The Blurred Lines of Feminist Rhetoric

rapey-rape-cultureOver at Feministing, some late commentary on one of last month’s big feminist pop culture outrages: Robin Thicke’s video for Blurred Lines. For those who missed it, the song’s title and lyrics play on the idea of blurred lines between yes and no, wanting it and not wanting it, teasing and delivering the goods. That kind of thing.

The blog writer, atypically and thus notably (and self-declaredly) a man, writes about how he initially paid little attention to the vid, and not just to the prancing semi- or bare-naked ladies (depending on which version you watch), but also the part where it shows the words “ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG DICK,” because “that’s pretty much the message of every music video I’ve ever seen a dude make.”

He goes on to say:

That’s the danger of brushing aside this video and the potentially “rapey” lyrics, as I first did (a function of my privilege as a hetero man).

The verdict seems fairly universal: Blurred Lines is “kind of rapey.”

And I find that kind of interesting, and kind of ironic, in these days of not only “no means no” but “yes means yes” (which happens to be the title of a book by Feministing’s founder), because if there’s anything that blurs the lines between yes and no, consent and non-consent, rape and not-rape (not to mention “rape-rape”), it’s the word “rapey.”

Who’s the genius who came up with this oh so cutesy-poo wordy-word-word, and who are the sheep who first carried it into and infected the flock with this self-undermining meme? Just a guess, but maybe the same ones who decided the term “rape culture” doesn’t serve to normalize what it so cleverly names, or that “What about the menz?” is an effectively dismissive comeback when confronted with issues of social impact that any successful movement for structural social change must eventually deal with.

But of course that assumes that feminism still IS a social movement and not just a publishing genre.

It’s hard to trust or defend or take seriously a feminism that while unable to get much traction on its political agenda has managed to inject into its own discourse a word that explicitly and by design blurs the lines on one of its core issues and principles: rapey.

But isn’t that just the kind of incoherence we’ve come to expect from blogospheric pop feminism, where conceptual slipperiness plays happily with the language police, and where institutional interest finds that maintaining a siege mentality outweighs any need to shake off the dead weight of ossified theory and maybe, just maybe, hold on to previously hard-won gains (abortion rights, anyone?) which, as they’re systematically taken away like candy from (“unborn”) babies, justifies the siege mentality.

Have you heard the one about the girl who cried backlash?

Below, shrunk down to teeny-weeny size, in honor of the true dimensions of both Robin Thicke’s dick, and feminism’s intellectual vitality, political muscle, and current cultural influence, is the Blurred Lines video that everyone’s been just forcing themselves to watch over and over and over and over again. (Would you believe me if I said I haven’t seen it? Pinky swear!)

10 Responses to The Blurred Lines of Feminist Rhetoric

  1. Cat says:

    If there are still articles that say “that assumes that feminism still IS a social movement”, then there will aways be a need for feminism. I couldn’t pinpoint the thesis in this article, and it seemed like you just want ANY reason to rant about feminism, so you pulled out the word rapey. It has a pretty clear meaning to me: something that pushes the boundaries of rape and promotes rape culture without showing the act. But I mean, you can’t even write a cohesive article, so I’m not surprised you failed to understand a simple word.

  2. Nico says:

    Hi Cat, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    If there are still articles that say “that assumes that feminism still IS a social movement”, then there will aways be a need for feminism.

    Nowhere am I questioning the “need for feminism.” I AM questioning the effectiveness of some of feminism’s recent methods towards advancing gender equity (presumably a feminist goal), and holding on to past gains (like abortion rights, one cornerstone of gender equity.) Seems to me that asking such questions assumes there IS a need for feminism. So unless questioning aspects of feminism is the same as denying any need for it, I don’t see how you’d get the idea I’m questioning that need.

    It has a pretty clear meaning to me: something that pushes the boundaries of rape and promotes rape culture without showing the act.

    Well yes. And if that’s a good description of how a “rapey” cultural product works, it’s an equally good description of the how the word “rapey” itself works: it pushes or expands (blurs) the boundaries (lines) between rape and not-rape.

    “Rapey” IS rapey. It’s an unserious infantilizing word and counterproductive for anything more than generating headlines and page views.

    “Rapey” expands the margin of ambiguity and open interpretation, as in the so-called “he said/she said” cases where what actually happened is, or can be persuasively said to be, not really clear and certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt (“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my clients may be jerks and assholes, what they did was improper, inappropriate, and inexcusable, what they did was maybe kind of rapey, you could call it rapeish and rapesqe, you could even call it rapeishistic, but given the circumstances what they did was clearly not actual rape. The defense rests.”) If “rapey” is a reasonable judgment, then on what basis do we reject terms such as “legitimate rape” (see Congressman Akin) or “rape-rape” (see Whoopi Goldberg), or “forcible rape” (see once-proposed US legislation), which the word “rapey” practically requires in order to refer to the “real” thing?

    Intentionally blurring the lines on rape is a losing proposition for feminist politics. Lowering the threshold and expanding the criteria for what constitutes “rape culture” practically insures feminism’s increasing inability to influence culture, period.

