Monday, September 9, 2013
That Man is Not Your Maker
It's a mistake to think Robin Thicke spoke the first word of patriarchy. I explain why below...
For some time I have been saying facetiously that not everyone should go to college. Or, put another way, college should not be the prerequisite for entering such a wide array of jobs.
I am not alone in having a moral objection to the ways that college serves as an economic gatekeeper, imposing debt as a precondition for entering the workforce. But I also have a more petty objection to college as a universal.
Because college also serves as a cultural gatekeeper, even when it does not guarantee employment, it tends to produce a certain smugness that comes from believing one holds the key to decoding all of the meanings in life. Witness the student who, after taking an introduction to women's studies or ethnic studies, becomes the resident expert on what is *really* sexist or racist. Note that this phenomenon can occur whether the student accepts or staunchly opposes the definition offered in the course.
This smug certainty is not unique to the humanities, as one might expect. Indeed, if I may be forgiven a gross generalization, those who believe that what they practice is a science (from physicists to Marxists) tend to be serious table-pounders. That is, while most of the rest of us must declare a position that might be assailed from the beginning as tainting, they get to pass as unbiased observers without much care for how their evidence is produced, gathered, framed, and interpreted.
However, rather than re-fighting the science wars, I would like to turn to the response to Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" as promoting rape culture. The primary culprit is its red-flag line "I know you want it." Reading any number of posts or comments will lead you to people flagging this line as "rapey." First, I would hope we can agree that rape is a term that doesn't need a cute diminutive. Rape would seem to be an absolute. But perhaps "rapey" conveys a certain discomfort with forcing Thicke into the role of Grand Marshal in the Sexism Parade.
Let me be clear. I have never liked Robin Thicke. Furthermore, I do believe the song has sexist elements. My problem is with suggesting that in removing the phrase "I know you want it" from our repertoire, we can quarantine rape culture. That solution conjures for me a game of whack-a-mole with an expanding list of newly banned phrases. However, proceeding in that way grants patriarchy more power than it could ever have. Patriarchy's arrogant gestures are not proof positive of men's absolute dominance.
What many seem to have forgotten, temporarily, is that cocky quips do not exist in a vacuum. They respond to and anticipate dismissive responses. That is, the pushy come-ons are a sign of weakness, of need. The issue, then, is not that Robin Thicke sings "I know you want it." The issue is not the speech, it's when one has the situational power to turn that speech (or unspoken thought) into the law of someone's workplace--or, in fact, the last words they hear before they are assaulted or killed.
I am not arguing here for "nuance." It's just that the lyrics are contradictory. For instance, "that man is not your maker" tends to empower the woman who has submitted to "that man's" attempts to "domesticate" her. If I were to take issue with a lyric in Thicke's infernal, ubiquitous song, it would actually be "just let me liberate you"--because the line suggests that the male singer--and not the woman herself--will be the agent of her liberation. In positioning himself as the person who can free her, he sets up a savior story, starring his power and not hers.
Of course, all of these lines include fairly clever rhyming. And sometimes the logic of the song is driven as much by a patriarchal agenda as by outrageous wordplay.
OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you're an animal, baby, it's in your nature
Just let me liberate you
You don't need no papers
That man is not your maker
I never thought of domesticate-cha/your nature/liberate-cha/papers/maker as a potential quintet of rhymes. I must tip my hat to the ingenuity. And, it's hard for me not to think the lyrics are also making a clever reference to ex-slaves' freedom papers and even subverting (at least one) man's patriarchal rule. So, while I can see (and make) a withering, sex-negative critique of the song lyrics, I can also see that wordplay may have been a source that produced the problematic lyrics--and not just the inexhaustible well of misogyny.
But I'm even more skeptical of the harping on "I know you want it." Of course, tone matters a great deal, and Thicke has insisted that tongue was in cheek. But, be that as it may, it's important not to think of any statement in isolation. Statements are sequential; they always follow previous statements and anticipate or provoke new statements. Thus, "I know you want it" doesn't exist apart from, say, "I do want it, but you ain't got it" or any number of other retorts.
Let's not forget, Janet Jackson also had a song with a similar title: "I Know You Want This." The self-assured lover is a mainstay of song but, then again, so are the songs puncturing the balloon. Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" is the obvious example. But Tina Turner's lyrics to "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter" also come to mind: "You wanna be a graduated lover / but in reality you're just another brother.... You think you're slick but you could stand a little greasing / The things you do ain't never really pleasing."
It's only in taking male statements out of the context of an ongoing conversation that one can produce them as pure, unconquerable sexism. In reality, they are responses to a number of public questions ricocheting silently in the dude psyche: "Do you like me? Will my boys be impressed if I can talk to or bed you? How can I protect myself from the feeling of being shut down? Do I have enough money for someone that looks that high maintenance? What will I say if you shut me down? What will I do If you don't?"
A boast like "I know you want it" responds to or anticipates all of these statements. It is not a statement unto itself, the first word spoken over the vast deep, like the God of Genesis. He says "I know you want it" and then "you" are immediately a sex object in his patriarchal world? Not necessarily.
Keeping in mind this lack of God-like power, patriarchy emerges as a very real state of affairs, but one that has never been and could never be a place in which women have no power. While it is true that a rapist might say or think "I know you want it," he might just as easily not care at all what "you" want. He might enjoy the fact that he knows "you" don't want it.
Policing the language, then, seems less about effectively reducing rape than about promoting polite society. I suppose that eliminating phrases that might make a Barbara Bush clutch her pearls is a fine goal, but it's not the same as producing a society without rape. And if "polite society" relies upon a notion that women don't or can't respond effectively to boorish propositions, then no thank you. Frankly, it would seem that such a focus could even pose a problem as the better-heeled rapist--the one who has polished his language and his shoes--would seem not to pose a threat. And the true rape culture is the one that views the rapist as egregious, antisocial, aberrant--an outlier. If we make participating in rape culture about uttering forbidden phrases, we make rape the province of the dangerous stranger, poor and unschooled. If we cannot recognize sexual force in its middle- and upper-class versions--with or without indecorous language--we need to reconsider how we measure the presence of rape culture.
We should, I think, be less concerned with what men say than with addressing what they can do in particular situations--and with ensuring that women have the tools and the confidence to respond as they see fit without sex shame or fear of reprisal:
Yes, I want it.
No, I don't want what you've got.
Take it somewhere else, or I'll give you the beating you seem to want.*
* These last lines are not meant to place the responsibility on women for preventing rape. Surely, those who say that that responsibility belongs to rapists are correct. It is to say that the women should have every confidence in responding to the language of sexual proposition. Social responsibility pertains to the situations in which proposition overtakes request or consent.