Saturday, October 4, 2014

Does Dark Always Mean Dangerous?

I’m all for not demonizing non-traditional forms of love; not all love stories are sweet and gentle and they shouldn’t have to be, so long as they’re still consensual. But I’m deeply disturbed by disrespectful and dangerous mainstream depictions of them. Why is it, when we want to say something “really dark and weird and cool” about love or lust or sex, it too often tends to be horrifying?

What makes it even more frightening are the people defending Maroon 5's latest "Animal" video. Who say that the video is just depicting stalking and rape and violence that already exist in the world; it’s just telling it how it is. How can you get mad at that? It’s not like the video invented these ideas; it’s just using them to make a cool music video.

Or how it’s just a fantasy, dark as it may be. It’s just like 50 Shades of Grey and other kink fantasies that play with darker ideas and concepts. How can you defame this while defending other kinky sex?

Or how the video is not really that bad. You never actually see real violence. At most, you just see blood splattered all over the place. You see worse in horror films or cop dramas all the time. Why is this such a big deal?

Or how it’s not as if the girl in the video even knew what was happening, so what’s the harm? Nothing actually happens to her in the video.

And I’ll agree that on the merits of the song alone, I actually don’t mind it. The melody isn’t bad. I like Adam Levine’s voice. The lyrics themselves, while not the most romantic or even emotionally stable, aren’t bad. Raunchy, sure. But I’m a fan of raunch. And I don’t mind the idea of depicting darker, maybe even unhealthy romantic relationships. They exist and most of us have a few unwise, unstable, if fun-while-they-lasted relationship skeletons in our closets. In the right context, those are valid stories to tell. 

However, the video takes it several steps further into a very offensive category. 

1 ) It glorifies this type of psychotic behavior. At no time does the video take a negative stance on the horrible behavior it depicts. I argue that this video is condoning and, in fact, seems to celebrate this type of fantasy. The video is shot completely from the stalker’s perspective in a salacious, sympathetic, “yeah, she’s hot; I want that” kind of way. There’s no repercussion to the stalker’s behavior. You never see the harm that his stalking does. You never see him being punished for his actions. The video doesn’t even hint at the violation the woman would feel, if she knew that this was happening to her. 

This isn’t portraying stalking in a realistic light. This is a sick attempt to make stalking sexy. And it’s not. It never is. And can never be. Because, by definition, stalking is a non-consensual act. It’s never okay. It’s never sexy. 

But you wouldn’t know that by watching the video where an attractive guy follows his crush around, takes and enjoys naked pictures of her, breaks into her house to lie next to her, and has sex with her in his head. At most, the video makes it seem kinda creepy. And possibly—arguably—ineffective. Except for the fact that:

2 ) the woman being stalked and who is the center of this disturbingly violent fantasy is the singer’s wife in real life. It lends a lot of credence to the video’s creepy message when the creep being depicted is being played by a guy who’s married to the woman being creeped on. It’s tacitly saying that this behavior works. That it may be bad, may be creepy, but guess who’s in my bed every night? That, as the song says, “You can pretend it’s meant to be/ But you can’t stay away from me.” Intentionally or not, it’s saying that stalking is an effective mating strategy and that you don’t have to worry about whether your actions violate someone. Because she’s hot and you want that. And, according to this video, that’s all that matters.

3 ) Whats worse is that it’s teaching our boys that sex isn’t something they control; it’s something that controls them. That, as the song says, “You can’t deny/ the beast inside.” That they “have a natural, ’animal’ lust for women that they are biologically unable to control.” And that isn’t a message we can afford to keep teaching.

4 ) Because boys are learning this message. They’re internalizing it. Normalizing it. To the point that too many of them think that, so long as the women aren’t aware of the violation, it’s not really a violation. Don’t get me wrong; this is less the idea that anyone is going to think “Yeah, I want to be a stalker when I grow up” and more that things like this normalize behavior that shouldn’t be considered normal.

No one wants to be a stalker, no one aims to be labelled a stalker, but how many people are okay with looking at naked pictures of women taken without their consent? How many people viewed the stolen pictures from the Fappening without a single thought to the violation they were committing against the women in those photos? How many people thought they had a right to those photos—to those parts of those women—by virtue that they wanted them? No one proudly says that they violate women, but how many stories have we heard about college students raping girls because she’d passed out and they never took the time to think about how they were violating her? Because they wanted her and that was all that mattered?

Where do you think these people got the idea that what they want matters more than the people they want those things from? How many times do we see this line of thought repeated in songs, in movies, in TV shows, in stories? How many times do we hide behind the idea that it’s just fiction? How many times do we assume that no one could possibly read too much into them?

I doubt, after seeing this, that anyone’s going to become a mad butcher and seek to have blood-soaked sex with someone, but how many people might feel like following a crush or taking or looking at pictures of them without their consent—especially in comparison to everything else in this video—doesn’t seem that bad? That it’s just something people do when they desire someone. It’s almost romantic, really. After all, nothing bad happened to either the girl or the guy in this video—hell, those two are married in real life, right? So what’s the harm, really? 

It’s why far too many people think taking advantage of someone who’s unconscious is okay, or looking at private, stolen photos of actresses and models are okay to look at online, or repeatedly showing up uninvited or unexpectedly at a crushs workplace or home just to see them is normal, because they think it’s not hurting anyone. But it is. Acting without all parties’ consent is a violation. All violation is wrong. That’s the only message we should be teaching anyone about this type of behavior.

