Seattle “boylesque” troupe Mod Carousel's video parody of Robin Thicke’s #BlurredLines, is as provocative as the original, though in a considerably more nuanced and interesting way. According to the group, they made the video to “show a spectrum of sexuality” and to show that “women can be strong and sexy without negative repercussions.” However, a closer viewing shows that although the video is intended to be a parody, it features its own representational issues.
In a video world where the men dance naked and the women get attention for talent and swagger
In the parody video, the women inhabiting the male roles from Thicke’s video (Caela Bailey as Thicke; Sydni Deveraux as Pharrell; and Dalisha Phillips as T.I.), are bigger and stronger looking than the men. Two of the men represent as stereotypically, effeminately gay – they have smooth, hairless bodies, sport heels and bejeweled thongs, and wear makeup.* In contrast, the third man looks potentially straight or bisexual because he wears sneakers with his plain white thong (sans sparkles) as he rocks his tiny patch of chest hair, some stubble, and his noticeably taller, more muscular frame.* He looks at bit like Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights (Taylor Kitsch) and seems to be antagonizing the male gaze, while the others either pose for it or passively respond to it. In this way, he adopts the power position in the looker/looked at dyad, and reads as more conventionally “masculine” than the other men as he does so.
In one way I love this video, because we get to see something that has become rare in popular culture – women who demonstrate legitimate swagger, charm, and humor without having to be naked or otherwise objectified in the process. They’re wearing looser clothing than we typically see on female entertainers, and they are constructed as funny while singing, not posing, prancing, or working a pole in public performance. In these gender busting roles, which are always fun to watch, we also get to recognize their vocal talent, as we are not totally fixated on their physical appearance.
But when we see the objects of their alleged desire, this victory becomes hollow and jokey. These men are clearly constructed as props for the male gaze, as were the topless women in the original video, so the message we ultimately receive is women can be powerful, but only if they use said power over effeminate men, who would not likely wish to go home with them under any circumstances.
Thicke, and Bailey-as-Thicke, inhabit their power positions differently. Thicke assumes the attention of the women parading past him and even reads as thinking he’s too cool for them at times. Thicke appears so entrenched in his own narcissism and hamming it up for the camera that it’s actually sort of surprising when he’s occasionally distracted from his own awesomeness by one of these naked, model-esque women. In contrast, even though Bailey is cast as the pursuant/aggressor, she works hard to get the attention of the men, engaging with them more fully and more often. And when the climactic “you the hottest bitch in this place” line arrives, the “compliment” is changed to “dick,” but the line is not delivered aggressively, with a finger pointed in the face, as it is in the original. Rather, the camera pans away from the objectified man as the line lands, and one woman sings it to the camera, while the other sings it to a stuffed tiger.
The commutation test used in semiotics, which can be applied to all kinds of texts including ads and videos, helps reveal what’s so troubling about the original video. The basic idea of the commutation test is that if you change the age, gender, race/ethnicity, or ability of the players, you might reveal something new about the relationship—in this case between the aggressor and the pursued. The gender flip further blurs the lines, but it also clarifies them.
*Note: Obviously, gay men have as many different “looks” as straight men. But ads and pop cultural products are often encoded with cultural shorthand that makes people read or register in certain ways, (e.g., there is a dominant way of seeing, but we can negotiate with it or reject it entirely, as cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall indicates).