As a middle-aged white woman, I know practically nothing about “ratchet” culture. It seemed pretty obvious to me that the term itself derived from a verbal mangling of the word wretched and is used as a particularly wicked critical observation amongst (mainly) black women and girls. Now, thanks to a certain young, white pop star, ratchet has managed to find its way into the collective consciousness in a way that Mean Girls’ “fetch” never could. Which is why the vitriol and accusations of racism and sexism being hurled at Lily Allen over her new video for the single, Hard Out Here leave me completely baffled.
When I saw the video for Hard Out Here it struck me in quite a different way than much of the Twitterverse. While many, many, many have criticized Allen for being sexist, racist (and classist, since she is privileged and well-educated) because she cast mostly black women as her scantily-clad back-up dancers, I view the video through a very different lens.
The song opens with Allen on an operating table having liposuction on her tummy, as a manager disparages her by asking “How does someone let themselves get like this?” To which Allen replies “Um, I had two babies.” as she watches the dancers on-screen above her head. Throughout her career Allen has suffered public criticism for her heavy thighs and less than sylph-like body. Nonetheless, her ability to poke fun at herself as an awkward, inept dancer in comparison to those frankly amazing back-up dancers tells me her heart, as well as her sense of irony are in the right place.
Let’s get some things straight here. The women dancing in the video were hired to dance in the video. That’s their job, and they were hired because they are good at it. Why assume that because they are dancing in a white girl’s video in which the camera is lingering on their crotches and breasts is sexist, or asking them to dance in a particularly provocative way (twerking) is racist? Is it racist and sexist when a black artist hires them to do exactly the same thing (or worse NSFW), in exactly the same type of clothing, and posing with exactly the same types of products?
Since I don’t intentionally watch a lot of videos by artists like Major Lazer, 2Chainz, Lil Wayne, T-Pain and the like, one might assume I would be shocked by the hyper-sexualized dancing in the Lily Allen video. Actually, I’m impressed. I would give anything to feel empowered to dance with such fierce aggressiveness and sexuality. But I’m a white girl with a “weight problem” and I completely empathize with Allen’s frustration with the razor-thin norms of acceptable white female attractiveness.
Having spent some time with my family in Barcelona this past summer, I was amazed by the body confidence displayed by the myriad types of women we encountered, both in the city and on the beaches. I was filled with wonder and envy as I watched women older and heavier than myself stretch out on the sand in only the tiniest of bikini bottoms, with little concern for the appearance of their dimpled thighs, drooping breasts and pot bellies. Size did not matter to them, nor to anyone else clamoring for space on the crowded sand. The judgements that ran through my head were unbecoming of me, yet I still steadfastly wore my minimizing, full-coverage one-piece swimsuit, realizing all too clearly that I was the one who looked ridiculously out of place.
“Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust the injustice ‘cause it’s not going away”
—Lily Allen, “Hard Out Here”
Though the song lyrics are somewhat clunky, yet classically Allen, she does make the point that she’s made it as a singer, despite her obvious flaws (it helps that her parents were in the business too). She uses the backing dancers, in all their ass-jiggling glory, to point out the glaring disparity between what’s considered sexy and fabulous for them—it’s a booty call, not a pussy call after all—is considered vulgar and ugly on a white girl. To succeed, she must cover up. Her body—in white pop-culture terms—is her shame, and it’s frankly—and I have to believe intentionally—comical how trussed-up she seems in comparison to her fellow dancers in the video. She couldn’t possibly dance like them. She can hardly move. It’s why Miley Cyrus’ attempts to be ratchet are such a joke, as she is white pop perfection personified—without a bump, bulge or ripple anywhere to mar her fat-free body.
In her Super Bass video from 2011, Nicki Minaj plays up her Barbie doll persona by choreographing herself and the other dancers to move with a sort of stiff, white-girl cheerleader version of the pole-dancing moves that prefigured the twerking craze in the first place. If it’s OK for Minaj to appropriate and explore a white standard of beauty to cleverly comment on the huge cultural disparities in the definition of attractiveness, then why is Allen excoriated for simply pointing out that if she were a black artist, no one would have a problem with her ratchet thighs?
In her new video, Pour It Up (again, very NSFW) Rihanna shares the stage with five “dancers” and does a little slow twerking of her own, yet she is praised and admired for being empowered in her sexuality. Apparently mainstream culture thinks being ratchet is fine, as long as ratchet means thin, sexy and able to do the spatchcock on the pole.
So, why all the fuss over Hard Out Here? It’s not poetic, but shouldn’t all women just get on with enjoying our bodies and feeling comfortable and empowered in our own skins? Seems to me Lily Allen has the right attitude.
Addendum:Let me make this very clear, I don’t want anyone to be objectified. I honestly think Lily Allen didn’t want anyone to be objectified either. I’m not a woman of color and I’m only going to speak to issues as I see them relating to women. Period.
The reality is that there are women who dance for a living. Whether that’s twerking, pole-dancing or ballet. Every type of dance takes incredible skill and practice and if a woman choses to dance in a certain way, like twerking, she can only expect that her skills will be called upon and used in a certain time and place. It’s for her to decide if she’s OK with that. That’s a certain kind of empowerment. I may not agree with it, but I wouldn’t try to stop them because it’s not my decision to make.
Any woman who dances in any artist’s video is complicit in the message that artist is making. I’m pretty sure, whatever they get paid for the work, they wouldn’t audition if they had qualms about being objectified for their clothing or dancing style. The dancers in Hard Out Here were on stage with Allen and the “producer” character. I’ll assume they understood the message of the song. They didn’t dance in a black box then get edited in in a way that we might assume is out of context to their understanding of the lyrics. I don’t think there was ever a point in their employment when they didn’t have the agency to leave.
The pole dancers in the new Rihanna video might not be “strippers,” in the classic sense, but I’m pretty sure that they accept that every penny they make “dancing” is made through objectifying themselves. Are they talented? Absolutely. Is their talent presented in a venue that objectifies them? That’s for them to decide and make a choice about.
I’m pretty sure Lily Allen was trying to make a statement about herself, not the other women in the video. I think Miley Cyrus has tried to make a statement about herself too. Maybe they weren’t successful. I’m pretty libertarian when it comes to other people’s personal choices and I’ll admit I’m just fed up with people accusing me of being “clueless” because I will never understand racism and sexism against non-white women. You can’t be me either, but that doesn’t mean we can’t step back and try to understand that because someone sees oppression inherent in the system, that everyone has to feel oppressed.