SCENARIO 1: The world is ruled by Tim Gunn. You and everyone else except for Heidi Klum exist solely to please and impress him. You are filthy, you are naked, you are writhing on the floor, and you know that you will never succeed at catching his eye because the only thing that matters in the universe is clothing and you have none and will always have none. Stripped bare, you are reduced to a level lower than object. Agency only comes to those who can dress themselves, and you were born without clothes and without hope.
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SCENARIO 2: You are born as one of two things: Justin Timberlake, or a beautiful woman. As a beautiful woman, you aren’t allowed to do much. You can dance alone in a dark vacuum in front of a light display, sometimes with other women, but usually alone. You are not allowed to smile, and you are not allowed to wear clothes. The center of your universe is Justin Timberlake. You spend your days staring at him alluringly while he tells you that you are the only woman he cares about. You sort of figure this is a lie, but whatever. Once in awhile his face gets projected onto your bare skin. This is the closest that you will ever come to him; cherish it.
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SCENARIO 3: The world is a vast white expanse, sparsely scattered with rotten taxidermy animals, giant syringes, and children’s toys. It’s a weird place, but it’s sort of fun. You’re better off here if you’re born as a man: men get to speak, be sort of famous, and wear nice designer suits. It’s a bit tougher to be a woman. As a woman, you are obligated to be semi-anonymous and entirely silent. When you do get clothes they’re always space-age latex underwear paired with stacked white nurse shoes. Usually you feel better off wearing nothing. Despite that, your life is pretty good: the well-dressed men chase you around and try to seduce you; you roll your eyes and never let them succeed. Most of the time you’re not going to be that into them, but that’s fine. This is a fun world and everyone is happy. If a guy is about to go too far it’s totally acceptable to glare at him and kick him in the face. He’s just screwing around, and so are you. You’re definitely on the worse end of this cat and mouse game, and it definitely starts to get old after an eternity, but it’s the way things are so you might as well have some fun with it. And you do: you dance like a moron, you let them roll cars down your back, and you smile ironically all the way to the nonexistent bedroom.
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SCENARIO 4: You are Rihanna. You are famous, you are beautiful. An entire nation cares about you, worries about you, is intimately familiar with your pain. You wear that pain like it’s all you have; in fact, it is. You’re naked, of course. Not to be alluring or to be objectified, but to let the rest of the empty world see every bit of your open, broken self. You’re covered in, tattoos, pores, and scars, and if anyone were to see you there sobbing in your bathtub then they would momentarily experience your entire complicated self as manifested through your body. They wouldn’t feel above you, or sexually attracted by you. They would just see you. Mikki Ekko is somewhere out there too, but he’s wearing a shirt and pants and doesn’t do much. You don’t pay attention to him. No one does. He’s nothing. He has no right to be naked and no one cares.
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Naked people used to be something that only happened in Europe. They existed at French beaches and on Swedish television and in German advertisements, but never in America. Maybe in movies and the dark corners of the internet and college campuses, but nowhere else. We had integrity and discipline. We were a people with values.
Times have changed, and we are now living in the golden age of CMNF music videos and advertisements. 2013 alone has produced “Goldie,” “Thinking About You,” “Stay,” “Tunnel Vision,” the banned “Project Runway” ad, and, of course, “Blurred Lines.” Of all of these, “Blurred Lines” has received the most extensive critical commentary. It’s incredible that three pairs of breasts and a miniature stop sign still have the power to throw the country into such a tizzy. What a quaint and puritanical nation we are: free access to internet pornography in every office coast to coast, but we still can’t stand to see nudity on a corporate music video site. It’s nice to know that we haven’t completely lost our way.
