In Defence of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" Through the Work of Manet, Duchamp, and Ratajkowski

Is there any more to say about this video? Well, yes, actually. Consider the "Blurred Lines" misogyny debate via the great works of Manet and Duchamp, plus a word with model Emily Ratajkowski.

The controversy surrounding Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is never-ending: there’s the lawsuits between Thicke’s camp and the estate of Marvin Gaye, Miley Cyrus’ pored over hypersexual MTV VMA performance, and at its zenith, a music video with a baby lamb, dirty statements spelt out in silver balloons, and three topless models. The song itself is mediocre; the fuss is over the scantily clad women, which have subsequently become as intrinsic to the experience of this song as the music itself. The implicit assertion being that the naked breasts of paid, professional models and/or a foam finger masturbatory pantomime from an attention-seeking starlet are what’s good for business, regardless of whether they come at the expense of gender equality.

Even as the dust begins to settle, and “Blurred Lines” begins its slide from the top of the charts, criticisms continue to simmer. The feminist establishment insists the song’s otherwise banal lyrics retain a subtext of sexual coercion. This is perhaps true, to an extent, however any intensive listen ultimately reveals the bad faith of a desperate man playacting at playboy clichés. Right or wrong, sexist, misogynistic or not, the precedent whereupon this particular piece of popular culture builds, is hardly explosive or new. And while it’s a cheap and brazen tactic for a star to raise their profile by with nudity, any visit to a local fine art museum yields dozens, if not hundreds of examples of naked bodies. Why then the venom? For while most would agree that misogyny is wrong, and should be stopped, it's a dangerous practice to conflate all nudity with sexism or objectification, and moreover to use this as grounds for censorship.

Ultimately, the phenomenon wherein the male spectator objectifies an artistic depiction of the female form has existed long before “Blurred Lines” ever did. It's a sexist trope which remains prevalent throughout the annals of European art history. There were centuries where the expressed purpose of such artworks was explicitly that: to act as the visual embodiment for whatever perverse erotic fantasy the spectator may secretly have. It’s unfortunate that, within the art world, the distinction between the surveyor and surveyed is all too often perpetuated along stark gender lines. The group Guerilla Girls, who promote a program for more “conscience in the art world,” tout the unsettling statistics that only 4% of the artists in the modern section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, while 76% of the nudes are female. And yet, far more dangerous than any single work of painting or sculpture, is the societal standard this apparent gender inequality sets for our relationships beyond the gallery space.

These, and the other troubling gender biases that we absorb through art and culture, inevitably reenter the fray as actualized social mores. Women are inclined to begin self-identifying as objects to view, and conversely, men may assume that there is nothing wrong with this objectification, and they then treat women accordingly. As art theorist John Berger explains: “...men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

More on which later, but one would still hope that, along with all of the apathy and irony intrinsic to postmodernism, society has managed to inch its way towards a more progressive stance regarding gender equality. Unfortunately, experience tells us this is not the case. Cultural depictions of women still largely conform to some primitive Freudian triptych of Mother/Wife/Whore, as the compass by which a man then determines how a woman should be treated.

Recently however, the discourse of cultural gender signification—itself sadly often limited to the esoteric confines of the academic ivory tower—has begun to bubble up in the mainstream in regards to “Blurred Lines.” For those few not already familiar with the visual, in the video we see a fully clothed Robin Thicke, flanked by collaborators Pharrell Williams and T.I., maintaining the forced disinterest typical to any chauvinist, while a trio of exquisitely gorgeous, topless female models, led by breakout star Emily Ratajkowski, happily frolic around them. The disparate gender roles made manifest in this parade are impossible to ignore. The men hide from any judging external gaze behind their designer sunglasses and tailored suits, while the women are laid bare like a museum piece available to view by anyone with an internet connection.

"Le déjeuner sur l'herbe" by Édouard Manet (1862-63).

In fact, the entirety of this pseudo-controversial scene is ripped straight from the canvas of Édouard Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l'herbe,” painted over a century and a half ago. What’s more, Manet’s painting went on to precipitate an almost identical puritanical uproar in mid-19th century Paris as “Blurred Lines” has today. Then, as now, it was outrageous to see a nude woman in the company of several fully clothed men. The contemporary manner in which each scene was respectively set makes the images all too real, and that’s disquieting. But before joining the mobs in their rushed condemnation of sexism, stop and consider exactly what it is about this image that’s troubling. The immediate absurdity of this dichotomy is intentional in both instances.

Director Diane Martel has gone on record in a Grantland Q&A to say that the interactions between the performers and the models are meant to be “funny and subtly ridiculing.” Thus there is very little, if any, eroticism to be found in spite of the nudity. And in lieu of any erogenous or amatory imagery, all that’s left in this juxtaposition is its silliness; a critical spotlight illuminating the discordant power structures that continue to exist between men and women and often go unnoticed.

