Pharrell's understanding of sexism is more than a little blurry

According to the singer, it's possible for men to celebrate the female form in a completely apolitical way

 

Share

Pharrell Williams loves women. He has been telling us so all year: at a recent press conference, he announced the "phenomenal" force of women in his life and work, and his album of last month, G I R L, is a ten-track paean to the fair sex, a lusty celebration, each song a disco-inflected, funk-riffed, light-hearted hymn to desire. But the respectful kind.

Williams is keen to let us know that his own pleasure is not all he’s pursuing: in last week’s new single, ‘Come Get it Bae’,  he assures the hot lady of his affections that he will ‘do anything you like/...anything you need.’

There’s a reason for all this. Williams is making amends for ‘Blurred Lines’, the hugely popular Robin Thicke song of 2013 on which he featured.

The song was heavily criticised for its attitude to women. It was described as ‘kind of rapey’ by one commentator, and its video was banned in student unions across the country.

G I R L is Williams' apologia for the misdemeanours of 2013; it is a seductive attempt to woo womankind back into the fold.

But what really caught my attention about the whole campaign was an unexpected cultural parallel used by Williams in defence of the profusion of breasts in his music videos.

At a recent press conference, Williams asked gathered journalists: "Is it sexist when you walk around a museum and … the statues have their boobs out?"

Aligning his music videos with museum's artifacts is a clear attempt to claim freedom for himself from interpretations of ‘sexism’. But does it work?

According to Williams, his videos and songs are merely aesthetic, and incapable of carrying other meanings - political, ethical, historical or otherwise. They are apolitical.

Except they are not. And neither are the statues lining the halls of museums (just ask Guerilla Girls). Both clearly convey the role of women at the time they were made, and cannot be separated from this political and social context.

By drawing parallels between his work and the exalted status of the museum (a place of "serious" art), Williams is confusing prestige with immunity from political critique.

We can see this if we have a look at some of these museum boobs. In the paintings from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, displayed in the British Museum, the wealthy Egyptian official is seen indulging in his worldly wealth and power.

Around the richly-dressed men and women eating and drinking, are several servant-women, some serving, some dancing. Like Emily Ratajkowski three millennia later, all are naked except for a girdle around their hips.

"Sexist" may be an anachronistic term to apply to ancient Egyptian art, but we can certainly say that these images shows us a powerful man using his wealth to buy access to naked female flesh.

So: rich, powerful men paying women to take their clothes off and dance: sound familiar? The video to "Blurred Lines" demonstrates that there is still a economic dynamic of power between clothed men and unclothed women; and that women’s bodies are still vehicles for commerce.

Yet neither the Nebamun paintings nor ‘Blurred Lines’ can be reduced to a single meaning. Rather, they are part of a rich, complex interpretive pattern around each object.

Restricting anything to labels such as "sexist" or "artistic" can only limit this pattern, and reduce the conversation.

Wherever they may be, representations of women’s bodies are various, rich and complex - so let our ways of reading them be that way too. 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
SEEN graffiti Wonder Woman  

Warner Bros’ bold stance on Wonder Woman opens the door for Hollywood evolution

Matthew James
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us