I like the “Blurred Lines” video. I like it because Robin Thicke, Pharell Williams, and Clifford Harris’s performances are funny and because Emily Ratajkowski, Jessie M’Bengue, and Lindsey Gayle Evans’s performances are funnier. I also like it because Ratajkowski, M’Bengue, and Evans are beautiful and not wearing any clothes, and being beautiful and not wearing any clothes is an appealing way to be. I would probably like it less if Thicke, Williams, and Harris weren’t wearing any clothes. This is mostly because I am a heterosexual male raised in a heteronormative world who feels uncomfortable watching other heterosexual males dance around naked, especially when they’re beautiful. I understand if women feel the same way about watching beautiful naked women. If the discussion around “Blurred Lines” came down to taste and sexual preference, I suppose it would have been moot some time ago.
It isn’t though, and people talked about it all summer, and “Blurred Lines” just recently lost its spot at Number One. Hundreds of think pieces were written about the song and Diane Martel’s accompanying video in the course of the past three months, mostly falling along a feminist spectrum ranging from “empowering” to “rapey” (it nearly avoided racial commentary, but there are a few bloggers out there who just won’t let a black woman holding a banjo slip through the cracks). Its defenders were mostly limited to its own camp: Thicke, Thicke’s family, Martel, Ratajkowski. There were others, but no one listened to them, and the internet has more or less come to the conclusion that “Blurred Lines” is irreparably anti-feminist.
Robin Thicke himself hasn’t helped things very much. You can’t really blame him – he’s a career R&B singer only recently thrown into the top-ten spotlight, and I don’t think he ever planned on producing a highly politicized commentary on Western gender identity. He clearly doesn’t know what to say when people ask him questions. Poor guy – I really think he was trying his best when he said, “It’s actually a feminist movement in itself” on the Today Show. Don’t blame him; blame his PR people for not prepping him right. R&B singers have been making problematic songs since ever (a brief history of other artists who have you used close variations on the line “I know you want it”: Justin Timberlake (“I know you like it”), Pit Bull (“I Know You Want Me”), Justin Bieber (“You Want Me”), Khia (“I Know U Want It”), Busta Rhymes (“I Know What You Want”), Beyoncé (“I know you want it”)). Robin Thicke is just the first to get called out for it. I don’t think he ever dreamed of having to defend himself.
If Robin Thicke has said one insightful thing this summer, it was the first moronic comment that started it all: “People ask me, ‘Hey, don’t you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman.’” That was a bad call, but it had to be said. It is a pleasure to degrade women. It’s a pleasure to elevate oneself and reduce the rest of the world to the level of an object that exists to serve you. This is the pinnacle tenant on which hip hop and modern R&B were founded. The singer is the center of the universe and everything else is scenery. This is a problematic way to be, but it’s the reason we listen to hip hop music: it simulates the feeling of being the greatest thing that ever lived.
God bless Robin for so publically admitting this implicit reality. Good music videos are good because they degrade and objectify. We enjoy watching ecstatically happy performers because they make us ecstatically happy; ecstatic happiness is best brought about by exaltation, and exaltation is best achieved through some level of exploitation. Hip hop videos aren’t only full of what have so fondly come to be known as Video Hos because naked women sell well, but because the purpose of a hip hop video is the exaltation of a male performer, and nothing exalts a male performer quite like a group of women who exist only to have sex with him. This is obviously problematic when one questions the history of gender politics and considers the possibility of women actually having personalities, etc.. but hip hop videos ask that we forget about these problems for three or four minutes, and for the most part we are happy enough to oblige.
“Blurred Lines,” despite frequent allegations to the contrary, attempts to disrupt this pattern by introducing naked women who, despite their highly objectifying treatment, refuse to be objectified. It succeeds admirably. The men of “Blurred Lines” give some of the best performances of their lives (Clifford Harris’s hairbrush dance may be the peak of his long and incredible career), but the women still manage to steal the show. All three give emotional, compelling performances that simultaneously contribute to and subvert the mood of the song. They look like they’re having fun, but it’s a sarcastic sort of fun that undercuts the possibility of taking the song seriously. Thicke blows smoke in Evans’s face; Evans blinks and shakes her head. Ratajkowski’s breasts are memorable, but nowhere near as memorable as the look on her face when Thicke rolls a toy car down her back. By the end, an uncomfortably aggressive line like “You the hottest bitch in this place” sounds silly. Being an MCP isn’t quite what it used to be.
