No, 'female-appreciation' is not the same thing as feminism

A bunch of folks are all excited about how “feminist” Pharrell Williams’ new album, G I R L, is. He says it’s about “appreciating” women, which always sets off some red flags for me. While I like some of the stuff Williams’ produces (and maybe the new album is good or even, like, not totally sexist!), I’m skeptical about the notion that he’s feminism’s new ambassador.

this album is his effort to set the record straight on how he really views women, in the wake of the backlash he reportedly received for his contribution to the lyrics and video for Robin Thicke and T.I.’s hit song “Blurred Lines.” Dropping a few lines to explain his stance on how women routinely get the short end of the stick would’ve probably sufficed, but an entire album dedicated to us? Swoons. (via Bustle)

Good. I’m glad we mentioned that just last year Williams’ was all up on Robin Thicke’s disgusting porno rape anthem, which, incidentally, he defended in a recent interview, implying that women just didn’t get it:

Pharrell Williams' in Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' video
Pharrell Williams’ in Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video

Interviewer: Robin Thicke got into a spot of bother with the lyrics and video to ‘Blurred Lines’. How come you didn’t?

Pharrell Williams: ‘I didn’t get away with it! There were lots of women who wanted to understand what we meant by those lyrics. But the two lines go: “You don’t need no papers/That man is not your maker.” Boom! Lyrically, you’re done: there’s nothing else to talk about. “That man is not your maker.” Plus that treatment was written and shot by a female director, who’s a feminist.’

Boom! No you’re not done. The line just before “That man is not your maker” goes “Just let me liberate you.” OH OK. So Robin Thicke the creepshow is going to “liberate” me? Presumably by “tear[ing]” my “ass in two?” Oh. So that’s how we’re going to win at this feminism game. Via Robin Thicke’s dick. Sexual revolution redux. Lest we forget, Andrea Dworkin schooled us on that old trick already:

In the sexual-liberation movement of the sixties, its ideology and practice, neither force nor the subordinate status of women was an issue. It was assumed that–unrepressed–everyone wanted intercourse all the time (men, of course, had other important things to do; women had no legitimate reason not to want to be fucked); and it was assumed that in women an aversion to intercourse, or not climaxing from intercourse, or not wanting intercourse at a particular time or with a particular man, or wanting fewer partners than were available, or getting tired, or being cross, were all signs of and proof of sexual repression. Fucking per se was freedom per se.

Turns out sexual revolutions that happen in a patriarchy are mostly about dicks, alas.

Also, whether or not the director of a music video that is unapologetically pornographic and boasts rapey lyrics like: “I know you want it,” is a woman and claims to be feminist isn’t going to convince me that the video is actually feminist because I have eyes and also a brain. Lots of folks claim to be feminists or feminist allies who are decidedly not (see: men). And being a woman does not necessarily mean you can’t perpetuate sexism (see: female brothel owners and porn-producers).

What Williams and so many other men don’t get is that simply liking individual women or claiming to “love women” doesn’t really have much to do with feminism. Lots of men believe that being attracted to women or loving their mothers makes them super-feminists who are deserving of all the cookies. But that’s not how it works. You can love your mother and still think that women exist for your benefit or pleasure. It’s like the new age dudes who go around blabbing on about how amazing and beautiful and goddess-like women are and expect us all to behave in stereotypically feminine ways, never challenge them (because they’re the good guys! They don’t see gender and race and things like that! They’re evolved), and adopt our “natural” roles as nurturers without a fuss.

“My muse for it [the new album] was women. I love them,” Williams says.

This is what I mean. See? “I love women,” is not a get out of jail free card. Thicke pulled the same bullshit when he was accused of degrading women in “Blurred Lines”: “When we made the song, we had nothing but the most respect for women,” he said. How nice of you to say so, Mr. Thicke. Alas, your work shows the opposite to be true. I am fairly certain many of the men who buy sex and consume porn also think they do it because they really, really, love women. NOPE. You love women like I love wine — as something I consume selfishly (no dis to wine obvi) for my personal benefit and as a product.