5 ) While I’m certainly not a fan of the 50 Shades of Grey novels, there is a massive difference between that and this video. The 50 Shades series plays very fast and loose with widely accepted SSC BDSM practices. The kink portrayed in that novel, as well as many other relationship elements in the story, are not what I would call ethical or healthy. And they certainly have been romanticized and glorified in ways that make me uncomfortable. 

However, while the books and film are definitely problematic in terms of consent, when done right, BDSM is completely consensual. Consent is what makes it all okay. Whatever your kink. Whatever the risks involved. So long as everyone involved gives informed consent, it’s okay. 

And, if anyone who read the 50 Shades novels wanted to learn more about how to do BDSM responsibly, they could do so. There are many, many, many resources to turn kink fantasies into safe, sane, consensual realities.

In a way that cannot be said for the one-sided, violence-driven fantasy of violation portrayed in this video. Because stalking and sexual violence are not consensual. And that fact makes kink and what’s displayed in this video polar opposites. It’s less a question of dark versus romantic. Or rough versus gentle. It’s a question of consensual versus non-consensual. To forget, ignore, or down-play that shows a complete ignorance on sex, consent, pleasure, and kink.

6 ) The same people who are upset by this video are likely the exact same people who aren’t happy with horror films—or many cop dramas, for that matter—for their tendency to oversexualize their female characters and then punish them, often violently and horrifically, for it. It’s the angry underbelly of the sex-negative, misogynistic current running through too many of our stories that longs to see women dress and act provocatively then accuses them of provoking violence against them. It wants to mold and shape women to conform to the desires of their audience—allows them only to exist if they fit that want—then promptly disposes of them once that want is fulfilled. Too often, when we want to tell darker, grittier, edgier stories, its at the expense of the women in those stories. Sex is too often seen as something those women have, something titillating and tempting, that gets taken from them and then used as a weapon against them.

My question is why it has to be that way. Why we cant tell better stories. The worst thing about this video is that it could have been done so much better. Like I said, I’m a fan of love and lust and sex with an edge. If you want to depict darker, non-traditional expressions of romance—hey, I’m all for it. 

This video could have made the woman in it an active participant in that expression—as the song’s lyrics seem to hint that she is. The song also says “you can’t stay away from me/ I can still hear you making that sound/ Taking me down rolling on the ground/ You can pretend that it was me/ But no.” These lines are repeated, making them seem important. The song, if not the video, seems to get off on the fact that the woman is taking what she wants too. That, good decision or not, she desires this too. And that’s what makes something sexy. It’s only sexy when all parties participating consent and actually want to do it. When everyone involved actually gets pleasure from it. 

If she’d been into it, if she had actively said or expressed any hint of a “yes” in this video that wasn’t a complete violent-fantasy-driven fabrication that only exists in this deranged stalker’s head, there would probably be less people upset by it. Instead, the video decided to romanticize the man’s complete, obsessive, and potentially violent violation of this woman.

And, I know, it’s just a pop song. Who really cares? Except it isn’t just this one pop song, is it? This is one more unbearable drop in a narrative bucket that has been overflowing for far too long. Stories are how we make sense of the world; it’s why we tell them and have told them since the dawn of time. Is this really a message we’re okay with putting out there? Haven’t we done that too much already?

Im not saying that dark, controversial materials shouldnt be out there. We need differing opinions and views out there in the world. If just to make us think more about the world we live in as a whole. Things like Bram Stokers Dracula or George Orwells 1984 or Chuck Palahniuks Fight Club or, hell, even Joss Whedons Cabin in the Woods, these are all dark pieces, but theyre dark for reasons. Their darkness aims to shine light on elements of their audiences lives. To make them think about the world they live in differently. They asked their audience to think about what is good and what is this thing we call evil and whether those definitions we hold are right. Thats something I can get behind. But dark for the sake of dark isn't something we should aim for. 

What does this video say? If you watch it and really look at the message its trying to put out into the world? At worst, it celebrates the violation of another human being. At best, itwhat?shows a creepy guy doing creepy things. At best, it plays pretend with real psychosis out there. Play acts at damaging madness that exists in the world, dressing it up as something it isnt. Was that really worth saying? Was that art that needed to be?

Im not saying that this video should be banned or censored or blamed for all the ills in the world. I'm saying that I wish its creators had put more thought into its creation. Because art does help people make sense of the world. With the advent of MRI scans, we realize that it does that in profound ways, for better or worse. And I think that does place a responsibility on those who create art for the masses. Art that is meant to be consumed by a staggering amount of people.

You want to make dark materials that make people question the darkness within themselves? Great. Fantastic. Go for it. 

But I dont think thats what this video does. This video asks its viewer to not question that darkness. It asks them to accept it and revel in it without examination. To play passive with it and maybe even allow it just a touch more mental reign in the real world. It makes things that should never be right feel just a little right. To feel satisfying and titillating in a way they shouldn't. 

As a woman, I find that disturbing and dangerous. As an artist, I find it lazy, irresponsible, and rude. Other artistsbetter artistsfind better, more meaningful ways to use the darker sides of humanity to create art worth making. Why couldnt the creators of this video take two minutes of critical thought to do the same?