This appealing self-composure makes “Blurred Lines” a relatively non-problematic success despite its inclusion of gratuitous female nudity. It places three women in a male-dominated world of degrading sexual objectification and then shows them dismantling that world despite their nudity. On one hand they subvert the song’s gender politics by mocking its male protagonists, but they also blow a hole in the possibility of complete objectification by having just as much fun as the men are having. They’re not just laughing and looking sexy – they’re performing, and in a performance-based music video that makes a world of difference. It may seem like a small step forward, but it turns the role of the Video Ho on her head. Women don’t exist to add to the glory of the performer anymore; they are glorious in-and-of themselves.
Women are given a position of glory in Jonathan Craven, Simon McLoughlin, and Jeff Nicholas’s video for Justin Timberlake’s “Tunnel Vision,” but somehow that glory falls short of Ratajkowski and Co.’s. Maybe it’s because the women of “Tunnel Vision” don’t really do anything but stand around naked in front of a projector. They’re all very beautiful, and the light display is nice, but they don’t really do anything. I imagine it’s boring doing a shoot like that; tossing one’s hair across one’s bare back over and over must lose it’s novelty awfully quick. The women look bored, anyway, but I suppose that’s for the best because the only person who matters in the video is Justin Timberlake. He sings and dances and makes worried facial expressions and never once interacts with the women. It’s consistent with the song itself: “Tunnel Vision” is about looking, and looking is all that happens in the video. The women are objectified, but in the way a great work of art is objectified. I expect that this is what every woman wants to hear. “Your beauty is so spectacular that your emotions and personal history are entirely extraneous when I look at you. Please don’t talk while I do so.”
“Tunnel Vision” is a good video. It’s well cut and nice to look at. But on a political level it seems to be pretty much indefensible. That’s okay – the entertainment value of music videos has little to do with politics – but it doesn’t seem fair that it has escaped the criticism that “Blurred Lines” has received. I guess though that it’s not that surprising – “Tunnel Vision” is a fairly typical video. It’s arty and pretty and a little bit alienating, but in the end it isn’t worlds apart from “Tip Drill” or “Knock Yourself Out.” Women aren’t degraded, but they are reduced to mere objects of beauty. The beauty of the female body is a great thing, but it strikes me that women have more going for them than that. “Blurred Lines” acknowledges it while “Tunnel Vision” does not. “Tunnel Vision” is by no means obligated to acknowledge it (a music video’s only obligation is to enhance its song), but to defend its exploitation of female nudity as art is reductive and lazy. “Tunnel Vision” deserves no defense. It’s a sexy video with naked women in it and that’s that.
A statement like that would make it seem that nudity and non-objectifying music videos are mutually exclusive. By popular critical standards, I suppose it’s true: conventional logic states that clothes grant power while nudity takes away agency. It’s become inconceivable to perceive of a beautiful naked person as anything other than a sexual object (ugly naked people, on the other hand, can only be agents of shame and horror). Our knee-jerk reaction to a person unenhanced by objects is to assume that they must be an object themselves. We are all capitalists after all.
Rihanna Fenty is naked in her video for “Stay,” but one would be hard-pressed to label Sophie Muller’s video “objectifiying.” There are only two people in “Stay”: Rihanna, naked and crying in her bathroom, and Mikki Ekko, clothed and looking pouty. This ought to create an uncomfortably male-dominated sexual power dynamic, but it doesn’t. Rihanna is the emotional center of the video, riveting and human despite her nudity; Mikki Ekko is about as interesting as the bathtub. Rihanna hardly looks powerful – her nudity defines her vulnerability – but she is inarguably far more than a sexual object. There is very little sexual at all about “Stay.” The only thing Rihanna’s body conveys is pain.
