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‘I know you want it’: 10 years on, are we still living with...
The year was 2013. ‘Twerk’ and ‘selfie’ were added to the dictionary, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West welcomed their first child, and a pop song set off a feminist bomb, dividing partygoers both sides of the Atlantic.
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ smash hit Blurred Lines was released on March 26 and soon became the best-selling single of 2013, with five weeks as the UK number one and a monumental eight months on the Billboard Hot 100.
The uncut version of its music video saw suited men dance with topless women wearing nude thongs, as Thicke purred ‘I know you want it’ to the camera. Aged 21, it marked model Emily Ratajkowski’s first major booking, though she’s since called the video the ‘bane of [her] existence’, and claimed Thicke groped her on set – an accusation he has never publicly responded to.
By the summer of 2013, the four-minute tune had been banned in at least 20 British universities, including Derby, Chester, Brighton, Leeds, Gloucestershire and West Scotland.
Kirsty Haigh, a 19-year-old international relations student at the University of Edinburgh, led the charge, with her campus becoming the first to ban the Blurred Lines song and video almost 10 years ago.
Livingston-born Kirsty was her student union’s vice president. But why, even back then, was it such an important cause to her?Kirsty Haigh at university, where she worked to get Blurred Lines banned on campus (Picture: Kirsty Haigh)
A decade on, she tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Blurred lines so clearly exemplified the rape culture and sexism which exists within our society.
‘It promoted damaging messages about sex, consent and attitudes to women. Consent has no blurred lines and sex without consent is rape – it’s as simple as that.’
Kirsty, who now works as a chef and runs a social enterprise, says the song went against ‘so much of what we were trying to promote on campus.’ But banning it sparked some positive conversations around consent – a legacy she believes remains till this day.Emily Ratajkowski and Robin Thicke in Blurred Lines (Picture: YOUTUBE @robin thicke)
‘The fact the decision sparked, and continues to spark, discussions around casual sexism and consent is a massive success,’ says the now-29-year-old.
‘Every one of these conversations helps adjust the boundaries of what is acceptable in our society.’
For Kirsty and her fellow student campaigners, it was important to tackle the ‘damaging ideology’ that marked pop culture moments like this as ‘just a bit of fun’.
‘People say that this one song won’t turn people into a rapist, and that may be true, but it clearly sends out the wrong messages and feeds a culture where people think it’s okay to behave that way.
‘Assaults don’t happen in a vacuum.’Kirsty Haigh, a decade later (Picture: Kirsty Haigh)
‘Too often in our society, serious issues are let slide in social settings as it’s “just a bit of fun”. It can’t be a bit of fun when we still have such shockingly high rape statistics,’ she says.
At the time, she did encounter some resistance when the union banned the tune from its venues, from those who ‘didn’t originally understand the decision’.
‘That’s the thing, we live in a society where misogyny is so ingrained that it has become normalised to lots of people. We have to collectively unlearn sexism.’
Pharrell Williams has admitted to having a change of heart himself.‘I didn’t get it at first,’ he said in a 2019 interview, when asked about the song’s controversy. ‘So when there started to be an issue with it, lyrically, I was like, “What are you talking about?”
‘I realised that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn’t matter that that’s not my behaviour.
‘My mind opened up to what was actually being said in the song and how it could make someone feel. Even though it wasn’t the majority, it didn’t matter. I cared what they were feeling too.’‘It’s not sex and nudity that was the problem back then – and it’s not the problem now’ (Picture: YOUTUBE @robin thicke)
Williams said there are songs he wrote in the past that he’d never write today, but has the wider landscape really changed?
Sarah Mengede, a professor at Newcastle University researching women and music, thinks we have made progress, but pop music will always be hyper-sexualised.
‘It’s very important to highlight that there have been some advances in the music industry, [but] visual media is sometimes a little bit behind feminist advances in wider society,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘If we look at certain types of media, photography or music videos, we still sometimes see that specific stereotypes about women are used, because sex sells.
‘Women still feel that their gender, representing a specific type of femininity, is highlighted more than their actual abilities as musicians, for example.
‘That’s something that is still the case sometimes, it’s more subtle now, but it’s still there.’
Professor Mengede says that it’s not sex and nudity that was the problem back then – and it’s not the problem now.
‘Nudity itself is not a problem. The problem is power,’ she says. ‘Whenever we look at the media, especially music videos, we just have to ask ourselves questions about control and agency.
‘So who’s in charge? Who benefits? Who speaks? And who acts?’At least 20 universities banned the song (Picture: YOUTUBE @robin thicke)
In the Blurred Lines video, she notes that Emily Ratajkowski and the other women are ‘not wearing much’, whereas Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke are fully dressed.
‘We should ask ourselves, why that is? Why are the women naked and the men aren’t?’ she says.
‘If this is a video about sex in general and playfulness then everybody would be naked, but it’s just the women.’
Professor Mengede also references the groping allegations directed at Thicke, perhaps more surprising when you learn that this video was filmed with an all-female crew and director.
‘It’s very interesting that the video was filmed by a woman, Diane Martel,’ she says.
‘So at first it looks like women are in charge and in control, but then Robin Thicke’s alleged behaviour showed us that women were not in control, what made him do it?
‘Obviously we can’t look into Robin Thicke’s head unfortunately, it would probably be very interesting, but what it tells us is that he didn’t see her as a colleague or a professional who is equal to him.
‘He saw her as an object that he could just touch, so he must’ve felt somewhat superior to her just based on her gender. Gender is a tool of power often, it’s used to control people, often women.’It’s 10 years since the Blurred Lines music video (Picture: YOUTUBE @robin thicke)
What made Blurred Lines stand out among other songs or the era?
Professor Mengede believes it was the combination of video and lyrics, plus the later misconduct allegations that solidified its notoriety.
She says: ‘In that music video it’s the interplay between the visuals that we see, the women being naked the men being fully dressed and the lyrics and the non-verbal ques that can make us think that yes, sexual assault is somewhat glamorised and glorified or normalised.’
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A decade on from her student campaign, Kirsty doesn’t believe much progress has been made for gender equality in the public eye.
‘The music industry, the media and society as a whole are still full of dangerous stereotypes about women and blatant sexism,’ she says. ‘Songs are constantly being produced which promote dangerous attitudes toward sex and women.’
She adds that some in the media ‘continually publish stories where they refer to rape as sex, paedophilia and the rape of minors as sex, and where they list the males’ achievements before their crimes and where the women are simply an afterthought in the story.’
But Professor Mengede is hopeful that the behavior and messaging exhibited in Blurred Lines would not necessarily ‘fly’ now, though she agrees there’s work to be done.
‘We know there is still a problem in the music industry and there is still sexism, but it’s important that we challenge that,’ she says.
‘I am positive when it comes to the future because, yes feminism is still necessary, but we have definitely advanced from 2013 and there have been improvements over the past 10 years and more women are challenging gender oppression.’
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