Tag Archives: gender

I Bet You Think This Blog is About You: Blurred Lines and the Problem with Direct Address

blurred-lines-cover

Who are you?

Or, I guess, who are “you”?

More accurately, if less grammatically, who is “you”?

“You” has been very busy, at least going by song lyrics.  Other genres—including a lot of poetry, even though people think of lyrics and poetry as the same thing—stay away from using “you” as the dominant pronoun.  You can count on one hand the number of novels written in second person.  (Bright Lights, Big City; something by Italo Calvino…  OK, on two fingers.)  Instruction manuals, and their snooty siblings, self-help books, sure, “you” yourself away.  Nonfiction—and blogs—use direct address as an occasional rhetorical device (“You can count on one hand…”).  But every song is about You.  Here’s a rundown of some song titles that begin with “You”:

You, Breaking Benjamin

You, REM

You & Me, Dave Matthews

You and Your Friend, T-Ride

You Are Not Alone, Michael Jackson

You Are the Everything, REM

You Are the Girl, Cars

You Belong With Me, Taylor Swift

You Better Run, Pat Benatar

You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon

(You Can Still) Rock in America, Night Ranger

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Stones

You Can’t Get What You Want, Joe Jackson

You Can’t Kill Michael Malloy, Primus

You Can’t Kill Rock & Roll, Ozzy

You Can’t Stop Progress, Clutch

You Could Be Mine, Guns n Roses

You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute, Flight of the Concords

You Don’t Know Me at All, Don Henley

You Don’t Know What Love Is,, White Stripes

You Drive Me Ape, The Dickies

You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Gap Band

And that’s just the “You D–“’s, with more than 40 more You-first, not including “You” contractions. This is just from my iTunes library.  (Yes. Taylor Swift.) Go pull up your own playlists and see for yourself (and go ahead and post favorite or significant titles in Comments).  And obviously this list can’t include all the songs that revolve around “you,” since that would be nearly all of them.  “You” had to be a big shot.  Who is “you,” and how do you have so much time to do everything?

All of this is a way of getting to the Song of the Summer, in caps, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.  Yes, it’s crazy popular, and you can’t listen to the radio for 10 minutes without hearing it.  But it’s controversial, because the lyrics have been declared rapey, a word that fills an important vocabulary niche but that still sounds, meaning aside for the moment, like the name of a cat.  A lot of it comes down to this line:

You know you want it.

It’s pretty damning out of context, especially the way I used sinister italics, sitting on the page like that creep on the public bus. And I’m not here to defend the song. (Hourman hates controversy.)  But a few things are interesting about it.  First, its context is not the page but rather a pretty sweet R&B song, which is melodic, playful, and even a little corny (musicians: it’s all in the flat 7s, the corniest of all intervals).  How else can Robin Thicke, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots pull off an all kiddy instrument version of the song?  (Of course, I am conveniently ignoring that OTHER video.)

And the song sounds and feels nothing like what I think of as the (intentionally, to be make fun of that sort of thing, according to the group; Thicke said something similar about his own song) rapeiest song of all, Stone Temple Pilots’ raucous Sex Type Thing.  Featured lyric: “You wouldn’t want me have to hurt you too, hurt you too,” totally worse than “You know you want it.”  (Musicians: the main riff revolves around a flat 5 interval, which everyone knows is the devil in music).

Maybe the song could deflect its accusations better if it were one of those He said/She said songs that allow for more than one point of view and point of “you”—think Don’t You Want Me’s first verse by the Guy:

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

 Followed up in the second verse by this, by the Girl:

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I’d find a much better place
Either with or without you

Balanced, dueling “you”s.  Or more recently, Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody I Used to Know, where we get the sense that both the man and woman are hurting over the breakup, not that one is right and the other wrong. First Gotye sings this:

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember

Later followed by Kimbra’s POV:

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know

No assumptions about what the woman wants, since the song allows her to tell us.

It’s also interesting to compare Blurred Lines to the runner-up song of the summer, the maybe even catchier Get Lucky by Daft Punk.  Here’s the chorus:

She’s up all night to the sun

I’m up all night to get some

She’s up all night for good fun

I’m up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to the sun

We’re up all night to get some

We’re up all night for good fun

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

No “you” at all!  Instead, the song uses “she” and “I’ before settling on “we.”  If the repeated line had been “You’re up all night to get lucky,” a la Blurred lines, it wouldn’t sound so sex positive:

 You’re up all night to the sun

You’re up all night to get some

You’re up all night for good fun

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

 Now it sounds so accusing, kinda shamey.  Now, it’s not a story about two individual people, She and I, who together comprise We, but rather the lyrics’ male speaker looking at and judging the behavior of an unnamed woman.