    Basically, “rapey” is another example of feminism’s growing reliance on the invention of clever rhetoric to keep itself relevant and heard, instead of developing its theoretical base and refreshing its cultural analysis, and that’s the main reason why recent feminism as a political movement hasn’t made much progress and has actually lost ground on its most important issues.

  3. Julie says:

    Wow…What a complete, utter and abject failure you are a human. But, ironically, your failure as an individual and disdain for feminism/equality just shows just how needed feminism still is, so in a way, you’re working to promote that which you fight against!

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  5. Nico says:

    Wow. Character assassination, much?

    Fact is, I have been feminist since I first encountered the concept. And I am hardly disdainful or fighting against feminism — though I definitely understand it might appear that way given feminism’s low capacity for and tolerance of self-reflection and internal criticism.

    As for “just how needed feminism is,” what pains me more than anything is seeing feminism having turned itself into a movement that points to the consequences of its own political ineffectiveness, including its inability to hold onto hard-won gains as a result of that ineffectiveness, as evidence of “just how needed feminism is” — IOW: a movement that has developed an institutional interest in its own failure as a way of covering for its inability to build on and exploit or even recognize the successes it has had. (Any impulse you might be feeling about now to deny feminism’s successes only demonstrates my point, as does the impulse to blame all feminist setbacks on the backlash of patriarchal capitalism.)

    You refer to “feminism/equality” as though they are the same thing or interchangeable or two sides of the same coin. Once upon a time, maybe. Today, that’s just a conceit that pop feminism tries to pass off and trade on while wondering why it loses ground and can’t get traction on its issues.

    But now: How can someone possibly feel and think and say these things and still call herself feminist? Alas, that is an excellent question, not just for me but even more so for feminism itself.

    Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Please visit again anytime.

  6. Julie says:

    Ok, good for you for catching a typo. There was supposed to be an “as” in there. Clearly this will be the high point of your life,so, congrats I guess.

    And yeah, Feminism *is* about equality:

    fem·i·nism noun \ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm\
    Definition of FEMINISM
    : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes

    So yes, anyone that argue at this point that it isn’t about equality when *by definition* it’s about equality is either delusional or an idiot. Or both maybe.

  7. Nico says:

    There’s really no need to attack me personally as a delusional idiot, you know — EVEN IF I was taking the point of view that you’re attributing to me…. which I am not… which would be obvious to anyone who actually read what I wrote. I don’t play that way, but then I’m not you.

    You give a dictionary definition of feminism and say I am arguing against it. Not at all. But the idea of giving a 12-word definition of a social movement as ambitiously revolutionary as feminism is an insult to both feminism and to those who take it seriously — as well as those who do not take it seriously or agree with it but who nevertheless still need to live in a postfeminist context.

    Going by the dictionary definition, a large majority of people believe in feminism and would actually call themselves feminists. A poll from earlier this year found exactly that: It literally relied on a dictionary definition to measure feminist identification. It was conducted by Ms Magazine. I wrote about it a while back.

    Problem is, out in the real world where social change actually has to happen, what matters isn’t the neat dictionary definition but the combined/cumulative definitions and perceptions of feminism held by actual people, voters in particular, and for those purposes “feminism” hasn’t been a simple dictionary definition in decades. The fact is, except when trying to score easy rhetorical points, few feminists would consider the simple idealized dictionary definition adequate to encompass all that feminism is about. What’s “delusional” is to pretend otherwise, like that embarrassing Ms. poll does.

    I know it’s hard to accept that someone who is philosophically feminist might have issues with feminism. But that’s always been one of F’s biggest problems.

  8. Hannah says:

    I appreciate the analysis, and I think it is well written. Although I would say two things.

    Rape is an issue of consent. “Yes” or “no.” Black and white. A solid line. You, of course, pointed this out. But there is an explicit attempt to blur that line (hello literalness) with songs like Thicke’s. So, I suppose, people use a word that tries to encompass that purposeful gray area. It’s not rape, of course, but the idea that a girl means “yes” when she says or acts otherwise is line of thinking that can sometimes lead to rape, particularly acquaintance or “date” rape. I think addressing cultural attempts to push that envelope is necessary and a worthwhile discussion. Although, I would agree that the neologism “rapey” is infantile and counterproductive. It seems like it’s used to bring humor to it, and that’s also counterproductive outside of a comedy setting. When Key & Peele use it to talk about Dean Martin’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” I think it works because they’re making a rape joke that doesn’t target victims. But in a serious discussion about how an artist is apparently attempting to degrade women, it’s probably best to leave it out.

    I don’t get why saying “It has some degrading or somewhat abusive overtones” is apparently overrated.

    The other thing would be that I think feminism should talk about cultural and social issues. I don’t know if they’re failing at their political agenda if there aren’t many political goals left, besides maybe getting better representatives in Congress or better fair pay legislation. It seems like the movement has largely become a social one. But again, I agree that while talking about the social change in favor of better treatment of women, “rapey” should probably be left out of the conversation.



  9. lood lood says:

    This comment doesn’t need to be published, just pointing out a typo: the singer’s name is Robin Thicke. Alan Thicke is his father.

  10. Nico says:

    Gah! I knew that (really… I did!) Thank you for catching it. I will fix it.

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