Claire J. Harris

About Claire J. Harris

Claire Harris is a writer in exile who has spent the last decade travelling and working around the world. This is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds and usually involves scraping by on a diet of muesli and cheap wine. Occasionally together. You can find her at www.clairejharris.com

It’s not just Pharrell, pop-culture has always undermined consent

Last week, Pharrell conceded that he was embarrassed by his song ‘Blurred Lines’. In reality, pop-culture has been pushing our ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ for most of this century.

 

 

American singer and producer Pharrell Williams made a startling discovery this week: “We live in a chauvinist culture.” Welcome to women’s reality, Pharrell!

It’s only taken seven years of criticisms of his megahit Blurred Lines, which features a chorus of “I know you want it” and a video clip with two clothed male singers and a parade of topless female dancers. SEVEN YEARS is all it took for Pharrell to concede that the song might be a little, um, rapey.

When I was young, we weren’t allowed to watch movies rated over PG — which meant we watched a lot of old musicals (and I still do). One of my favourites was Anchors Aweigh where Gene Kelly teaches a very young Frank Sinatra how to be a “wolf” with the ladies.

As a child, I used to sing along to a little number called “I Begged Her” in which Gene describes his techniques for getting a woman to kiss him: arguing, telling her to “come out of her shell”, threatening, pleading “You can’t leave me here, not like this.”

It should all feel very 1950s — except that it doesn’t. On a date a few years ago, a man basically went through the Gene Kelly playbook of wooing the ladies to try and convince me to sleep with him, right down to a variation of “You can’t leave me here, not like this”, which was “I don’t think I can not f*** you now.” Romance is alive and well, ladies! (And so are double negatives!)

Where do men learn that if you badger a woman for long enough, then she will give in and kiss/go on a date/have sex with you? Not pop culture alone, of course, but it certainly contributes.

There are the obvious problems, such as the Christmas classic Baby It’s Cold Outside, where a man tries everything he can to convince a woman not to leave his house, from saying “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?” to spiking her drink. Happy holidays, women!

But there are also far more insidious ways to teach men that there is such a thing as “blurred lines”. I was thinking about this recently when a male friend asked me in bewilderment how he was supposed to know if a woman didn’t want to sleep with him on a date if she didn’t directly say so. The question was genuine.

Pop culture teaches men that a “no” can be turned into a “yes” (or at least a “not no”). We grow up watching movies where men stalk women, turn up at their homes uninvited, and threaten to kill themselves if she won’t go on a date with them — and all these actions are viewed through the prism of romance, rather than what they are in real life: sexual harassment.

The woman’s refusal and the man’s persistence is consistently presented as one of the rituals of courtship, a game played between the sexes. The woman might be saying “No”, but what she means is “Not unless you pursue me.”

The woman’s refusal and the man’s persistence is consistently presented as one of the rituals of courtship, a game played between the sexes. The woman might be saying “No”, but what she means is “Not unless you pursue me.”

This was glaringly apparent in last year’s allegations against Aziz Ansari, in which a woman said the comedian pressured her into performing sexual acts on a date. Ansari responded by saying he was “surprised and concerned” to hear that the evening’s events were anything but consensual — which in itself is sadly unsurprising. Like the rest of us, Ansari has presumably spent his whole life watching movies and listening to music where the man keeps trying to get what he wants until the woman eventually and inevitably gives in. He may even believe this to be romantic.

The story of Ansari’s date hit a nerve with a lot of women I know — because we have all been on some variation of that date. Perhaps on some of those dates, a “no” even did become a “yes”, serving to reinforce men’s ideas about consent being fluid. But here’s a newsflash: a “yes” that requires persistence is never going to be anything but a reluctant one. A woman doesn’t need persuasion to freely change her mind.

In answer to my friend’s question, I told him to start by assuming it was a “no” unless it was abundantly clear that it was a “yes” — rather than the other way around. If only we could see this represented in popular culture.

Now that Pharrell’s eyes have been opened to modern-day misogyny, perhaps that will be the subject of his next hit.

 

 

 

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