With yet more hideousness emerging from the set of Blurred Lines, I think it’s time we talk about pop culture undermining consent. Again.

 

 

In 2019, American singer and producer Pharrell Williams made a startling discovery: “We live in a chauvinist culture.” Welcome to women’s reality, Pharrell! It’s only taken 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.

Indeed, as this week Emily Ratajkowski has claimed that Robin Thicke groped her during the making of Blurred Lines, detailing the allegations in her forthcoming book, My Body. She writes: “Suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt the coolness and foreignness of a stranger’s hands cupping my bare breasts from behind.

“I instinctively moved away, looking back at Robin Thicke. He smiled a goofy grin and stumbled backward, his eyes concealed behind his sunglasses. My head turned to the darkness beyond the set.”

Ratajkowski said Thicke’s actions made her feel “naked for the first time that day” but she had been “desperate to minimise” the incident.

“I pushed my chin forward and shrugged, avoiding eye contact, feeling the heat of humiliation pump through my body,” she said. “I didn’t react – not really, not like I should have.”

The video’s director, Diane Martel, said she witnessed the incident and “screamed” at Thicke, questioning his behaviour. “I remember the moment that he grabbed her breasts. He was standing behind her as they were both in profile,” she told The Times.

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.

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!)

There are 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 they 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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