Lily Allen has never been one to stay quiet on social issues. Her last album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, was littered with lyrics castigating homophobes as ‘medieval’ and lamenting the fact that society says a woman’s life is over by thirty. In her new song and video, ‘Hard Out Here’, Allen takes aim at the double standards within the music industry with considerable vigour. In raising key issues, Allen is contributing to a wider social commentary on inequality in perhaps one of the most effective ways: by simply exposing its existence.
We live in a society that is constantly reinforcing impossible standards of beauty. For women, Allen notes that there are expectations to be skinny to the point of boniness with the underlying message that if they don’t live up to such skewed notions, they’ll end up alone. If a woman talks about sex she’s called a slut, while men are, if anything, celebrated for talking about ‘their bitches’. ‘Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?’ We’ve somehow ended up at a place where we reduce ourselves to a sexual shell in order to feel appreciated.
By couching her critique within a wider satirical setting, Allen is given the freedom to vividly highlight the sexist affronts women are subjected to without appearing too preachy. Yet importantly, the impact is in no way diminished. It may seem relatively unoriginal for her to remark that there is a ‘glass ceiling to break’, but in acknowledging the existence of such a restriction she is taking a crucial step towards combating it.
When we silently accept the status quo, we are in effect condoning it. The obsessive fear of offending people, of being politically correct, rather than protecting minorities, actually does incalculable damage. Pretending that people of different races, ethnicities, gender identities, socio-economic backgrounds, et cetera share one homogenous social experience is not only absurd to the point of delusional, but it fundamentally strengthens the position of the dominant group. We cannot ignore our differences, and we cannot ignore the reality of our different situations.
It is the privilege of white heterosexual males – that they are the norm against which minorities are pitted – that makes their power so unrivalled, so all-pervasive that it becomes, in effect, invisible. The systemic inequality needs to be acknowledged if anything is going to be done. And yes, ‘sometimes it’s hard to find the words to say’ because trying to articulate issues that have been embedded in our patriarchal society for thousands of years is no small task. But we need to ‘say them anyway’.
Furthermore, Allen’s observation that ‘inequality promises that it’s here to stay/ always trust the injustice ‘cause it’s not going away’ is crucial. In it, she is arguing the theory of patriarchal equilibrium – whereby even when certain advances are made, the system re-adjusts itself and finds new ways to retain female subordination – that is immensely powerful in its simple presentation. Can anyone deny the fact that inequality has characterised human existence for as long as we have record? Yes the specifics have changed and culminated in a present which seems to lend credence to the claim that women have ‘never had it so good’, but the harsh reality is that the dichotomy remains.
Reaction to Hard Out Here has taken a variety of forms. Lena Dunham asked her twitter followers to weigh in, and while some responses were full of praise ending with the #HOH sign of solidarity, others levelled charges of elitism and quite a few were upset by the use of black female dancers. In an eloquent piece on the Guardian, Suzanne Moore says that in denying the presence of race in the video, Allen is promulgating it. While I would point out not only the racial diversity of the dancers in the video, but also their active engagement with the satire and Allen’s light-hearted attempts to twerk right along side them, it is indeed possible that she failed to appreciate the various ways in which her piece would be interpreted. There is no way that one 4-minute song could address every aspect of societal inequality, and perhaps it would be expecting too much of such a short video to believe that it could do justice to the intricate interplay of race, gender, and class. The bottom line is, however, that there are reactions, that not only is her music being noted but the messages in it are being discussed.
After calling upon the glass ceiling to be broken, Allen goes on to say that ‘it’s time to speed it up ‘cause I can’t move at this pace’. The song may not be perfect, but it has forced a dialogue about gender inequality into the public domain. That such a move will help speed the process of equality along is supported by the fact that her message has so quickly evolved into a discussion of the interplay of gender and race. The more these issues are openly discussed and debated in public, the more people will express their dissatisfaction with the present situation and the greater hope there is for meaningful change.