinking we were making an incredibly brave statement. That's a really positive outcome though - if we can give women a voice through our video and lyrics, albeit unintentionally."

 I asked if there had been personal moments in her life that had inspired her to address sexism. "I spent my final two years [of school] in a predominantly male private school (it was historically an all-boys school which has recently started to allow girls to attend). When I was there I experienced enough casual misogyny from both male students and teachers to know that there are some real problems with ingrained sexism in society. I think it was then that I discovered what feminism was and decided to call myself a feminist. Since then I've become increasingly interested in the movement - I recently had quite an emotional reaction to a famous feminist art installation, 'The Dinner Party' by Judy Chicago when I was visiting the Brooklyn Museum. Personal moments like that have inspired me to speak out about women's rights and I hope that I can continue!"

 Hearing from Adelaide echoed many of my own feelings on the subject. As president of my university's Feminism Society, I sometimes feel backed into a corner and that I need to defend my choice to define as a feminist. She summed up her own thoughts on the definition and reaction it often receives from people. "We are not man-haters, sexually confused, bra-burners as some people might think. I think it's a pity that feminism has gained these negative connotations so that both males and females sometimes cringe when they hear the term. We're happy with the effect the video has had in promoting feminism and sending out the message that you can be a feminist in your own individual way - if this means wearing red lipstick and high heels and rapping about equality then so be it. Feminism should be for everyone."

It is because of the accessibility of YouTube and other social media that their video has been shared so widely and received such a response. This is 21st century feminism's most powerful tool, and needs to be recognised and embraced as such. One can hardly sneer at online activism when it produces such staggering results. Laura Bates set up the Everyday Sexism Project last year, and its Twitter account collates and publishes hundreds of tweets about women's experiences of sexism every week. Elizabeth Plank took notice of the International Boxing Federation's (AIBA) decision to force female boxers to wear skirts at the Olympics, and "did what any committed and dedicated activist of the 21st century does: I Tweeted it." Her tweet led to the creation of an online petition, which led to a community of almost 50,000 supporters, and to the head of the AIBA overturning his decision. An online petition on UltraViolet collected 50,000 signatures in only two hours, persuading Reebok to drop Rick Ross when his new single included rape-promoting lyrics.

Perhaps understandably, many women and men feel that bringing up sexual harassment, or any other feminist issue whilst at the pub is a little too out there. Spending 30 seconds tweeting though, seems more casual. Some may say more lazy, but I would whole-heartedly refute that. As nasty as online spaces can be (we all know that trolls no longer lurk underneath bridges, but in corners of forums and comment threads) the opportunity to engage with like-minded people you may never meet in real life is extraordinary. Feminist outrage has been around for a long time. Perhaps the general population has forgotten that it has continued to simmer, no longer chained to parliament and hurled under horses. But with the surge in this utilisation of social media, this passionate and intense online activism, the anger can no longer be ignored. Women, younger women especially, are finding a new sense of self-empowerment. Society would be foolish to ignore the influence that they command.

You can check out 'Defined Lines' here:

Rose Walker, 2013-2014 President

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