Is Lily Allen's New Music Video as Progressive as the Internet Says?

Feeney: Lily Allen is back! It's been four years since her last album came out, and she picks up exactly where she left off on songs like "The Fear" and "Smile." From the looks of it, she's just as outspoken as ever.

Fetters: Whoa. Whoa, whoa. There’s so much going on here! What all is she parodying? I think by my count we’ve got the Three-6 Mafia track, with the title; the Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines” video, with the glossy balloon letters spelling out a PSA about the star’s body parts; and, like, every mid-2000s rap video ever, with the cash flying around and the champagne being poured all over / licked off of both probable and improbable surfaces. I’m sure I missed other stuff, too.

But beyond being hilarious it’s also kind of important, right? I think I like where she’s going with this: flipping the ‘Hard Out Here for a Pimp’ idea and making it about the ugly pressure for women to be hot glamazons or virgins or happy homemakers or some combination of those. “It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect women to look and behave in this certain way” is a pretty familiar message, obviously, but I’d say it’s one that’s worth hearing often.

Feeney: That’s what I was wondering about, too. There’s nothing particularly new about Allen’s message here. Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Kim confronted double standards about women in pop and hip-hop a decade ago. Missy Elliott tried to flip the word “bitch” in the ‘90s. But in the wake of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus this year, it seems like conversations about who or what gets to control, police, or empower female sexuality are especially relevant.

While I’m truly thrilled that Allen is back, though—especially since so many pop-diva albums of late have been underwhelming—and while she’s the perfect one to tackle these topics, I think parts of this video aren’t as mind-blowingly progressive as some make them out to be. For me, it’s sometimes hard to tell whom she’s aiming at in the video: The men responsible for enforcing such expectations about women’s bodies, or the women who go along with them? Both?

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Fetters: I guess the villain in the scenario is this old white guy who’s trying to whip her into celebrity shape—so by that logic, maybe it’s the establishment that’s enforcing norms like these that she’s pointing a finger at.

What strikes me as sort of weird is that the expectation to be gorgeous and submissive and sexually inviting doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable or limiting to any of the women except Lily Allen. The rest of them don’t seem to hate being in these constricting costumes or doing these generally unnatural things except for her—and as a result, if you listened to this on mute, you might think this is less like a parody of the way we look at women in music videos and more like Allen poking fun at herself for not being able to live up to this standard the rest of the women apparently do.

At the end of the video, there’s a shot of Allen falling out of her sexy pose and looking exasperated; if that were a shot of all the women falling out of their sexy poses, blowing their cheeks out like Allen does, taking out their heavy, uncomfortable earrings, or taking their heels off or something, then I feel like we’d get a better picture of the idea that these are three-dimensional women getting forced into this unfair, one-dimensional expectation for what women should be. But as it stands, Allen is the only three-dimensional woman in this video.

Feeney: Exactly! If I remember correctly, Lily Allen is a pretty clever and self-aware pop star, and it’s obvious from the balloons and the product placement that she knows exactly what conversations about pop music she’s parachuting into. But while she tries to point her finger at exactly how ridiculous and troubling it is when, say, Miley Cyrus, surrounds herself with black back-up dancers to sexualize herself and seem more exotic, it doesn’t ever seem like Allen really practices the sort of solidarity she preaches. I get that when she rips off the black body cloth and starts dancing, she’s positioning herself as one of them. We’re all in it together! “It’s hard out here for bitches like us!” But even when she’s dancing with them, it seems she’s still kind of making fun of them, or at least keeping her distance. Unlike Allen, they never stop playing up the bottle-popping, booty-shaking roles they’ve been assigned—roles she’s already condemned and rejected. For a song that deals with reclaiming ownership of your own body, she seems to be the only one that gets to do so.

Fetters: I’m glad you bring up the Miley Cyrus thing, actually, because obviously a huge part of that conversation was the race appropriation. Do you feel weird about the racial aspect of this Lily Allen video? I feel not-so-vaguely icky about it. Most of these bodies getting ogled at and over-the-top objectified are black women’s bodies, and the woman rejecting that, presenting herself as the exception, is white.

Feeney: I definitely noticed it. Considering so much of this video is a parody—and the song itself is, too, given the Auto-Tune, I think—I hope that what you identified is Allen failing to make her point about black women in videos as effectively as she could have, not completely missing the point altogether. Her intent to call out people like Miley Cyrus is obvious, even if there’s not a total rejection of what her villainous manager would like to see happen on set.

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It’s also worth bringing up Lorde here, too. One critique of “Royals”—and to a similar degree, Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” with all the crusades against materialism—is that it, in the words of Spin, “invade[s] rap and R&B playlists while simultaneously lecturing black artists.” (Emphasis their own.) In Lily’s case, it’s hard for me to accept her call to stand up against industry forces that celebrate material excess and limited expressions of sexuality when there’s a little bit of a holier-than-thou attitude coming through.

Which I guess brings me back to my first reaction to the video: It seems to echo something Rashida Jones said on Twitter last month. Jones called out celebrities for “acting like whores” and showing too much skin, and, while I love Rashida Jones, it made me cringe a little. The critiques of her comments that captured my feelings best were the ones that quoted Tina Fey from Mean Girls: "[Women] have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”

And, ultimately, Lily acknowledges the problem is the skeezeball industry gatekeepers who get to ask questions like, “How does somebody let themselves get like this?" in reference to pregnancy weight. But I didn’t get the impression she’s refrained from judging women who choose to shake their butt or show some skin. 

Fetters: Yeah. Totally. “I don’t need to shake my ass for you ‘cause I’ve got a brain” is unnecessarily either/or, right? That’s just one more oppressively one-dimensional idea that women have to behave one certain way. There’s no law of physics preventing a woman who thinks from shaking her ass, as long as she wants to!

That’s another part of why I feel like the rap-video girls joining in with Allen and dropping the act at the end could have been helpfulit would have been nice to see that, yes, even the women who are behaving according to this industry standard are people with another dimension outside of what they perform. At the end of the video, it would have been great to know that while many of the women in this video do, indeed, shake their asses with impunity, they, too, are real people with thoughts and sore feet and maybe depleted patience.

So, maybe it's fair to say that this is proof that every music video director should consult with a team of sociologists and gender studies professors before proceeding with a shoot. Kidding—but what I would say is that the takeaway here is great intention, flawed execution.

Feeney: Yup. The other takeaway: Thank goodness Lily Allen is making music again. We could use her perspective more often.

Nolan Feeney and Ashley Fetters

Nolan Feeney writes for and produces The Atlantic's Entertainment Channel. Ashley Fetters is an associate editor at The Atlantic


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