Please note: This article was first published on the original version of The New Idealist online in February 2014 before being added to this newly created site in July 2015.
This article is a companion piece to Issue 4 Guest Edited by the actress Jodhi May which you can download here.
Emma Friend debates the following question:
“Following the controversy with the Blurred Lines song, do you think that university campuses should ban sexually explicit songs from the Students’ Union?”
Unfortunately, the title of this article contains one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the Blurred Lines controversy. The idea that the outrage was sparked by the song’s sexual explicitness, rather than its promotion of a harmful and illegal attitude towards sexual consent and its blatant degradation of women, has lent the debate a misleading air of prudishness.
Sexual explicitness is not the same as sexism: the feminists I know were not against the music video because it had naked women in it, but because of the context of naked women along with fully suited and booted men.
The outrage wasn’t the more simplistic moral outrage of an older, more conservative generation against sexual explicitness – on the whole, it was the dissent of young women who are tired of the constant degradation of females in popular culture. I would argue that this kind of dissent is more nuanced and complex; it’s about challenging the inequalities that exist in society and are perpetuated by popular culture.
Banning & Censorship
The idea of ‘banning’ songs has attracted accusations of censorship, but it’s useful to take a step back and look at who is being ‘censored’ and who has been traditionally silenced. Cultural consumers are starting to criticise the attitudes and messages in popular culture that affect them as members of society.
Instead of being worried about censorship, we should be celebrating the fact that those groups who have historically been silenced, who do not have power over the cultural messages that are conveyed and who have not had a voice in the public arena, are starting to fight back. It’s quite obvious that more debate, rather than censorship, is being created.
The fears about censorship are really just fears about cultural change and about the discourse around popular culture widening to include voices that aren’t traditionally heard. People are refusing to be passive and have started engaging with and challenging the messages we, as a society, consume.
It’s not just Sexism
Most of the attention that Blurred Lines received was due to its misogyny and worrying ideas about sexual consent. However, it needs to be recognised that the debate has eclipsed other issues and other groups that are constantly misrepresented in popular culture. Black and ethnic minority women are particularly sexualised – Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance being a pertinent example.
A commentator on a Jezebel article wrote ‘can we talk about the problematic and racist nature of her performance?
Her literal use of people as props?…Can we not talk about how not a single black person won an award last night even though the people who did win awards having been mining black music and culture for years?’
The feminist debate about popular culture has been rightfully criticised for ignoring groups who are also misrepresented in music videos and songs. As the commentator points out, they are underrepresented in the pop industry itself. By allowing and facilitating criticism of popular culture, we make it more accessible on every level. It changes the paradigms of power, and instead of reaffirming the social inequalities, the debate around popular culture starts to challenge them.
The role of Student Unions
In my opinion, student unions are appropriate environments for such criticism of popular culture. They are designed to function as democratic mini-societies and are places of debate and differing opinions.
Crucially, the importance of being a ‘member’ is perhaps more valued than it is elsewhere in society, meaning that they have the potential to be more inclusive and therefore more progressive.
The power of unions to boycott parts of culture that systematically exclude members should therefore be valued (and there is a difference between boycotting and banning, the latter implying unreasonable and undesirable power of the union over the individual members. Student unions should not attempt to ban members from listening to songs of their own volition, but can boycott songs through their own channels).
Student unions have the power to put pressure on popular culture to change for the better, and to nullify this would be to the detriment of the rest of society.
Emma Friend is the Equality and Diversity officer at Leeds University Union. Follow her on twitter at Friend4Equality.
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Issue Seven: The New Future Issue (Annual Special Edition)
Issue Six: The Autism Issue
Issue Five: The Doomsday Edition (Extreme Weather Special)
Issue Four: The Issue We’re All Talking About (Guest Edited by the actress Jodhi May)
Issue Three: Has Obama been corrupted by the machine?
Issue Two: IQ VS EQ – Is Emotional Intelligence what you need to succeed in the digital age?
Issue One: Downwardly Mobile? Will the next generation find it harder to reach the next level?