Lily Allen vs. The World: Was Her “Hard Out Here” Video Really Racist?

This article was originally published by JETmag.com on November 18, 2013 as Rush to Judgment on Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here”

trying to understand Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” video, I’ve read many comments, and even two insightful essays on the context of what was geared to be a satirical video of the sexism, racism, and double standards of the music industry and instead to some very opinionated observers, became the exact problem it was trying to disintegrate.

Concerning the actual video itself, yes of course black women were props in Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here”. They were props just like they were in Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up”, Sisqo’s “Thong Song”, and every other hip-hop video from the vault of raunch and even films like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained in which Kerry Washington was both the prize and the pawn, as the intelligent, soft-spoken slave Broomhilda. The criticism for Allen’s video went from “Hallelujah” for its blatant mockery of Miley Cyrus’ adoption of twerk and pseudo hip-pop “culture” and Robin Thicke’s chauvinistic “Blurred Lines”, to suddenly the next day, the appraisal evolved was “How dare she use black dancers” in her video. Hmmmmm. So in a 24 hour span,  it was racist of Allen to have lascivious dancing in her video as she was eagerly attempting to make a point of how disrespectful these clips have been since the infamy of Too Short albums and 2 Live Crew shows, but Rihanna’s recent Pour It Up” video isn’t racist with its share of black strippers and twerk masters? What’s so different?

Rihanna twerking on a chair in “Pour It Up”

While viewing “Hard Out Here” for the second time, I paused the video and asked a male companion to watch it with me. By the middle of the clip, I could no longer wait to ask we he thought, and he said in one word: “distasteful”. A black man watching Allen’s satirical clip found that in spite of what she was trying to say, which he quickly caught on, she was perpetuating the same thing as any rapper, and is was disrespectful because she is white. I found this perspective necessary to acknowledge because when a white girl is encircled by black dancers rather than a rapper caressed by thirsty females, all those slow-mo, butt rippling shots in a music video abruptly become too much to handle. If you felt uncomfortable watching those shots, that was the point.  Such images are low-class and demeaning. Just like Nelly’s”Tip Drill”, and so many others from the early to mid-2000s. How and why is it any different when a black person does it? Because it’s their culture, some would respond with. Yes, it is, but are they representing their culture in an appealing manner or in a way that is strictly personal? Compare “Tip Drill” to Mystikal’s carnal “Shake Ya Ass” and back again to “Hard Out Here”. Aren’t they all out of line, or is one more so than the other and why?

The switch in commentary was also eye-opening because I’m not quite sure if it was black or white viewers that first realized something wasn’t quite Kosher about Allen’s attempt, but it did reveal a cycle that continues on in popular culture with no sufficient result in sight. Mainly white writers vocally denounced Allen and I couldn’t help but wonder. In light of the maltreatment and misconceptions of women of color from popular culture to news coverage, are such declarations from white writers commenting on black people true concern with the progress of black America in America and the representation of black women, or is it only important because it is the hot button topic of the week and can no longer be ignored due to being factual. The thing is, once these white writers so intently scribe about what it must feel for a black girl when they see such images, they close their MS Word documents and go on to live in a utopia in which a protective awning even if white privilege is more discreet than ever. The frustrations and specific set of concerns associated with being a white girl are less on broadcast to the world than it is for black women.

Allen’s mockery of Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video

While I can see why “Hard Out Here” became viewed as racist, is this going to change anything about how women, and especially black women will be projected to us on screen? Every so often, we receive material like this, and the outcome is the same. Outrage at the blatant racism, and yet flashier, more gratuitous scenes, lyrics, and styles come to the forefront. Every Fashion Week season from New York to Paris, there’s a round-up of how many women of color walked the runways, and yet the low numbers remain just that the next year.While Janelle Monae’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” was seemingly the original answer to Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, it’s now Allen’s “Hard Out Here” that’s being heralded as a throwback to the women in music era of the ’90s, and the spark for further conversations on cultural appropriation and patriarchal system. With everyone being so aware of all that is wrong, what are we still waiting for?

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