Again, with both the painting and the video, it could be construed that the women’s nakedness entails vulnerability, whereas the men are protected. But even this is a perspective that’s conditioned by hegemonic culturally informed sexism, whereby it’s considered shameful to be naked or be comfortable publicly embracing one’s sexuality. As bold of a claim as it might seem, I would consider those who dare to be naked while others rely on clothing as a shield from social judgment, to be itself an assured sign of liberation and empowerment. And, as can be seen in the confident demeanor of Ratajkowski, such designations of strength assert themselves all the more powerfully in the “Blurred Lines” video.

“Reclining Bacchante" by Félix Trutat.

Look at Félix Trutat’s “Reclining Bacchante,” whose body is laid naked and open before a man shamelessly peeping through the window. She doesn’t attempt to cover herself, and what’s more, the gaze that meets our own is timid and submissive. She is a woman cut in two, rendered both surveyor and surveyed. Then compare this with the women of “Blurred Lines.” To be sure, it is nothing like Berger’s original assessment of gender differentiation in art whereby women are reduced to an object in relation to another, external, more powerful male spectator. These women are very much aware that they are being looked at: our gaze as spectator is returned with a direct, self-assured, almost mocking poise. When Ratajkowski looks down the barrel of the lens, it’s not in subservience, but rather in a stark assertion of her autonomous dominance within a now radically altered power structure. As Martel asserts, “I directed the girls to look into the camera, this is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position.”

"Olympia" by Manet (1863).

Again it was Manet who first subverted gender biases in art in this way. With “Olympia,” another of his most celebrated and controversial canvases, he created what is widely conceived to be the first modern woman of art. She is both accepting of her naked beauty and open to its display, yet also defiant of objectification. What mattered was that the historical tradition of meek and meager women in painting had been broken. It was a poignant act of protest from the inside out, and with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism soon to come, painting was never the same again.

Similarly, one can reserve a corresponding optimism that the girls of “Blurred Lines” have in some sense facilitated their own analogous rebellion. Their behavior is nothing like the players in a traditional hip-hop music video where the women are merely live mannequins to be looked at, fondled, and groped. None of which is lost on 22-year-old Ratajkowski. “I think reading a pitch that describes naked women dancing around in a music video (as we've all come to expect) is always going to sound bad,” says Ratajkowski. “It sounds bad when you describe ‘Blurred Lines’ to people who haven't seen it. All the criticism that has attacked the video is valid when you talk about it in general terms—it's basically naked women dancing around, not far from stripping right?”

Ratajkowski was planning on passing on the video when she agreed to meet with director Diane Martel in person. After their discussion, Martel was able change Ratajkowski’s mind. “Our respective understanding for the intention of the video aligned and ultimately that attitude and intention became the theme she edited around,” explains Ratajkowski. “The video became something that couldn’t have been further from the notion of giving a lap dance, or of shaking your ass for the benefit of males.”

With “Blurred Lines” the women are running the show. They parade in front of the performers as they please, having their own fun, on their own terms. If anything, it is the men who are made to adhere to the whims of the women. Additionally, the nudity is entirely at the discretion of the models. They alternate between exposed and covered up with zero change in confidence or demeanor.

This is still a hip-hop music video: women are on display while the men exude a tired pseudo-machismo, but this time the women are subverting all of the nauseating tropes we’ve come to expect, even while playfully fulfilling them. It is a wondrous achievement indeed. With both “Olympia” and “Blurred Lines” the oppressive ideal is shattered and the world in which the next generation’s cultural creators can proceed remains wide open.

Many may question the effectiveness and credibility of an act of artistic protest that needs to be explained so as to be understood, and while there’s some merit to this, I find such reproaches pedantic, repetitive, and inartistic. In a most Duchampian way, Martel—who has directed promos for artists as varied as Beyoncé, The Killers, and Robyn—has met misogyny on its own terms and establishing a platform amidst enemy territory. Perhaps it’s more challenging this way, but it will eventually prove far more effective in enacting real, lasting change to the existing artistic landscape, than criticism from the sidelines.

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp (1917).

Duchamp too, sought to challenge the safety of institutional opinion from behind adversarial lines when, in 1917, he signed R. Mutt to a porcelain urinal, called it “Fountain,” and proclaimed it art. The piece was rejected from the exhibition to which it was submitted and subsequently destroyed, but the effect it later proved to have on the cultural landscape was severe. In one fell swoop Duchamp broke down the door of what was then considered art: It just took those who followed a bit more time to realize that any obstruction to creative freedom had disappeared. It is in this same vein that I believe Martel and Ratajkowski have followed Manet and Duchamp in mounting what posterity will hopefully one day vindicate as a successful coup against an established cultural sexism. And right under the nose of Robin Thicke’s outspoken idiocy at that. He can think whatever he wants about how cool he looks in his video surrounded by beautiful women, but then, as now, it will be the nude model that will show the world that things have changed.

Jordan Silver is an MRes student in Art Theory and Philosophy at Central Saint Martins College in London and has 46 followers on Twitter - @Modernity.