Lily Allen has made a comeback, and not just with her cover of Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ in the 2013 John Lewis Christmas advert. The pop singer announced she was coming out of a self-imposed retirement back in June of 2012, and has stirred quite the controversy with the release of her new music video ‘It’s Hard Out Here’. The single, in Lily’s view, skewers the music industry’s objectification of women –but neither the video nor lyrics were welcomed by everyone, on the grounds of racism.
The video opens with Allen lying on an operating table undergoing liposuction, with her manager- a middle aged white man- instructing the surgeons to “take some more off the stomach” and asking how someone can “let themselves get like this”, to which Allen responds dryly: “Um, I’ve had two babies”. It’s great that post-baby body image issue is immediately addressed, as we all know of the unrealistic body-image expectations that are constantly put upon every woman. It’s also great that Lily’s words are empowering to some women who have been victim of this kind of objectification, but the video does beg another question. Allen surrounds herself with a dance crew of black women (notably wearing far less clothes than her), references girl du jour Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance of ‘We Can’t Stop’ (who herself is guilty of cultural appropriation through twerking), and demeans those of us who have a brain and like to shake our arses – is this really empowering to women, or is just empowering to a select few?
Allen also takes blatant shots at Robin Thicke’s boundlessly controversial ‘Blurred Lines’ video, directly referring to the song’s sexually degrading lyrics “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”- charming- by singing: “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?/ Have you thought about your butt?/ Who’s gonna tear it in two?”. As if that weren’t enough, she uses Thicke’s balloon idea and rearranges them to spell “Lily Allen has a baggy pussy’, all while the song dictates: “Inequality promises that it’s here to stay”. The race issues in the video cannot and should not be overlooked – but in our view, Robin Thicke cannot be criticized enough, so kudos to Lily here at least.
Allen also targets capitalism and materialism through product placement, referring again at Miley Cryrus’ video, by showing one of her dancers licking Beats by Dr Dre speakers. The video, as well as the song, is all but subtle. With fur coats, swanky rides, champagne, and money showers, Allen mocks the materialistic culture surrounding the hip-hop music scene, which is most likely why the single’s title refers to the Three 6 Mafia song “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp”. But again, this begs the question: why is Lily Allen, of all people, providing a critique of hip-hop culture? Misogyny and materialism are also rife in pop, Lily, so why choose to comment on a culture which has very little to do with you?
Allen is obviously attempting to address gender issues that affect women, such as body image, sexual double standards (“If I told you ’bout my sex life, you’d call me a slut/ When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss”) and female agency (“You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen”). She says she’s doing this through sarcasm and satire. Most of the initial response was positive, with the Washington Post critic giving Allen props for “righteously targeting the patriarchal double standards of 21st-century celebrity culture”, and Yahoo! decreeing it “the song the world needs right now”.
However, not everyone agrees. Despite Allen’s intent on denouncing the misappropriation of the female image in pop culture, the artist has been (rightfully) accused of racism. The argument being that the use of scantily-clad ladies of colour as props reinforces the dehumanized stereotype of sexualized Black women, objectifying them. Allen responded to these allegations in a post entitled ‘Privilege, Superiority and Misconceptions’ by saying: “The video is meant to be a light-hearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture. It has nothing to do with race, at all.”
What this statement fails to recognise is that women of colour all around the country are offended and appalled by the video – and quite right, too – which instantly makes it a matter of race whether Allen likes it or not. Being able to view things as having ‘nothing to do with race’ is a privilege that only white people have, and when the time comes to satirize that, it is not a white woman who should do it. So, while the video is not completely without value (I wish every woman was comfortable enough to write a balloon message about the bagginess of their pussy), we should not forget that feminism like Allen’s still has a long way to go.