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Is There a Racist Undertone to Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” Video?

I love Lily Allen, and was basically guaranteed to embrace the video, “Hard Out Here,” that she released as a comeback gimmick yesterday. In truth I don’t love the song — the lyrics may be characteristic Lily Allen blunt truth-telling, but they lack the playful cleverness I loved in her earlier work — but then it’s not the song everyone wants to talk about, it’s the video. And the video, while it operates as a mostly-great satire of the boobs-and-champagne aesthetic of much modern pop music, still has some issues.

Specifically, as pop-culture watchers spanning from the Caitlin Moran to Mikki Kendall found themselves discussing on Twitter this morning, the use of black women in the video doesn’t quite come across as the Satire You Hope to See in the World. Sure, the cartoon colors, the tongue-in-cheek slow-motion lingering over black women’s asses, and the conceit of the song itself — a comment on what you have to do to be a female pop star these days — are leading the viewer to recognize that the imagery is ridiculous. Sure, this is satire, and like I said, mostly pretty good stuff.

But beyond the mocking frame, if you think about the result for the women who are actually dancing in the video, it is still the same as your average Miley Cyrus/Gwen Stefani/Madonna exploitation of women of color. Let’s get abstract for a second: Here’s a white lady, singing about how she resents having to lose weight and generally be treated as a sex object. And she’s dancing with a number of comparatively voiceless and nameless black women. Their feelings about the situation they find themselves in are neither highlighted nor even explored; most of the time they’re smiling and laughing, as though they were enjoying themselves in the act. And let’s face it: most people are going to walk away from this video thinking, “Oh, those dancers were having fun,” and leave it there. For most people, there’s nothing wrong with a nameless, voiceless black women dancing in the background. If anything, it’s what Joe and Jane Dubstep have come to expect.

Making it potentially worse is the video’s director, who, in what I’d gauge as a medium-clueless interview with NME, mostly seems to think that too. First, he’s quite adamant that the video is not an “angry statement,” which mostly makes you wonder (a) why it is that stupid people often produce striking cultural products and (b) if he’s watched his own finished cut:

That culture is something we’re all complicit in – we all sit and watch those videos with twerking and champagne spilling over gyrating naked women and all that on MTV all the time, so to really rally against them would be hypocritical. It’s much more effective and much funnier to kinda have a bit of fun with those things instead of making any kind of angry statement against them in the video. It’s just a bit of fun.

I suppose he gets bonus points for using the word “complicit” in there. There’s sometimes a tendency for people to want to excuse themselves from all the bad implications of the work they do; I like to joke that these people are worried that if every piece of pop culture is not snow-pure they aren’t going to heaven. Obviously, that guy is not suffering from the “I am FILLED with Christ’s love!” kind of problem, so kudos to him.

That said, the most interesting thing pop can do with its complicity with the political superstructures of racism, sexism, and classism is to be self-aware about it. To, at every turn, acknowledge bluntly the ways in which it’s caught up with it. That’s why, in a video like this one, you need the white music executive guy literally in the frame, demonstrating the twerking motion. It’s also why Lily Allen has to literally say she’s not a size 6. And why, by the way, even as you may be satirizing one thing you can totally miss another:

What I hope comes across in the video is how much of a sisterly vibe there was. It wasn’t like the girls she’s surrounded by in the video were people we were taking the piss out of, or anything – they were in on it. In fact, it was their idea to spray the champagne over each other, like in a Nelly video. They totally got that what we were saying with the video: everything here is imagery we’re all familiar with, but why are we familiar with it? I mean, it’s ridiculous and so over the top and not even really sexy in the slightest, so why? We had a lot of fun on set making that point. It’s way more effective to take the piss slightly – to acknowledge that ridiculousness.

Note the total absence, in this paragraph, of any commentary on the racialized aspect of “that ridiculousness.” You can add to that Lily Allen’s reply, on Twitter, that the women in the video were chosen because they were “the best dancers,” not because they were women of color. (“[I]t seemed unfair and hypocritical not to hire someone because of their skin colour,” she added.) Obviously no one involved in making this video was really thinking too hard about the racial politics of it all. And sure, as activists are fond of saying, intent isn’t everything; perhaps there’s a small population of people walking away from that video still reading a wink about the use of black women as backup dancers into it. But for most people, no. Which just means, I think, that next time Lily Allen comes to wow us — and I hope she does it again — she could do a little bit better. A little bit of her trademark sarcasm applied to the way her business uses women of color could do us all more than a little good.

UPDATE: Lily Allen has now responded on Twitter to some of the charges, not particularly effectively to my mind — she’s basically saying her decision to use women of color in this way in the video was post-racial. Welp.

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