I Love You, Lily Allen, But "Hard Out Here" Is Not My Feminist Anthem

Intent doesn't mean much when what you're doing is still causing damage by perpetuating racist stereotypes.
Publish date:
November 14, 2013
feminism, music, race

I am a long time, hardcore Lily Allen fan.

Listening to "LDN" from her first album will instantly transport me back to sunny summer days spent driving with the windows down and smoking cigarettes with my girls while yelling "Sun is in the sky, oh why oh why, Would I wanna be anywhere else?" at the top of our lungs.

Each song comes tied with it some kind of fond personal memory locked away in my brain, each word memorized from having been sung over and over again in my horrible imitation of a British accent.

I love her raunch, her unapologetic approach to addressing societal issues with body image and sexuality, and her ability to create addictive musical hooks that lodge themselves into my brain without leaving for days.

But all things considered, not even I am willing to ignore the mistakes she has made in her latest comeback after a 4-year hiatus.

Allen is considered a white feminist artist, and thus must be used to subjecting herself to feminist criticism.

She has described her new album as having "feminist vibes" and many of her fans are prominent white feminists who are already calling her new song "Hard Out Here" a "feminist anthem."

At a surface level the song, lyrics, and video appear to be brought together under a satirical umbrella that is both considered and clever, as she makes valid statements about the misogynistic double standards women face in pop culture and in society at large.

But at a deeper level, while her intentions are good, it is obvious that Allen did not fully consider how best to approach the issue of cultural appropriation and use of black female bodies in her video.

As a result her execution is glaringly, unfortunately flawed.

In the wake of the video's release, intersectional feminists and social justice bloggers quickly responded that Allen probably could have done without spotlighting scantily-clad booties while using black women as props. Despite her satirical intentions, the imagery and way they were represented was still harmful.

While she mocked Miley Cyrus and other white female artists who sexualize and objectify black female bodies in their own videos, it appeared she did not realize that she was inadvertently being just as racist as the artists she was evidently targeting.

In short: it's all a mind-bending pop culture political clusterf#@k of weirdness, in which the blurred lines (lololol see what I did there) between awareness and perpetuation of problematic issues become hard to decipher.

Because I am white, I will never truly understand what it's like to see my body used the way women of color are portrayed in the media -- and neither will Allen.

But I can open up my mind to how casual racism is a thing that exists to perpetuate systematic oppression in our culture and I can listen to people of color who are kind enough to be like "Hey white girls, this is how NOT to do things" -- because in doing so, I can only stand to learn something important.

Take for instance, this poignant summary of the video by blogger Black In Asia:

"The video is meant to be a critique and satire of popular culture and manages some deserved jabs at Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” videos among others, but in the end it just reduces itself down to elevating Lily Allen’s white female body and objectifying and utterly denigrating those of the black female dancers she deliberately surrounds herself with from start to finish."

The post continues to break down each problematic aspect of the video in a way that shows Allen's unfortunate ignorance about racial issues and implications.

There are also quite a few bones to pick within the lyrics themselves, depending on what sort of ideologies you take issue with.

For instance, I am all about supporting the reclamation of formerly venomous, sexist words like "bitch," so I don't find Allen's use of the word to be particularly offensive. Just as Beyonce has proclaimed "BOW DOWN, BITCHES!" I can happily pump my fist along to "It's hard out here, for a bitch!" -- a phrase that usually caters to "pimps," but in my mind has been successfully turned around in favor of empowerment.

Some feminists are very strongly against this method of thinking, which I think comes down to a matter of personal understanding. There are no "wrong" or "right" opinions on this particular issue, in my mind -- and I will always encourage the continued nature of awareness, speculation and right to preference.

Especially regarding the controversial line: "Don't need to shake my arse for you, because I've got a brain."

I initially did not take offense to this line and interpreted it as: "Yeah I’ve got a brain, I know what you’re after, and I’ll shake my arse for myself or however I want regardless, kay thanks."

Others believed Allen was implying that women who shake their ass (for a living or otherwise) must not have brains.

Allen was kind enough to clear this up via Twitter:


The line "Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits" has also been criticized as transphobic, in that it so directly ties the identification of womanhood with genitals, and as a result is rather insensitive to trans* individuals struggling with body dysmorphia. Allen may have meant it as a take on the phrase "growing a pair," but to me the implications are hard to ignore once they've been pointed out, and it raises a fair point; should we not be more aware of what does or does not make a woman a woman?

I absolutely LIVE for pop culture and these sort of massive moments that punctuate the fabric of social media and beyond, as the ripple effect so accurately represents the current state of our ever-shifting culture.

I had hoped that Ms Allen would take the criticism reasonably. I hoped that she would understand where she went wrong, and how she could make it right with a simple apology and mindful move forward. I prayed that she wouldn't go the way of other prominent white feminists who close their eyes to race issues in favor of wiping their hands clean of responsibility and clinging tightly to the supposed innocence of their intent.

Because intent doesn't mean much when what you're doing is still causing damage by perpetuating racist stereotypes.

Allen posted a response to the controversy on Twitter Wednesday afternoon that appears to miss the point I think a lot of intersectional feminists have been trying to make over and over again.

This isn't about the simple act of featuring black women in videos -- it's about HOW they are featured. Themes of objectification and sexualization are hard to satirize when the audience is not given a chance to identify with the women being featured. Instead we only identify them by close-ups of their crotches, or the way champagne cascades down their curves. Allen could have been smarter in her execution. She could have brought the brains, the faces, and the bodies together to make a better statement.

Instead, the dancers exist as they do in every other degrading video: as objectified bodies.

I do appreciate that she did well enough to identify her dancers in her response to criticism, which is more than Miley has ever done -- but in my mind, that connection came a little too late, and was tacked onto the end of a non-apology in which she still refrains from holding herself accountable for anything.

Girl, let me tell you this: It is OK to own up to your bad decisions and recognize the privilege and power you hold as a white female artist. Really, it is.

It doesn't mean that you're a bad person, it just means that you made a mistake -- and I have to believe that you want to take that shit back and do something better with it.

I'll continue to listen to and enjoy your music while dancing to my heart's content, but it'd be cool if you could be more mindful while touching on such heavily important issues. That's all I'm asking.