Understanding Visual Culture- Assignment 4- Visualising the ‘other’

For this assignment we had to write a formal, academic essay about one or more of the topics covered in Part 4 – Looking and Subjectivity. We were asked to analyse and critique a piece of visual culture text i.e. an image, film etc. or the work of a particular artist from the perspective of our chosen topic.

I have chosen to complete my essay on the music video and lyrics for “Blurred Lines”. This song and video has stirred up a considerable amount of controversy since it was first released in March 2013. The public were at odds with the lyrics of the song, there were suggestions that the lyrics promoted date rape[1], and the representation of women within the video[2], of which I will be focussing some of my attention on. There are two versions of the video, one of which has the women topless and the second where they are partially clothed.

Before starting this I thought I would note I how I felt about the lyrics and video in order to make a comparison once I had finished my essay. My first thoughts were that it was just a typical music video. The men came across as arrogant and the women were wearing very little as usual. I thought the tune was catchy and although I could sing along to the lyrics, I didn’t really understand or give them much thought. I found some of the video a little strange and silly, which made me not want to really take it seriously. When I found out about the topless version, my immediate reaction was “typical males having to take things a step further”. While completing research on some of the finer details of the video and song, I came across some interesting points. These really changed my opinion of both the video and the song and made me see it in a whole new light. I will discuss these later.

The topics I have decided to use in order to help me analyse and critique the video are:

  • The representation of women, both in terms of how they are represented in music videos and how they are made to appear for specific audiences.
  • Women artists.
  • I will also use John Berger’s work on the nude.

I started by looking at the ideologies surrounding the video and which usually set the rules for this genre. Firstly, due to the nature of the music and people within it, it can be considered a hip hop video. These are usually shown to be quite derogatory to women. On the face of it, the same could be said of the “Blurred Lines” video. The premise is three men having a good time surrounded by scantily clad women. However, when you look at the balance between the men and women, you will see that there is the same amount of women as there are men. In a standard hip hop music video this would be seen as unusual. Stereotypically, such videos portray one man surrounded by women who are vying for his undivided attention. Hip hop videos also create an illusion of the lifestyles of rich and famous people. They show how carefree and fun their lives are. I also found that the majority of hip hop videos have a high percentage of black people within them, whereas this video has an equal number of black and white people. Perhaps regardless of the controversy, this has been a very carefully considered video and is evidence of the media’s efforts to “make even the norm seem constructed”[3].

The most interesting point I discovered during my research was that the director of the video was actually a woman, Diane Martel. Martel has been a music video director since 1993 and has created nearly 130 music videos for the likes of Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus and Mary J Blige to name but a few. She has said of the video that she “wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men”[4]. She also wanted to complete the video with the women topless however the musicians did not like this idea so Martel refused the job. The musicians then came back to her and agreed to do the video however two versions would have to be made.  The first followed Martel’s original treatment and the second followed the musicians request for the models to be clothed. However, an interesting point to mention is that, although Martel conceived and directed the video, it is Robin Thicke who appears to be receiving all the blame. It is a case of women artists not being credited for their work and ideas. Ironically this attention has been largely negative but is still directly attributable to Martel and not Robin Thicke.

In a world dominated by male artists, there is often the need for women artists to make themselves stand out and be noticed. One of the ways of doing this is by creating work that pushes the boundaries. While working on the women artists exercise, I found that there were some female artists i.e. Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, who go out of their way to make their work push the boundaries of sexual explicitness. Martel tries to show the women overpowering the men by making them look at the camera more than the men. The women are also seen to be pulling the men around and at one point; one of the women is sitting on a stool while T.I. dances in front of her. In these scenes the men are shown as submissive and playful.

Martel attributes her ideas to the work of Helmut Newton, a fashion photographer, who often photographed women in provocative and sexually charged images. By using Newton as inspiration, Martel could be seen as just continuing a long tradition of showing women naked and as Laura Mulvey suggests “the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium”[5]. However, by showing women as sexual objects, Martel suggests to the men that this is how women should be treated. Within John Berger’s Ways of Seeing he discusses how a woman’s presence defines what can and can’t be done to her or in other words “Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated”[6]. This implies that if a woman is presented in a respectable manner, she is to be treated in such a way and vice versa.

I was interested as to how the lyrics could be perceived. I feel that the song is actually saying that women can have the same sexual desires as men and that it is okay to give in to them. This is shown when Thicke sings

Ok now he was close, tried to domesticate you

But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate you

To me, he is basically saying that the woman’s previous boyfriend wanted to make her into the perfect housewife or similar but that is not her personality. She has stronger sexual desires and that it is fine to talk about them or give in to them even if you are a “good girl”. This is out of the ordinary for a typical hip hop song which usually just refers to women as sexual objects. The line ‘That man is not your maker’ made me think about John Berger’s work “Ways of Seeing”. Berger discusses the differences between men and women. One line that sums it up well is “To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men[7]”. By saying that within the song, Thicke is telling the woman that she is her own person, she shouldn’t feel obliged to act a certain way because men are seen as superior to women.

