Hard Out Here for a White Feminist

by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

British singer Lily Allen has released “Hard Out Here,” her first single since 2009, and the accompanying video is quite the piece of work, in an extreme “WTF, DOG” way.

It starts out promising enough: Lily’s lying on an operating table being liposuctioned by rough doctors with American and British accents. They prod her and marvel at the amount of fat she must have removed. Her manager stands bedside, reporting to her which late-night hosts have rejected her services. “How can somebody let themselves get like this, you know?” he complains. She responds sweetly, “Well I’ve had two babies!” The manager shakes his head. It’s all good, winking commentary on the entertainment industry’s rigid, unsympathetic body standards. We can get down with that, no? We’re all familiar with the disapproving tabloid headlines about how pregnant celebrities have “ballooned,” and then the praise heaped upon them when they whip their “post-baby bodies” into shape in record times. It’s unrealistic. Let Lily Allen have babies like a normal, my dudes!

Things go south right around the time the vocals drop in: “I suppose I should tell you, what this bitch is thinking.” Go on… “You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen.” Preach! And? “I won’t be braggin’ bout my cars, or talkin’ bout my chains, don’t need to shake my ass for you cause I’ve got a brain.”

OHHHH!!!!!! FOUL, LILY. And therein begin the false equivalencies — that bragging about material goods is exclusively stupid (and not, say, aspirational or representational), and that women who dance or shake their asses are stupid. The latter is made especially ironic by the fact that Allen has chosen to populate her video with women, mostly of color, who twerk in slow motion and pour champagne down their breasts like errant ejaculate. These are all things that we have seen in rap videos, of course, but it doesn’t make it any better if it’s executed under the guise of satire: this is the exact kind of shit that got Nelly banned from Spelman and BET Uncut cancelled.

Of course, we see similar representations in pop culture every day, and they’re often demeaning to black women, but Lily Allen (and director Chris Sweeney) presenting the exact same images ironically and as critique is the ultimate in white feminist privilege, and another side of the demonic die that is “hipster racism.” She is critiquing a brand of misogyny that, until this year’s Miley Cyrus outbreak, has not been especially appropriated outside of hip hop, and certainly not within the somewhat off-kilter pop sphere in which Allen typically operates. It is the precise generalization that had some lobbing searing feminist critique at Lorde’s “Royals,” but manifested in an adult who has ostensibly spent time engaging in both American cultural dynamics, and more specifically with rap culture, since her first album Alright, Still was specifically influenced by hip-hop.

Of course, hip hop is touchy with outsiders critiquing the culture, precisely because it is often so racially charged. This is not to discount Allen’s cameo on the 2007 Common track “Drivin’ Me Wild,” in which he actually says the line, “They say it’s hard for a pimp, but it’s extra hard for these hoes,” and tells a story that critiques a certain lifestyle in a more complicated fashion than the with-us-or-against-us approach of “Hard Out Here.” Both Allen’s and Common’s “hard out here”s refer to “Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” Three 6 Mafia’s Oscar-winning track for Hustle & Flow, and is exactly as dark as you might expect. But it came out all the way back in 2005, a belated reference that underscores how Allen is essentially dropping in on a world she’s not a part of, using women of color to rip it to pieces. She is using racism to skewer sexism, and it is unfortunately a familiar tack.

Watching the video, for the first and fifth and sixth times, I couldn’t help but think that also in its crosshairs — beyond the obviously Miley/Thicke one-two-punch — was Azealia Banks, the rapper with whom Allen tweet-beefed earlier this year. I still don’t even know what started it, and I am well aware that Banks is well known for her vulgar, off-the-cuff, and ill-advised Twitter beefs (disclosure: Banks tweeted earlier this year that she thinks I am the only person who should be writing about hip-hop, ha). They exchanged some ugly words, but the fact that the beef culminated in Allen posting a racist image of a brown penis dressed up in, well, blackface, if a penis can be wearing blackface (NSFW), is something I keep returning to. All beefs between women in music, whether on Twitter or IRL, both depress and (ashamedly) fascinate me — particularly for how they reflect the way the patriarchal industry tends to pit women against one another in order to squeeze out a multiplicity of women’s voices. But the fact that Allen’s response was ultimately to resort to blatant racism was telling.

Allen’s dick tweet, as with the “Hard Out Here” video, reads like the the ultimate in “white feminism,” an example of the insular and anti-intersectional types of occurrences that led writer Mikki Kendall to coin the phrase “#solidarityisforwhitewomen,” or leads other women of color who embrace feminist tenets to find new words to describe themselves, like “womanist” or “xicanista.” It’s a feminism whose white privilege is so acute and steel-hardy that it does not acknowledge — or, more ominously, even realize — that the issues women of color face are complex and multifarious. Allen has issued a statement directed towards those accusing her of racism; in it she writes that her “being covered up has nothing to do with me wanting to disassociate myself from the girls, it has more to do with my own insecurities and I just wanted to feel as comfortable as possible on the shoot day.” She is seemingly unaware that by choosing to “cover up” but having her dancers wear pum-pum shorts and slap each others’ asses and pour champagne down each others’ butt cracks, she was exerting a very specific supremacy indeed.

You could counter with, “whatever, it’s her video,” or say that it is “pure rap-game parody.” One of the dancers in the video, Seliza Sebastian, has tweeted that she enjoyed herself and found a friend in Allen. I’m not here to discount Sebastian’s experience at all, or the possibility that there’s value in her being “in on the joke,” but to point out that the images in pop culture go beyond your one-day video shoot, and that they’re gonna have implications beyond where you think your headspace is at. The point is, even by sexualizing women to make an ostensibly parodic commentary on how hip-hop sexualizes women, you are still sexualizing women. And even if your dancers are well-treated and knew what their job was beforehand, you’re still mocking those who dance for real in rap videos for potentially a myriad of reasons, and/ or assuming that they don’t know what they’re doing, or that they are victims. That is racially problematic at best. And when you’re the fully-clothed white woman at the center, and your video director is still working with the same slow-mo ass shots as the ones you seem to want to satire (his direct inspiration: “what was the most hip-hop thing you could ever do?”) — well, that shit is definitely racially problematic, and particularly so in a banner year for twerking and white women treating black women as props.

It’s such a shame, because beyond the “ironic objectification” and pretty dunderheaded generalizations about hip-hop, the song could have been good — a real-talk “critique of sexism in the industry,” as Pitchfork enthused. This video says to me that Allen’s feminism applies only to Allen and her ilk. It’s white feminism to the max.

Previously: Case of the Fake People: On TLC’s CrazySexyCool Biopic

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is a writer and editor in Brooklyn who learned feminism from ’90s rap and R&B.