Lily Allen’s music video for her 2013 single Hard out Here has been received by audiences with mix reactions. The lyrics of the song are about Lily Allen’s reaction to the double standards and sexualization of women in the music industry. The imagery of the video that accompanies the song is hyper-sexual and contradicts some of the lyrics of the song. The juxtaposition of the semiotics of the audio and visuals are intended to structure of the text as a satirical work. The juxtaposition has caused audience members to have dominant, negotiative, and oppositional readings of the music video.
In the music video, meaning is constructed by the combination of images and sound. Hard Out Here constructs codes of femininity, sexuality, and blackness. The semantics of racial and gender representations in the music video are important because of representativeness heuristics. Representativeness heuristic means that “judged entities are compared against a sampling of related ones and that likely hood transference of traits is made from the sample to the individual case” (Su-lin 385). Overall, the lyrics of the song give the connotation that it’s more difficult to be a woman than a man in society because women are seen as inferior and a woman’s value is determined by how well she fits into a stereotype. The lyric “it’s hard out here for a bitch” signifies that it’s difficult for women in society. The word bitch that is usually used as an insult is reclaimed as a word of empowerment in this song. “Rebellious speech is equivalent to a ‘risk taken in response to being put at risk, a repetition in language that forces change’. In order to expose and deconstruct its potential power, hateful language (media representation) has to be repeated and re-contextualized” (Stehle 230). The lyrics code femininity as being thin, beautiful, and sexual available. The lyrics “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?” code female sexual identity as being passive and submissive to a dominant actor that desires to use the female as a sex object. The lyrics “you should probably lose some weight ’cause we can’t see your bones. You should probably fix your face or you’ll end up on your own” codes femininity as being thin and physically beautiful. That lyric also means romantic partnership only happens to physical attractive people because attractive level is how our society determines an individual’s value. The lyric “I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking bout my chains” is coded as a rejection of materialism by the artist. Lily Allen associates a woman’s intelligence with her sexual activity with the lyric, “don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain.” That lyric means that smart woman don’t dance sexually. The following lyric is “if I told you ’bout my sex life, you’d call me a slut.” This creates confusion because meaning is socially produced and understood in terms of oppositional relationships. The dichotomy of female sexuality is structured as a woman can only be a virgin or a slut. The sexual nature of those lyrics implies pluralism and fluid sexuality identity. It’s the idea that there isn’t one fixed idea of femininity. The visual meaning is more straight forward than the audio meaning.
The opening scene in the video is coded as Lily Allen being too fat after having two children to be a pop star. She is getting liposuction in order to be desirable. This codes femininity with thinness, even after childbirth. The dancing by Lily Allen and her mostly black dancers signifies sexual desires. The image of Lily Allen dancing with the black women is coded with racially structured sexuality. Allen doesn’t dance with skill or enthusiasm as her black dancers. This codes black women as more sexual than white women. She is also in the center of the girls and they are next to her or behind her. This signifies the racial power structure between women. Black women are coded as inferior to white women. The women’s clothing is a signifier of power positions as well. The black women are showing more skin and are more vulnerable than Lily Allen. The white man is the suit is a music executive. It is signified by his clothing and his agency in how the women behave. The music executive showing the girls how to twerk and be sexy is coded as men are active and dominant, while women are passive and lack agency. The product placement of the camera and cigarettes is associated with the women’s sexuality, which makes the products sexy and commodifies the women’s sexualities. The excessive sexually dancing codes femininity as women always being available for sex. The pouring of the champagne on the women’s bodies signifies male ejaculation. A woman licking the champagne bottle signifies oral sex. Both of those signifiers are intertextuality because both are used in pornography. The women are coded as sexual objects that eager to be used for sex. Throwing money at the black dancers while they dance is intertextuality because it is a reference hip hop culture and rap music videos. The visual of Lily Allen dancing in front of the sign “Lily Allen has a baggy pussy” is a the references from Robin Thicke’s music video Blurred lines, where he had a sign that said, “Robin Thicke has a big dick.” Her reference to this in her video is a parody of Thicke’s video. In fact, Lily Allen intended for the entire song and music video to be a parody and satirical video on the music industry. One of the lyrics is “if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you’ve misunderstood.”