The same thing happens if you contrast the next line in Blurred Lines: “You’re a good girl.”  It’s the singer’s assessment of what the woman thinks of herself, not necessarily what she thinks.  Contrast it with Tom Petty’s Free Falling, which begins with the exact same line but in 3rd person:

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

And with 3rd person comes the feeling of objectivity, which may be at the heart of the Blurred Lines—and, for me, the “you”—controversy.  “She’s a good girl” sounds like an omniscient narrator.  It means what it sounds like, or at least doesn’t call attention to its own possible ambiguity.  “You’re a good girl” sounds subjective—who are you to say or know whether she/I/ you is/am/are a good girl?  Blurred lines indeed.  Whether we find the line—and “You know you want it”—offensive or not boils down to whether we believe the singer.    If the singer—he—is reliable, and she—the recipient of the song’s words—is a good girl, and does want it, and the blurred lines of the title represent  the internal conflict within the woman herself, then the song is seductive, which I take as Thicke’s—and every lyricist’s—intention.  But if we doubt him, and hear situational blurred lines—he thinks that she wants it, but she doesn’t—well, that’s rapey.

But it’s up to you to decide.

Time: Over time, about 80 minutes, since I didn’t keep track that well, with double apologies for going italics crazy.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Hunger Games are from Venus, Hunger Artists are from Mars

Some assembly required. Batteries not included.

Just in time for the movie, if two years behind the teens, I read The Hunger Games.  But even though he’s been dead for almost ninety years, Franz Kafka beat me to it.  In 1922, just a few years before he died, Kafka published the short story A Hunger Artist, a weirdly candid but unsurprisingly depressing mediation on a man who starves himself for the entertainment of others.  Although the story was published ninety years ago, it is already nostalgic, looking back on the golden era of starvation artists, a real-life phenomenon where men would live in cages, their wasting public for gawking spectacle. As the story opens, “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” 

As usual with Kafka, it’s nearly impossible to easily interpret, although at least no one wakes up as a cockroach.  Is the story autobiographical and symbolic, with emphasis on the word “artist”: starving artists as hunger artists, sacrificing themselves for their art?  Is the hunger artist a Christian martyr or Christ himself, sacrificing his body for the seeming benefit of others, even if those others don’t know it? Is the story sincere or ironic—does Kafka really think that slow starvation is a great performance?  Is the hunger artist a victim of a vicious society or the perpetuator of a con, making a living literally doing nothing?  Is he misunderstood, as he believes, or does he misunderstand himself?  Kafka seems to want to story to seem spiritual and existential, but in our contemporary culture of eating disorders and reality television, he now seems anorexic and narcissistic, equally food- and attention starved—psychiatrically disordered, rather than acetic, spiritual, or even alienated.    The hunger artist would have loved the present.   

So let’s cut to the present.  The Hunger Games, the first major post-Harry Potter young adult lit phenomenon, seems the titular heir to Kafka’s hungry hungry hero.  Yet I had some major qualms about the book—at least until I was more than halfway through it.  Like Hunger Artist, Hunger Games is also nostalgic, not because the days of starvation are behind them but because they are ahead. In this futuristic, totalitarian dystopia—like there’s any other kind?—America is now Panem, but not the friendly skies: a weird amalgam of technological advancement amidst an overall feudal, semi-agrarian society. 

Our futuristic dystopian overlords, apparently.

In order to keep the story’s twelve districts in line and circumvent rebellion, the government, such as it is, uses a lottery to select two contestants—Tributes, one boy and one girl—from each district, elevates them to celebrity status, has them model haute couture and eat haute cuisine, makes them appear on TMZ, then televises their gory fight to the death, with a single winner rewarded with food and other valuable prizes.    The good news is that this set up keeps ex-contestants from robbing convenience stores or starring in pornography once the show is over.  The bad news is that it doesn’t make much literal or political sense.  We like our ultimate fighting and our reality stars separate, not that I’d be surprised by Kickboxing with the Kardashians.  But time tested, old fashioned slaughter, secret prisons, pograms, public impalement, and killing fields are far more cost effective for the frugal, discerning despot.