That he doesn’t understand the difference between nudity and objectification is part of the problem:

Is it sexist when you walk around in a museum and a lot of the statues have their boobs out?” he asked the Time Out reporter. “The women in that video weren’t doing anything sexual: they were only dancing. Just because they had their boobs out, that was ‘sexist.’

No, those women weren’t doing anything “sexual,” you’re right. They were pretty much there as your boob-wallpaper, trotting around like naked, human show ponies. Having naked women hanging around clothed rock/pop stars has always been a status symbol. It makes men feel powerful. It feels like having a modern harem of sorts, I suppose. Feminism!

When the interviewer asks if Williams loves all women (I guess they are skeptical?). He responds:

‘Look, I love them, because I know their importance. If women wanted to shut down this country, economically, they could just not go to work and the UK would be finished. If they wanted to kill off our species, they’d just decide not to have babies. And there’s going to be a huge shift, a huge shift. There will be a time when women get paid as much as men. There will be a time when, like, 75 percent of our world leaders will be women. All the presidents and prime ministers. There will come a time. And I’m going to be on the right side of that shift when it happens.’

Does that mean your videos will all be PG-rated from now on?
‘Oh no. I want to support women, but that doesn’t mean I won’t make another song where girls’ behinds are everywhere.’

Ok. So you can’t just state you’re into women’s rights and all that junk but then refuse to actually change your ways. Words, words, words. It’s not enough.

And look, I don’t think Pharrell Williams is evil. You can tell he’s trying. And I completely believe people can learn and change their ways — if he starts producing super-feminist stuff, I’ll be glad to consider forgiving his past stumbles. But he doesn’t get it. And heralding him as this big feminist because he says he loves women, despite the fact that he doesn’t understand how objectifying women contributes to our oppression and to rape culture, is a little over-eager and perpetuates a bunch of misunderstandings about how patriarchy and sexism work. But hey, here’s hoping he’ll do some learning.


Update, 02/28/2014: It’s worse than we’d imagined, sisters.

1) Objectification doesn’t = feminism, 2) Please stop using words you don’t understand.

I love women and often admire their eyes, lips and other features of their bodies in a sometimes suggestive way.

But I respect and hold what would be called ‘a feminist view’ too. I want to spread the message of the pertinence of women on this planet. It calls for the equivocation of women in society.





Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of Feminist Current, is a freelance writer and journalist. She completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog. Follow her @meghanemurphy

  • Henke

    That picture alone speaks for itself, ugh!

  • sporenda

    Meghan BS detector never fails.
    And killer formulas like “Turns out sexual revolutions that happen in a patriarchy are mostly about dicks” are priceless.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Men trying to convince us they are liberating us with their erections are persistent. Too bad so many people fall for it, eh?

      • Francois Tremblay

        In the same way that men “liberate” countries by bombing them?

        • Meghan Murphy

          In the same way European men saved “savages” from themselves and made them better people!

          • Miep

            Funny how none of these guys ever seems to get it that liberating us is to a great extent about leaving us alone, not fixating on us.

  • Margaret McCarroll

    Meghan you are marvellous! ‘boob-wallpaper , trotting around like show ponies.’ your work leaves me breathless! I’m going to talk to all my friends about subscribing to the Feminist Current, You must be heard and should be supported for your important work -Meghan for Prime Minister! (I also loved ‘Feminism is not a hobby, dipshit’ from the burlesque post)

    • Meghan Murphy

      Oh thanks so much, Margaret! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site.

  • kogenchikan

    Meghan! So good. You know I heard that interview on the radio and I thought wait until Meghan hears this.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Ha. You all know me too well :)

  • Kiaran Sedwig (@KiaranSedwig)

    I agree with most of what you’ve said, except that Mr. Pharell is not “evil”. I find his reasoning behind his feminism disgusting, it all reduces to, “oh women are a rising force so better not ignore them”. So if women weren’t a large portion of the working force, weren’t able to give birth, or weren’t pleasing to the eye would he fail to recognize their importance? The reason to be a feminist is really simple. Women are humans. Boom! You’re done. I’m sorry but I’m not even buying the part that he’s trying. He sounds like he’s jumping on the feminist bandwagon as a PR stunt. Like he said *when* that shift in forces happens he wants to be on the right side. One last thing, if you wish to show how much you respect women, don’t name an album dedicated to them as “GIRLS”.

