A feminist shit-storm of epic proportions (is there any other kind?) ensued two weeks ago when Lily Allen released her clever, satirical video for her track Hard out Here. The video features, amongst other things, a medley of women, many black, dancing in the fashion we’ve become accustomed to in this age of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. Why use other women’s bodies – specifically black women’s bodies – to make an otherwise valid and important argument, her detractors asked? Allen has done this sort of satire before, but with a more self-referential, less tongue-in-cheek tone: 2009’s The Fear focused mainly on how alienating the culture of celebrity and its demands on young women can be. Over a catchy, upbeat backing track, she sings:
And I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless
‘Cause everyone knows that’s how you get famous
I’ll look at the sun and I’ll look in the mirror
I’m on the right track, yeah I’m on to a winner
I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
‘Cause I’m being taken over by the Fear
That video is also far more inward-looking and features only Allen wending her way through the world as she considers the options before her as a young woman in the entertainment industry. Hard out Here‘s lyrics are harder, angrier and the video also includes various representatives of the tone-setters of this culture (and, by extension, the villains): a white, male record executive and a few cold plastic surgeons who make fun of Allen as they perform liposuction.
A few weeks after the Allen shit-storm, I finally watched Sexy Baby, a 2012 documentary that tracks three women who, much like Allen in The Fear, are making their way through our openly, violently misogynistic, exploitative culture. Nakita Kash is an adult film star and a stripper, who is battling to find normal and her identity outside of the porn industry which she sees as far too ubiquitous; Laura is a teaching assistant in her early 20s who is preparing and saving for an expensive labiaplasty procedure; and Winnifred, whose story scared me the most, is a middle schooler, navigating the culture just as puberty and all of the chaos it brings hits.
Watching Sexy Baby made me as angry as Lily Allen is in Hard out Here. Winnifred’s and Laura’s stories were especially upsetting. We are told our place is as objects, we must be sexy (read skinny, with big boobs and a big butt, and a labia that looks like just like a porn stars), and present, without being too loud (in fact, if we could just wear as little as possible and say nothing – that would be great). These messages have weight and so much currency that there are women, like Nakita Kash, who build livelihoods and careers on being a part of transmitting them. At the same time, women like Winnifred and Laura are internalising these messages and the constant self-policing and societal surveillance, and are being taken over by the fear they produce. It is harrowing to watch. In one especially distressing scene, we discover that Winnifred has had her Facebook privileges revoked. The crime was to post a video of her 4 year old sister rapping along to an explicit song: the video gets a stream of comments and ‘likes’ – people find a 4 year old girl gyrating, thrusting and rapping about ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ extremely click-worthy. To watch this young woman who, when we meet her at the start of the movie, is acting in a play that asks of a Soulja Boy song (and no, I will not link to it), “Who’s the ho” become someone who says “Facebook is, like, 30% of my life” is alarming. And then there’s Laura, whose mother takes her to her surgery. In the hours preceding her surgery, Laura talks about how it will change her life. She describes how just making the decision has already changed her attitude and how she will meet her life goals (one of which is to become a model) once it is done. After the surgery, we see her return to the life and the job she had before, with few, if any, of the material details having changed.
Nakita Kash, the oldest of the three women featured, has a different story. She is very clear on her feelings about porn. It doesn’t reflect real life, and the way in which it bleeds into the mainstream doesn’t bode well for our relationships with one another as human beings. She teaches a pole dancing class, an activity she says allows her to be ‘Nicholle’ (her real name) and use what she’s learned as Nakita in another way. She remarks “Women come to me to learn pole dancing and they want to be Nakita, and Nicholle just wants to be like them”. Unlike the other two subjects, we see Nakita/Nicholle retreat behind the boundaries she sets up between herself and the porn world. She works within the industry and the culture it is a part of, but is ironically the furthest of the three women from it, both at the beginning and at the end of the movie.
I understand and can relate to the fear Lily Allen describes, but watching these women’s stories, I also understand the rage that inspired Hard out Here. Enough already. As we speak there are at least two generations of young women (represented by Laura and Winnifred) who think that the problem lies with them. So they crash diet, they wear as little as possible, they suck out and cut off parts of their body, trying to be enough, be beautiful, be sexy, be the standard. And it keeps getting worse. And there are more and more ways for the worst to be transmitted, unfiltered, undiluted right into women’s lives. It is eating them – us – alive. And, yes, there is pain and there is fear, but I appreciate Allen’s response which boils down to “Wait a second!? There is a society at fault here, and I’m calling it out.”
Yes, the video is gratuitous. But I think what it does is drive home the message that even as we participate in this culture (like Nakita Kash, like Lily’s dancers) – and many of us do – we do not accept it as our fault, as something that we do to ourselves. As the black women in her video twerk per the instructions of the middle-aged white guy, Allen sings (over another aggressively cheerful backing track):
Don’t need to shake my ass for you
‘Cause I’ve got a brain
If I told you about my sex life
You’d call me a slut
Them boys be talking ’bout their bitches
No one’s making a fuss
There’s a glass ceiling to break, uh huh
There’s money to make
And now it’s time to speed it up
‘Cause I can’t move at this pace
Enough. Enough internalising this bullshit culture and letting it send perfectly healthy women into operating rooms for needless, dangerous surgeries. Enough of a world that produces 12 year olds who can casually say “It doesn’t matter that I dress like a ho, at least I don’t act like one”. It is hard out here (for a bitch), and I appreciate Allen’s track as a reminder that there are active forces at play who make it hard. Identifying the enemy (yeah, I said it) makes it easier to fight. The problem with talking about the internal effects of this misogynistic culture is that we run the risk of confusing effect and cause and we lose sight of where the roots of the problem actually lie. Where does that leave us? In a place where we bemoan the culture but aren’t too clear on how to fix things. As Allen sings:
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not going away
To that we ought to say: Enough.