Hard Out Here can be seen as parody and can reject the values that are being parodied or it can reinforce the values by being misunderstood as a serious text. When an artist works “with parody, excess, deformation, the text obscures political intention and leaves room for ambiguity” (Stehle 233). The parody factor changes the semiotics of the text. If the viewer notices tone and style of parody, the gender and racial performance can be interrupted as satirical and sarcastic; this calls for a rejection of heteronormativity. The view would conclude that the music video rejects stereotypical gender and racial binaries. If the parody is not interrupted it reinforces stereotypes. It is difficult for women to parody gender performance and female sexuality and have it received as satirical because women are too closely identified with their bodies. “In feminist art, the location of risk and pain is often the female body. Performance artists take risk by using artistic forms like parody, excess, reversal, and exaggeration to force change in representation of female bodies. The reception of such language and imagery simultaneously created platforms for social and political backlash” (Stehle 23). The images of the music video are challenging to watch by the design of Lily Allen, which has caused mixed reaction by feminists and other viewers.
There dominant, negotiative, and oppositional reading of the music video. The majority of the readings were oppositional, but there were a few dominant and negotiative readings. The audience sample were all female Brooklyn College students between the ages 19 and 37. The races of the women sampled were white, black, and bi-racial. All the audience members that gave a dominant reading were white women. Most of those women identified themselves as feminist. One woman said, “I love this. It’s so funny. I love that she calls out how ridiculous pop culture is. When asked about the racial aspect of the video, she replied, “She is making fun of the sexism in the media. The amount of twerking uses comedy to show the exploitation of black women in hip hop.” Another woman commented on how she loves that Lily Allen made a video as commentary on society. She said, “I like when female artists place attention to the double standards and unrealistic expectations of women. I like that she decided to say something about how the industry is all about money and sex, and that it should change. It reminds me of Pink’s Stupid Girls video. Young girls shouldn’t be obsessed with being super thin and trying to get a boyfriend.” These women got dominant reading because they viewed the music video as a comment on Sexism in the music industry. In the music industry, “the descriptions of women as sex objects, prostitutes, and mentally inferior people who have to strip their clothes off and dance naked in order to earn the commercial recognition of big business” is the norm (Khan 265). Another women said, “The video was funny and that I got that it was satirical.” When asked if some people might not get that it’s a parody, she said, “I think because things like Jon Stewart and the Onion are so popular that everyone will get it.” The same girl when asked about the use of race in the video claimed, “the video can’t be seen as racist because Lily Allen is pointing out that using black women as sexual objects, like Miley does, is a racist common trend in the industry. Black women should be happy that she is making a statement about it.” Other women had mix feelings about the video.
All the negotiative responses were based on liking the some feminist meaning, but debating success of the parody and race representation. All the audience members were self-identifying feminists. The majority of women were white and one woman was bi-racial. The women liked the Lily Allen was rejecting the stereotypical ideas of femininity, but thought that the twerking black women were problematic. One white feminist said, “It’s great that she rejects the idea that a women’s value comes from what her body looks like and what she does with her body. That part of the video was parodied well, but all the dancing black women didn’t work. It seems racists that she casted all black women.” A problem will satire is depending on the values of the viewer the intention of sarcasm becomes irrelevant and can reinforce harmful beliefs or offend viewers. “A rebellious statement in response to injury can be turned into a new form of injurious speech. This does not diminish the political relevance of rebellious speech. It helps to uncover the politics of language and imagery and reveals the power of hegemonic discourse” (Stehle 244). Another white woman commented, “If she casted white men as her dancers and objectified them the way women are, it would have worked as a parody. But, using black women is being like the same system you are demonizing.” The issue with artists imitating ideas that they oppose in order to expose them is that in order “to draw attention to their respective agendas, they still in different ways fall victim to these very mechanisms” (Stehle 244).The bi-racial feminist, “I see what she was trying to do, but it doesn’t work. I like that she makes fun of the commercialism and sexism in the industry with the product placement and the music executive showing the girls how to be sexy. But, feminist texts that don’t include black feminism are still offensive. I’m sure she had good intentions. She is white and privileged, so she probably doesn’t know that she is being racist.” Another white woman said, “I don’t know how I feel about it. I like that she used themes of objectification and sexualization. They are difficult to satire because women defined by their bodies and you can’t ignore race because it’s so physical too.” Other women were very offended by the video and didn’t see any of the feminist ideas that Allen intended to communicate.