During my research I discovered an author who reflected my own thoughts. Jason Lipschutz is an assistant editor of one of the world’s largest online music critic publications. He discusses the lyrics and raises some interesting points, amongst which he says: “This whole song is about Robin Thicke trying to convince a “good girl” to shed her plain-ass boyfriend and give in to the outlandish sexual temptations that he knows rumble deep within her”[8].

The lyrics are also quite playful and show, as in the video, that the women is in a more powerful position then the men and the men are happy with being chased. This is supported when Thicke speaks the lyrics:

The way you grab me

Must wanna get nasty

Go ahead, get at me



I feel so lucky

(Hey, hey, hey)

You wanna hug me

These lines are evidence of the playful nature of the song and video as they show the men as being submissive and happy to go along with the dominating women.

I think that the title “Blurred Lines” implies the fact that it is ok for men to talk about their sexual desires openly whereas women can’t otherwise they are seen as having loose morals and are not to be associated with. There is also a suggestion of blurred lines between whether the piece could be classed as a nude or naked image of women. As I have stated in exercise 24 Images of Women; to be nude is for the subject to be in a safe and comfortable setting and feel they are not being represented in a sexual manner. Whereas nakedness is where the subject would feel exposed or embarrassed and be presented in a sexual manner. Within the video all the models are in a safe and comfortable environment, they have been directed to overpower the men so in this respect; the video could be classed as a nude. However, as all the models are being presented in a sexual manner; the video could be classed as nakedness. This dichotomy lends a mystery to the video.

I found that the rap by T.I. was at odds with the rest of the song. This also adds to the “blurred lines” of the song. As previously discussed, the singer is actually telling the woman that it is ok for her to have the same sexual desires as men, however the rap seems to have more typical hip hop connotations i.e. the rapper telling a woman how they are going to dominate them and slightly arrogant especially when he states “not many women can refuse this pimpin’”. There is also a point within the rap that T.I. refers to a previous girlfriend in a derogatory way by calling her a bitch. Here is another dichotomy, a “blurred line”.

One aspect I struggled with was who is the intended audience? On the face of it the intended audience is male. There are a number of points which support this view, such as the use of women in sexy or sexualised clothes, the women are all very attractive and have slender bodies and the way the women interact with the camera/viewer, at one point even “meowing” at the camera/viewer. Another way that the video is geared towards a male audience is by showing the male characters desirable to the men, I don’t mean this in sexual terms but for men to idolise or identify with, as they are in control and make things happen. Mulvey states “as the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence[9].  On the other hand, there are a number of points that lead me to think that the intended audience is female. Firstly, the models in the video have been directed to have continuous eye contact with the camera/audience. Secondly, the song is about liberating women to be more in control of their sexual desires. This is shown by the models when they are leading the men on and by being a bigger presence then the men in the video. On further examination, I feel that it has been cleverly made so the male spectators want to be with the powerful and dominant women and the female spectators want to be with the playful and submissive men, thus making it suitable for both male and female audiences.

In conclusion, for a hip hop video it has successfully dispelled the stereotype of these videos and created something that is both sexually and racially balanced. There are some parts that a large number of people disagree with, however, many of the viewers watching it will sadly not delve as deeply into it as I have and will make a snap judgement from watching the video only a few times and reading some of the negative media surrounding it. My own views towards the video have changed too. I have a new found respect for the musicians and the director and can see the vision the video and song were created in.









Ways of Seeing- John Berger (chapter 3 The Nude)

Visual Culture: a reader- edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall- 2013

[1] The Guardian Online, Blurred Lines: the most controversial song of the decade, Dorian Lynskey, 13th November 2013

[2] The Guardian Online, Blurred Lines: the most controversial song of the decade, Dorian Lynskey, 13th November 2013

[3] Visual Culture: A reader, edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, published 2013, extract from White by Richard Dyer, page 457

[4] Grantland.com, Q&A: Veteran Music Video Director Diane Martel on Her Controversial Videos for Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, Eric Ducker, 26th June 2013

[5] Visual Culture: A Reader, edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, published 2013, extract from Visual pleasure and narrative cinema by Laura Mulvey, page 384

[6] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, reissued in 2008, page 46

[7] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, reissued in 2008, page 46

[8] Billboard.com, Is it still possible to enjoy Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”?, Jason Lipshutz, 18th September 2014

[9] Visual Culture: A Reader, edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, published 2013, extract from Visual pleasure and narrative cinema by Laura Mulvey, page 384


About kunsworthphotography

I am currently studying towards a BA (Hons) in Photography with OCA and I have 2 children, Evie(4 years old) and Connor(3 years old)
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