Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: The problem with hipster sexism

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A scene from the Blurred Lines music video.
A scene from the Blurred Lines music video.

There's not a huge amount left to say about Blurred Lines, the equally popular and loathed Robin Thicke song about tearing women's asses in two. Plenty of writers have already dissected its problematic lyrics and done a deft job of it.

And only those in serious denial could argue its banal music video - in which topless women accessorise fully clothed men, who shift smugly about in that unperturbed manner only the truly self-entitled seem to possess - isn't toxic.

What's worth unpacking further is the "hipster sexism" Thicke represents, because not only is this phenomenon just as damaging as "classic" sexism, it can also be more more elusory and insidious.

Hipster sexism - for the record - is when women are "jokingly" denigrated by men who are in the "know". The idea that if sexism is tongue-in-cheek, it's alright.

Or, as NY Mag writer Alissa Quart is often quoted as putting it: "Hipster Sexism consists of the objectification of women but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox: the stuff you learned about in literature class".

These are left-leaning and supposedly enlightened men, gay and straight, who call their female friends sluts and skanks - but do it with irony. Which, akin to "I was joking!" post-insult, supposedly erases the offense. Their sexism goes under the radar more easily because despite its perpetuation of offensive ideologies, it's self aware.

"Classic" sexism, on the other hand, is transparent, aggressive and misinformed.

The term stems from Racialicious cofounder Carmen Van Kerckhove, who, in an 2006 article talked about "hipster racism": the use of irony and satire to mask bigotry. Since then it's been written about here and there, notably by S.E.Smith in her 2009 article Liberal Sexism, in which she states: "One of the great myths of our democratic society is that liberals can't be sexist (or racist, classist, ableist...), by default, simply because of their intrinsic liberal nature."

How can you spot hipster sexism? One defining factor is that the satire, or irony, isn't built around any genuine criticism of misogyny. Take the achingly hip and exploitative ads of American Apparel. Or hipster hero Terry Richardson: a rich, straight, white male fashion photographer who's given free reign to dehumanise women because he appropriates kitsch.

Why are we okay with "Uncle Terry"? He's a creepy body fascist whose "work" consists of shoving naked young women in our faces with absolutely no context whatsoever. Is it because he's "one of us" - a liberal, self-aware guy who simply can't be a misogynist because he doesn't look like one?

To wit, here's Thicke in an interview for GQ just before Blurred Lines started getting him in trouble:

"We tried to do everything that was taboo ... everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, 'We're the perfect guys to make fun of this.'

"People say, 'Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?' I'm like, 'Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I've never gotten to do that before. I've always respected women.'"

Robin Thicke and and his wife Paula Patton.Photo / AP
Robin Thicke and and his wife Paula Patton.Photo / AP

If those quotes make no sense to you, it's because they make no sense. He's allowed to dehumanise women because he's been married a long time? He's earned the chance to degrade women because he's done his time respecting them? These things are okay to do because he has enough self-awareness to know they're not okay to do?

Another key problem with hipster sexism is that it suggests true misogyny is dead. Hipsterism is, after all, the practice of dredging up the past, the deeply non-ironic, and repurposing it for novel fun.

But sexism never went anywhere in the first place, and there's nothing novel or subversive in using naked women to decorate music videos. If anything, it's subversive not to. As Naomi Wolf once said: "to live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren't is to learn inequality in little ways all day long."

Then there's the idea that tongue-in-cheek sexism somehow helps advance the feminist cause. That it's a meta proclamation with layers of self-reflexivity to distinguish it from those who really mean it. You know, the real sexists. Again, Thicke:

"...I think that's what great art does. It's supposed to stir conversation, it's supposed to make us talk about what's important and what the relationship between men and women is, but if you listen to the lyrics it says 'That man is not your maker' - it's actually a feminist movement within itself."

Obviously, the only "blurred lines" that exist when it comes to "tongue-in-cheek" sexism are in the heads of those that practice it. Because as they jokingly call their female friends skanks, 13-year-old girls are being described as "predatory" in rape cases. By judges. And as they laughingly tell you to get back into the kitchen where you "belong", women in various countries are actually living like prisoners in their own home.

Adding to the murk is the fact women find it harder to call out hipster sexism, because it's dressed up as the zeitgeist. Which makes her look like an outdated killjoy should she take and voice exception. Cue: "It's commentary, not real - don't you get it?" "Relax - he doesn't actually think that! Can't you take a joke?"

Thing is, while the sexism might be dripping with ironic reference, they still bare the weight of ideologies that exist in current, everyday life. More importantly: THE JOKE IS STILL NOT ON THE MISOGYNYSTS. It's on women.

I'd wager there's a hierarchy of harm, though. It's one thing for someone you love and trust to joke that you're a slut; it's quite another for pop culture to teach society women are worthless under the guise of enlightenment.

The latter is important for obvious reasons: Who's to say a 13-year-old boy will "get" the irony of what he's watching? Will a hint of self-referential satire stop a 15-year-old girl from absorbing the message she's the sum of her physical parts?

So what's driving the phenomenon?

Contemporary culture now takes place in an outspoken, lightening-fast, and more democratic online world, one in which which misogyny is increasingly called out. This is a side step, or loophole - a new way to keep women down, and naked, while distancing yourself from recrimination. (Though Robin Thicke certainly didn't escape reproach, which gives me some hope.)

On an individual level, it's a similar deal. You joke to your female friend she's a "hussy" for having a one night stand, but secretly you think she's a bit of a hussy. You want to watch Girls Gone Wild, but that's tacky, so you laud Harmony Karine's Spring Break instead.

It's also used as a posturing tool, a platform from which to broadcast liberalism and highlight intellectual (and political) superiority. Which is just another way to use women as ego-boosters and therefore closer to the source of your mockery than you realise.

Basically, if you're really so "meta", or "post", or dettached from sexist discourse - if sexist rhetoric doesn't mean anything or have any power any more - what's it doing on the tip of your tongue?

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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