The influences show everywhere: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, obviously, Stephen King’s Running Man and The Long Walk, an episode of Justice League called War World, which itself borrowed from Spartacus, and every battle royale ever written, from Koushun Takami to Ralph Ellison. Plus, the writing seems equally prosaic. While it’s ostensibly the first person POV of Katniss Everdeen, our protagonist (and therefore, we quickly surmise, winner of the Games, a kind of built in spoiler), the language is often so clichéd and dry that it reads more like a book report about some other, better written novel that Katniss read and is telling us about secondhand.

Yet somehow, even with this ticker of criticism running through my head as I read, I found myself enjoying the book more and more, until by the end, none of the problems mattered, any more than the unlikelihood of talking bears or the existential crisis of wishes in a fairy tale. 

Even more than what turns out the be the novel’s narrative triumph—that is, somehow creating suspense even when the ending is predestined; somehow making interesting a violent snuff film of a bunch of kids killing each other—is what the novel does for gender.  It may seem, in our post-Aliens and Terminator world, that female heroes are at last the norm, but they’re not, not really.  Katniss is simply herself, and who she is is tough, but not particularly smart; self-preserving more than altruistic, even if, like Kafka’s hunger artist, she seems to sacrifice herself for her sister Prim and despite that she does rue Rue; skilled at traditionally masculine tasks like hunting; and lucky, but the kind of lucky that comes after the disaster of living in Panem and winding up in the hunger games.  In other words, she’s far more like Harry Potter than Hermione Granger, more Peter Pevensie than Susan, who does receive a bow and arrow from Father Christmas but is admonished to use it only “in great need…for I do not mean for you to fight in the battle.”  Girls are supposed to be the smart ones, the sisters, the girlfriends, the blank slates, the protected, the supporting characters. Katniss is not any of those things.  She’s better. Yet at the same time, the book never seems to have any gender agenda.

What’s more interesting, though, is her contrast with the male District 12 tribute, Peeta, whose name sounds feminine and reminiscent of bread (he’s the baker’s son), who protects himself in the hunger games by painting himself in camouflage and hiding, and whose sensitive romantic dumb love for Katniss could give Bella a run for her hanky.  This alone would be an interesting gender reversal. But the book does more.  After an improvised rule change forces Katniss and Peeta to team up, Peeta’s injuries make him more of a liability than an asset for Katniss. But not only does she have to protect him, she needs to protect his male ego, so that as she’s protecting him, she has to make him believe that he’s protecting her.  Edward, Jacob, and all those other guys just have to protect, without any self-consciousness and subterfuge.  And in the end, [yes, yes spoilers, although why you’re reading this if you haven’t read The Hunger Games is a mystery to me] when Peeta and Katniss both live, we discover that Peeta’s leg has been amputated.  He’s been saved by a girl like a hundred times, and then symbolically castrated.  And all he wants is looooove. 

I remember in my first year of college reading a super politically correct textbook called Racism and Sexism.  I no longer have it, so I can’t double check this (although I never sold books back so it must still be on my old bookshelf in my parents’ house).   But in it I remember a thought experiment for guys, imagining that every President, nearly every major world leader, nearly every famous scientist, nearly every writer until only a hundred years ago, etc etc etc, was a woman, and how women must feel about the real world.  I got it then, of course.  But I think I get it much better now, thanks to Katniss and The Hunger Games.  In the back of girls’ minds, there had to be a little nagging that the girl is always a Wendy but the boy gets to be the Peter Pan.  Yet when kids read Hunger Games today, they’re not going to think about Kafka, or Shirley Jackson, or the occasional clichéd language.  They’re not even going to notice that Katniss stands almost alone as a realized yet nonchalant female hero.  They’re just going to take the book as it is, and Katniss for herself. 

For a story in the dystopian future, it makes me very optimistic.  And the only Kafkaesque hunger the fans feel is for the next book. 

Time: a little over an hour

Jesse Kavadlo

Coming soon: from Wall-E to Hunger Games to Gone to Uglies: what’s with all the dystopia for kids?   

UPDATE: Here’s that post: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/bedtime-stories-after-the-end-of-the-world-ages-12-and-under/

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: