Robin Thicke, previously known as a low-rate yet harmless Justin Timberlake style R&B singer, has become synonymous with misogyny, rape culture and general douchebag traits in the mere year that has passed since his wildly popular song Blurred Lines topped the charts around the world. Thanks to the decidedly rapey nature of the song, coupled with the video featuring three grown and very married men draping themselves in passive naked models, conversations were ignited worldwide about the state of the music industry and its attitudes towards women, among many other topics. Thicke’s reputation as the personification of the male mid-life crisis has only increased since the announcement of his newest album Paula, which seems to act as a one man guilt trip directed at his now ex-wife Paula Patton as he attempts to woo her back. Reviews haven’t been kind, to say the least. Who would have thought a mid-budget musical public black-mailing would make so many people feel uneasy?
Nobody will be especially sad to see Thicke’s career go up in flames given his behaviour, wilful obtuseness towards the many criticisms of his biggest hit and total inability to handle a private issue with grace and maturity. Yet as the 100% justified pile-on of Thicke continues, from multiple university campuses banning Blurred Lines to the End Violence Against Women Coalition naming him Sexist of the Year, perhaps it’s time for us to take a step back and look at some context.
The world is full of Robin Thickes.
Culture is full of Robin Thickes.
And we’ve tolerated and celebrated them for years.
We still do!
Let’s take a look at the basic model of Robin Thicke as we currently know him today. He’s a relatively handsome man (although his resemblance to Simon Cowell must be noted) who specialised in romantic songs with a sexy edge. His biggest hit tried to play up the role of the alpha male, one whose sexual charisma is so potent that women can’t help but want it. He knows you want it, he knows you’re just as wild as he is, and if you just let him in then you can have the sexy times to end all sexy times.
No need to say no because he knows you want it.
There’s a scene in the New York Times best-selling YA novel Hush Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick where, after intimidating, stalking and harassing the heroine Nora throughout the course of the book, the fallen angel Patch holds Nora down against the bed (while she’s half naked) and gloats in her face as he talks about how easily he could kill her.
He’s the romantic hero. We’re supposed to root for him to kiss her. Which he does, in that very scene.
That may seem like an extreme example, yet for a long time it felt like this was the standard romantic trope in post-Twilight YA romance. From Bella being used as a chew toy between Edward and Jacob to Luce in Fallen (soon to be a major feature film) being treated like dirt by the resident ‘bad boy’ to Maia in The Mortal Instruments series taking back the guy who punched her and forcibly turned her into a werewolf, the metaphors in play are obvious and the messages are clear.
And this doesn’t even include 50 Shades of Grey, or Beautiful Disaster and the plethora of New Adult romance that glories in this,or the “no means yes” trope favoured in romance novels of the 80s, or every creaky British sitcom from the 70s that treated women like objects to be groped and mocked as they wore short skirts, or Baby It’s Cold Outside, or every song that calls women ‘bitches’, or every romantic comedy where a woman has to be emotionally worn down in order to be receptive to the designated love interest’s advances, or The Taming of the Shrew, or every time we’ve used the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ to justify the harassment of young girls and women.
I could go on but we’d be here for days.
Robin Thicke is but one in a long line of misogyny in pop culture that permeates every corner of our media, and for a long time we’ve celebrated it. We’ve called it ‘sexy’ and ignored the criticisms by saying ‘it’s just a book/song/film/game/etc’.
It’s easier to point to a player in the game and say they’re the problem than to tackle the game itself. To single out one individual for their crimes and take them on as if they’re the sole perpetrator of misogyny is not without merit but it can often miss the bigger picture. Thicke’s the target du jour because he’s so blatant in his pursuit of his ex-wife, seemingly viewing her as an object to be won rather than an autonomous being worthy of respect, and because he’s in the public eye. It’s the same pattern for most of pop culture.
Thicke also represents a tipping point of bullshit. He’s jumped the shark to misogyny, so to speak. Plenty of musicians have written break up songs, many of them visceral in their takedown of their turbulent relationships. Ever listened to Fleetwood Mac? Here, the difference is that Thicke’s songs aren’t so much a post-mortem as an ongoing project. His ex-wife has become an object for him to “win”, and he’s demanding the attention of the general public to do so because historically speaking our culture rewards men like him over the women they subject to harassment. Similar tactics are employed whenever anyone tries to spin obvious abuse as something we should consider flattering or romantic. If you say it enough times, it must be true, right?
Fortunately for common sense and decency, Thicke’s album is unlikely to exceed 30,000 sales in its first week, making it an official flop. The Cool Guy façade can only last so long, it seems, but Thicke’s decline and fall probably doesn’t signal a wider change for the better. That’ll only happen when we take on every aggression of bigotry, not just that directed at white cis women. Having the discussions is a great place to start. Thicke, James, Fitzpatrick & society at large may not like it but hey (and you knew I was going to do this), I know they want it.