A few years ago (2009), this was in the news. (Summary:The Compliment Guys of Purdue University).
And so was this. (Summary: Are the Compliment Guys Street Harassers?)
The debate over Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines has, for the last few weeks, brought the latter of these two articles to mind for this reason:
The article questions whether or not the Free Compliment Guys were engaging in some form of street harassment of women, which the article seems to define as the dispensing of unsolicited compliments to women by men.
Laci Green recently discussed Street Harassment, offering a fairly expansive definition here.
While this video was created a number of years post-Compliment Guys, Ms. Green’s explanation is consistent with how I’ve heard others before her describe the experience of Street Harassment.
That being the case, it didn’t seem to me that the actions of the Compliment Guys met this criteria. For one, they complimented everyone, regardless of age, gender, what they were wearing, how they looked, etc. In fact, being all –inclusive and finding something good in everyone was the point. The also had a sign that clearly stated their intentions and were mindful of being invasive on anyone’s space. In fact, in the New York Times article penned by one of the Compliment Guys, he stated that he decided against dispensing free hugs based partially on the fact that not everyone is comfortable with physical engagement with strangers.
From all that, it seemed to me that not only were the Compliment Guys NOT engaging in street harassment, they were actively taking steps to avoid it.
In reading the Salon.com article that questioned their motives, I responded that not only did what they were doing NOT seem sexist, but, also that stating that what there were doing was sexist was, itself, sexist. To ascribing the actions of the Compliment Guys as being sexist, one would have to:
1) Ignore the fact that they were complimenting everyone, men and women
2) Assume that the Compliment Guys were straight
3) Assume that remarks like “I like your shoes” or “great hair” carried different meanings depending if a man was saying it to a man or a woman
4) Assume that a man giving a woman a compliment is done solely to objectify her and that a man giving that same compliment to another man is giving a compliment
5) Assume that compliments given by men to women are exactly that: Compliments given by Men to Women rather than one PERSON complimenting another PERSON
As all of the above illustrate bias on the basis of gender, the argument characterizing the Compliment Guys as sexist is a form of sexism.
Fast forward to 2013 and the widespread buzz over Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Declared by some to be the “Rapey-est” song of 2013, some suggest that the words are a straight shot of rape culture, not so subtlety lyricizing the language often used by rapists to justify their horrible crimes (“I know you want it” being held up as a glaring example). And while I admit that I can see the validity of that interpretation, based on my prior exposure to the articles cited above, I can also see several other interpretations that are equally as valid, including one in which the woman described in the song is behaving in a manner that were a man doing the same to a woman, would be characterized as sexually aggressive, (“The way you grab me, you must want to get nasty” and “I feel so lucky, you want to hug me”, for example) with the difference being that the man being grabbed is seemingly receptive to both the advances and the manner in which they are being made.
Furthermore, the lyrics could also be said to suggest that the woman in question might be actively trying to shed the “good girl” image that she felt compelled to conform to for the sake her relationship and engage in what could be characterized as “wilder behavior”. An interpretation that Robin Thicke himself describes in a BBC interview cited by Truth-Out.org
The BBC asked Thicke what the lyrics mean. He replied, “For me it was about blurring the lines between – two things – one between men and women and how much we’re the same. Like my wife, she’s as strong as I am, as smart – if not smarter, stronger and she’s an animal too and she doesn’t need a man to define her or to define her existence. So the song was really about women are everything a man is and can do anything a man can do. And then there’s the other side of it which is the blurred lines between a good girl and bad girl which, you know, even very good girls have a little bad side to them. You know you just have to know how to pull it out of them.”
Could Blurred Lines could mean the line between Consent and Coercion and contemplating crossing it? Certainly. Could it also mean the line between a “good girl” and a “bad girl”, the lines between teasing and foreplay, the line between flirtation and frustration? Absolutely. It could, as with the Compliment Guys, also be a glaring example of sexism via a backhanded dismissal female sexuality by assuming that the actions of the man in the song are driving the encounter rather than the woman’s bold method of asserting and communicating her sexual desire. (And while the video might make those blurred lines a little more distinct for some people, I would caution against the practice of assuming that a video for a song is reflective of the intent behind it or the beliefs of the performer. If we slide down that slope, then there should be more musicians in prison than there are. Videos are often a medium for an artist to act out a fantasy, or at least appear to be behaving in a way that they never would – Committing murder, mayhem and misogyny/misandry being among them).
Labeling something as part of rape culture when it can be validly, reasonably argued that it could be something else entirely, or, indeed, the exact opposite, is something that should be approached with careful consideration. Too often, being quick to apply a label – any label – makes it almost impossible to remove it later even when the facts warrant or even demand it. Additionally, erroneous application of the label in one case may cause others to question future use, even when entirely appropriate. Turning “Rape Culture” into a catchall term for things that we CAN interpret as being a part or product of rape culture, regardless of whether or not it is, only dilutes the meaning of the phrase to buzzword irrelevance.
Blurred Lines, like any piece of art (and, whether I like it or not, it is someone’s art) is open for interpretation, and that interpretation will largely be based on the cultural experiences of the beholder. Media, driven by the quest for ratings, page views and the increased ad revenue these produce, often report and re-report more extreme interpretations and experiences because sensationalism translates directly into dollars. The more a particular individual’s cultural experience is reported on, the more that single experience is “normalized”; the more “normalized” that experience becomes, the more likely others will be led to believe that that particular cultural experience is THE cultural experience.
And perhaps that is where the focus of concern should rightfully be: the critical need for cultural literacy in a diverse population. There are as many points of view as there are people, and teaching people that their cultural and real-life experiences have value and contribute a broader understanding of the world and others in it prevents smaller, louder and often more extreme groups from dominating the conversation and making their interpretation of an event, occurrence or situation THE interpretation. It also helps keep people who work to fight a social ill – be it rape culture, racism, sexism, etc.- from seeing those things everywhere, behind everything and in everyone, because they just aren’t.
With social media rapidly becoming the dominant form of communication and engagement, opinions that are often cited as fact, misinformation – deliberately manufactured or otherwise – , and fake news often indistinguishable from the real thing can spread across the globe in an instant. Cultural Literacy Education teaches discernment and creates a context in which topics like Rape Culture, Informed Consent, Media Bias, Cyber Etiquette, Anti-Bullying Campaigns, NOH8, Responsible Use of Social Media, Cross-Cultural Sensitivity, Gender Relations and a host of other subjects can be discussed academically to ensure that the next generation of Netizens are well-equipped to engage with the 21st century with civility, respect and healthy skepticism online and off. Cultural Literacy Education can help strengthen an individual’s skills of self-expression, giving them both the knowledge that their perspective matters, balanced with the awareness that everyone else’s does, too.
Am I saying that Cultural Literacy will answer the questions of whether or not paying strangers compliments on the streets is a form of harassment, or whether or not Blurred Lines is rape-tacular? No. But I am saying it will go a long way towards teaching people how to answer those questions for themselves thoughtfully and intelligently, and prepare them to defend their answer, should they choose, when called upon to do so.
And there is nothing indistinct about the value of that.