“Blurred Lines” in Popular Culture

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser asserts that the social process of interpollation offers individuals specific identities and encourages them to accept certain social roles. Rather than functioning through violent force, oppressive ideologies encourage individuals to view and accept themselves as dominant or submissive, for example, with education, mass media, and religion shaping how the individual behaves within the larger group. Ideologies are most effective when they proliferate quietly and invisibly, seeming so much a part of daily life that we simply don’t question them.

Certainly the animalization of women — and women’s sexuality in particular — provides an example of this. As past posts have discussed, early modern women were often described as hyenas, harpies, nags, and horses; the animalistic language associated with women had material effects, and it became socially justifiable to treat women as those animals, disciplining them through the use of the scold’s bridle or through beatings allowed by the Rule of Thumb. While these concepts at times shock modern readers, they aren’t as foreign as they seem. Indeed, these vocabularies persist in political debates regarding women’s sexuality, rape, and reproductive rights. Appearing in overtly public spaces, animalistic language often generates protest reactions: how dare politicians, the state, or other dominant groups belittle women’s humanness? Yet as Althusser noted, we ourselves aid in its perpetuation — interpollated as we are to see popular culture as a “harmless” space.

Take, for example, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” in which the male speaker addresses the “good girl” who, he is convinced, “must want to get nasty” with him (1).  Featured at clubs and on the AT40, the song is also number one on Spotify. Yet the song is more than a simple, catchy tune. As recent  feminist criticism has discussed, the lyrics’ repetition of “you know you want it, you know you want it” echoes the kind of victim-blaming that still accompanies sexual assault in court rooms and the media.  Such debate opens us toward acknowledging that Thicke’s song does more than “blur lines” between the social and sexual expectations placed on men and women,  as  Thicke insists in interviews; it further blurs our ability to identify consent and non-consent and troubles the dichotomy that attempts to define neatly  “good” and “bad” girls (2).

These issues are of clear interest to us at Performing Humanity. Even more relevant to our work is that these arguments get pushed further when we consider how Thicke’s song addresses the lines between animal and human — and human women most of all:

Ok, now he was close, tried to domesticate you

But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate you

You don’t need no papers

That man is not your maker (1)

In an Althusserian sense, the song taps into and perpetuates conceptions of sexual women as animalistic — language of domestication, taming, breeding, and pedigreeing are part and parcel of this. “Blurred Lines” is, of course, not unique in this sense (one only need turn on the radio, for example, and listen to the lyrics of Flo-Rida’s “Wild Ones”). Things become increasingly complicated, though, when we consider how songs like these also undermine the structures in which they participate. What empowering possibilities exist when we consider that domestication or pedigreed breeding are presented as undesirable? What happens when the voice expressing desire for domination, as in the case of “Wild Ones,” is a woman’s? (3)  After all, in recent scholarship the work of queer theorist and renaissance specialist Melissa Sanchez and, in popular culture, novels such as Fifty Shades of Gray, have drawn attention to the empowering possibilities of transgressive and violent sexualities.

Performing Humanity invites further discussion on all sides of the issue — in Comments or through formal Submissions.



(1) Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines,” Blurred Lines (Star Trak LLC, 2013).

(2) Bruno Nessif, “Robin Thicke Slams ‘Ridiculous’ Criticism Over ‘Blurred Lines’ Lyrics,” E! Online (July 9, 2013).

(3) Flo-Rida, “Wild Ones,” Wild Ones (Atlantic Records, 2013).

About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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