Rihanna more than any other star today has built a career on pain. Isolation and sadness has undercut her videos since the beginning – she’s been sporting tears since “Unfaithful” – and she has always known how to convey her agony through her body. For Rihanna, nudity has never been simple sexuality. When she first took her clothes off for “Umbrella,” she did it covered in silver paint while jerking around in a triangular cage. It was more uncomfortable than sexy, highly exposed but extremely cold – the perfect compliment to a song about emotional openness in the early days of auto-tune. “Umbrella” was never a happy song. There was something wrong about the supposed emotional stability it described, and the video’s eerie nudity added to the discomfort.
“Stay” has none of “Umbrella’s” discomfort but all of it’s underlying agony. Instead of an unrelatable mass of metalic silver, Rihanna’s flesh in “Stay” is very much flesh. Muller’s camera catches every bit of it – moles, goosebumps, the mysterious scar on her lip that only started making public experiences after the Chris Brown domestic violence incident. It’s a hard video to watch not because it’s alienating but because it’s so incredibly relatable. Rihanna is beautiful, wealthy, and maybe insane, but she is still painfully human, complete with giant pores that show up spectacularly in 1080 HD. Her nudity allows her to expose everything she has, and her body pours out more pain than her mournful song could ever express. Never once does it feel as if she’s sacrificed her agency by exposing her body. If anything, “Stay” reclaims that body, overcoming the exoticized sexuality that Rihanna and her camp have forced on it and allowing it to become a manifestation of the subjectivity that imbues it.
If “Stay” – and, maybe less so, “Blurred Lines” – proves anything, it’s that women are far too interesting to be reduced to objects by simply removing their clothes. We do not live in the horrifying “Project Runway” advertisement that found itself plastered on every flat surface in New York this summer, a print that features ten or so writhing, naked slaves crawling over one another to bow at the ornately dressed feet of Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum. Clothes and the exterior objects that accompany them are not necessary for agency. Beautiful naked people are people too. I suppose that’s subjective; it depends on who’s looking. In “Tunnel Vision” world, they are nothing more than an appealing backdrop for Justin Timberlake’s face. In “Blurred Lines” world, they are, despite our best efforts, too difficult to objectify. In “Stay” world, they are so powerfully compelling that the idea of objectification is out of the question.
“I don’t think that nudity is weird,” Emily Ratajkowski said to Complex in July. “I think there’s different kinds of nudity, and different kinds of sexiness, and it’s hard to distinguish those things.” Well done, Emily. In one sentence you managed to undercut an entire internet worth of unemployed think-piece writers. What is there left to rant about if issues of nudity and agency in popular music can’t be split along a sexist/not sexist line? We need hard-line political distinctions; music videos are no fun without them. Lindsay Gayle Evans is even worse. “It’s a summer song,” she said to the Guardian in June. “It’s not supposed to be too deep.”
Summer is over. Nudity is more complicated now. You’re bound to catch a cold if you run around without clothes. Project Runway Season 12 is in full swing. Tim Gunn rules with a giant sewing needle.
It’s time for everyone to put their clothes back on. Stars, video hos, everyone. The raw power of the human body has proved to be too much to handle. We had our summer of experimental nudity and it ended with Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. We’re not ready for this stuff yet. It’s best that we write off all popular depictions of naked women as sexually degrading and socially irresponsible and leave it at that. The clothing industry needs our support. The nights really are starting to get chilly.
It was fun while it lasted. Goodbye, CMNF Summer. God help us, whatever sin comes next.
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NOTE: There is of course the fact that every example discussed above features exclusively female nudity. This isn’t a small issue; the history of naked men in popular music videos is brief and mostly limited to D’Angelo and Blink-182. There are reasons for this, some of them problematic, others less so. Large potatoes for another day.