The majority oppositional readings were from black and bi-racial women. Two white women had oppositional readings. A few women identified themselves as feminists, but some didn’t. The majority of the oppositional readings were based on Lily Allen’s cultural appropriation of hip hop culture to appeal to wider audience. Lily Allen does not want a black identity, but wants to be associated with the positive characteristics of blackness to sell her music without taking on the difficulties of the black community. Whites that sell and or consume hip hop culture “position themselves as cool or hip by its association with African Americans, presenting themselves as confident, progressive whites smoothly moving through a cultural milieu of blackness” (Rodriquez 646). One black woman said, “I couldn’t finish watching it. It’s too racist. It’s disgusting that women use other women as props in videos, just like men. But, then you have to cast all black women who do nothing but twerk. It’s disgusting.” The black dancers are coded as sexual objects available for consumption. “Black women’s bodies were available to both white and black men without black women’s consent” (Reid-Brinkley 245). Historically, black women within American society have been sexualized in an excessive manner because sexualization and rape of black women during slavery. “The performance of the good women served as a means of gaining respectability under the surveillance of the white gaze in the hopes of gaining some protection from abuse” (Reid-Brinkley 245). . The idea is that women need to be sexually available to be safe from sexual and physical violence. The history of that sexualization of black women sets the framework for black femininity in modern music videos. Another black woman said, “Images this like worry me. I don’t want people to think all black people are like this. I know a lot of white people probably already do cause these images are very where. It’s really offensive that this woman thinks it’s cool to treat women like whores.” A black feminist claimed, “Shit like this is a serious problem. The purpose of putting black women in this is to make it sexier. The girls don’t do anything, but act slutty. If you are going to put black women in videos do it for a reason and discuss issue facing the community. No one is going to care about a black woman’s problem if they think she is just a sex crazed person.” Racial criticism of texts comes from the fear “that black women’s reality is overshadowed by the spectacle of black women’s representation in popular culture” (Reid-Brinkley 238). Lily Allen’s response to racial criticism was that she didn’t think about race at all during casting, but only thought about the dancers skills. When I told this black feminist about Lily Allen’s response, she said, “I don’t believe that at all she knew what she was doing when she casted them. Color blindness theory is bullshit. She just doesn’t want to come off as racist.” Color blindness is the idea that in our post-racial world that race is now irrelevant. “Color blindness ideology is the assertion of essential sameness between racial and ethnic groups despite unequal social locations and distinctive histories” (Rodriquez 645). Another black feminist stated, “It’s clear that its racist, but it so common for white people to steal our culture to become successful. White people have this idea that they are welcome in hip hop culture and refuse to see that hip hop is about racial issues. They see it as a style they can use to be cool. They don’t care about problems in the black community.” When white artists use “racially coded styles and products and reduce these symbols to commodities or experiences that whites and racial minorities can purchase and share,” which turn the text into a “meaning less imitation of blackness” (Rodriquez 649). One white woman believed that it was hypocritical of Allen to make fun of hip hop culture, while see used it to get a larger audience. She said, “I’m a fan of Lily Allen’s last album and I was shocked that she did this. It is really racist to use black women like that and then make fun of their careers as dancers. I’m sure they have been in many other videos with rappers that do the things she is making fun of.” One of the lyrics in the song is “I won’t be bragging about my cars or talking about my chains.” The woman continues, “How can she use twerking that is popular in hip hop and then attack them for being materialistic without being a hypocrite?” A white queer feminist agreed with the all the racist claims, but also had an issue with some of the lyrics that she believes to be sexist and transphobic. She said, “the line ‘forget your balls and grow a pair of tits’ can be offensive to transgendered people because it relates gender and sexual identity with genitals, not personal identification .Its sexist because the line ‘I don’t have to shake my ass for you cause I got a brain,’ suggests that women can’t be smart and sexy at the same time. I have a problem with people telling other people who they are or how to be. Why can’t be define themselves? We don’t need to categorize everything.”
Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here music video has had many different interpretations of meaning. It has led to interesting commentary on issues of race, sexuality, and gender within the media industry and the cultural at large. It also opens a discussion on the use of parody in a modern Meta, but polarized culture. The music video is a good example of how meanings are social constructed and can be subject based on the identity, values, beliefs, and personal experiences of the audience members.