Decoding Sex in the Media: How Lily Allen's "Hard Out Here" (Sadly) Missed the Mark
I really wanted to love Lily Allen’s new song and video, “Hard Out Here."
The British artist, who took time off to start a family, has recently burst back into the music scene with a punchy, sarcastic pop song that slams the widespread objectification and harsh criticism of women’s bodies in so much of modern media. Far sharper than Beyonce’s generic brand of girls rule!, “Hard Out Here” addresses specific feminist issues with acuity and wit.
She discusses the double standard surrounding women’s sexuality (“If I told you about my sex life, you'd call me a slut/when boys be talking about their bitches, no one's making a fuss”), the unrealistic beauty standard for women (“You should probably lose some weight/'cause we can't see your bones/you should probably fix your face or you'll end up on your own”), and even makes a jab or two at Robin Thicke’s rape-y hit song with the sarcastic lyrics like, “Have you thought about your butt? Who's gonna tear it in two?”
It’s about time for an empowering, feminist response to “Blurred Lines” in the mainstream music industry. As much as I wish Allen’s song was the answer we’ve been waiting for, it’s truly not.
The video begins with Allen lying on a surgical table, about to undergo liposuction at her manager’s insistence. She tells us that she “don't need to shake my ass for you 'cause I've got a brain”. Oof. Slut-shaming in the first verse is never a good sign. It gets worse.
The camera pans to a TV screen in the corner of the room, and what do we see? A group of scantily-clad women, mostly of color. Shaking their asses.
As the video progresses, their overtly sexual dancing becomes increasingly ridiculous.
We see the dancers licking their palms and touching their crotches. Lily Allen, wearing long sleeves and a conservative hemline, stuffs cash into one woman’s bra. A naked rear end ripples in slow motion as its owner, bent over, begins to twerk—and soon, another dancer pours champagne all over her friend’s ass.
All the while, Allen sings about how hard it is “for a bitch” in today’s hyper-sexualized culture. Which is fabulous—these issues need to be addressed in the mainstream. But not at the expense of another, more deeply marginalized group: women of color.
Given the theme of the song, these degrading images are clearly intended to be satirical. She means to mock a serious phenomenon evident throughout much of the mainstream music industry. And as much as I want to get behind that idea (any jab at my friend Robin Thicke is indisputably a good thing, in my opinion), she's still objectifying and sexualizing women's bodies in order to make her product more marketable. Ironic degradation is still degradation, whether satire is the intent or not.
The fact that the majority of the nearly-naked dancing women are black, however, was apparently not intended as satire.
“If anyone thinks for a second that I requested specific ethnicities for the video, they're wrong,” Allen writes in a Twitter statement entitled “Privilege, Superiority, and Misconceptions”. She explains that, after dance auditions, she wasn’t “going to send any of [the women] away because of the colour of their skin."
"The video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture,” Allen claims. “It has nothing to do with race, at all”.
Well, maybe it should. And maybe that's not for Allen to decide, anyway, especially since she's not a member of the groups directly impacted by racism in the first place.
What white feminists often fail to recognize is that many of the issues they work against—objectification, discrimination, sexual assault—have a greater impact on women of color. This is really a duh at this point, or it sure should be.
It’s true that all women are held to an unrealistic beauty standard. It’s also true that the long list of characteristics a woman must possess to be perceived as “attractive” often includes “white." It’s true that all types of women are degraded and sexualized in modern pop culture. It’s also true that Miley Cyrus, while taking agency over her own sexuality, treated the black women onstage with her as sexed-up props.
We can’t discuss the objectification of women without addressing the extreme objectification of women of color. And we certainly can’t discuss female objectification while objectifying women of color. Visual irony only goes so far.
Allen also defends herself by claiming that her “being covered up” while her dancers writhe around in bikinis was simply a result of her “own insecurities." She mentions her “chronic cellulite, which nobody wants to see” and says that if she, too, would have been dressed just as skimpily if she was “a little braver."
This is the same woman who, in the same video, slams the unachievable beauty ideal for women. She croons about our society’s harsh treatment of women who are “not a size six, and…not good-looking." Yet, instead of baring her less-than-perfect figure to spite these oppressive standards, she covers herself up—while dancing alongside a group of close-to-naked women with conventionally “perfect” bodies.
The more powerful statement, and one that doesn’t feed into pop culture’s pervasive degradation of female bodies, would have been to dress as revealingly as she wanted. Or, if she truly preferred to cover up for her own comfort—not for anyone else’s—to cast women of all shapes and sizes (and colors!) as dancers.
In some ways, this video is refreshing. We need more feminist voices, even if and as they stumble, in pop culture. We need more candid, personal discussions around the treatment of women in mainstream media. We need louder criticism of these ridiculous beauty standards. But we desperately need more inclusivity.
I appreciate your effort, Lily, and your intentions. But it’s about time we lose the racism and move toward true empowerment and full equality. If we can't do the former, especially in the easiest ways, we've absolutely no shot at the latter.