    • Meghan Murphy

      True. But I do wonder if a lot of men simply can’t even understand what it means to respect women without objectifying them. Like, they simply can’t imagine anything beyond that and therefore that must be what feminism is about? Not that I would excuse that, nor should it convince you that this isn’t simply a PR stunt, but I’d also buy that Pharrell is really proud of himself for saying such ‘feminist’ things. Like, revolutionary, man. Give him the cookies!

      • Lea

        “Like, they simply can’t imagine anything beyond that and therefore that must be what feminism is about?”

        but that’s what’s really sad is if they can’t see beyond, if we can’t see beyond.. we need to fix that.. if we can’t imagine a world that is truly equal and fair then it won’t happen..

        must be nice for them so ignorant of what its like to have your humanity snatched away..

  • Leigh Ann

    Thank you for this smart and well-written critique. It stuns me how easily confused people become about equality and respect when it comes to sex. But Meghan Murphy sees through it and helps her readers do the same. Bravo!

  • sporenda

    “Men trying to convince us they are liberating us with their erections are persistent. ”

    True, and it’s so weird many women fall for it.

    If you think about it: in patriarchy; sexuality is about women pleasing men.
    It’s also the main way for men to put women in their place: men fuck and it’s great, women are fucked and it’s lowly.

    In patriarchy, more liberated sex can mean only more subservience for women.

    • Missfit

      ‘in patriarchy; sexuality is about women pleasing men’

      So true. Montreal is named ‘la capitale du sexe en Amérique du Nord’ (North America’s capital of sex). And why is that? Because people have a higher satisfactory sex life? No. Because there are many massage parlors, escort agencies, strip clubs. Many find that nickname ‘cool’. So here again, we have sex equalling prostitution (which usually means ‘women pleasing men’). Why not call it what it is, ‘the capital of prostitution’? I guess that sounds less ‘cool’.. Sorry, but I don’t want prostitution to hide behind the word ‘sex’, which people use as synonym with pleasure, while we have women being exploited. And I don’t want sex to be reduced to a commercial product for men. Sorry, am I being too sex-negative now?

      • Francois Tremblay

        If anything, you’re not being sex-negative ENOUGH.

  • lkfjdghsklg

    Echoes here of the 1964 essay “Real Women” by english poet Robert Graves. Paternal female appreciation is a male tradition.

  • Me

    It’s like he’s talking about how he likes to ride, own and appreciate a car. The “softer”, more appreciative way. But definitely he’s not gay, he still gets it on. Otherwise he’d look all rapable himself, which everyone must understand he isn’t. Glad there are women around for that. I mean, FFS!?!! Dude, wake up and sell out or go stab yourself!

  • Rididill

    Boob-wallpaper, hahahahhahha. But you give this guy far too much credit.

  • CMC

    Your much appreciated “boob-wallpaper” observation reminded me of John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”:

    “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”

    Now, of course, guys like Williams don’t feel the need to project their voyeurism onto the women in quite the same way, but they do feel a need to camouflage their sexism, even from themselves – thus, statements like “I really love women.” Hiring a female to direct Thicke’s video is another way to deflect the fact that they’re pandering to and producing music/videos that objectify women and perpetuate rape culture, and also to assuage any shred of conscience that might alert them to the fact that they are participating.

    And I think the main reason for this sexualized objectification is not misogyny so much as it is money – “it makes the world go round / that clinking clanking sound.” Sex has always sold, and in this era of readily available porn and a pornified culture, a bland acceptance of women as “boob-wallpaper” is de rigueur, or, at least it seems most of the entertainment industry believes it is.

    I think this is also why Miley Cyrus defended the Wrecking Ball video in the way she did: “If people can take their minds off the obvious and go into their imagination and see what the video really means, it is so vulnerable.” Since when has that disgusting pig Terry Richardson ever produced anything remotely artistic or vulnerable. In Cyrus’s defense, she’s young and she probably on some level sincerely believed that, but still, she’s been raised in the business and she knows what one has to do to make the big bucks, to keep that fickle master Fame on her side – sell it.

    • amongster

      “And I think the main reason for this sexualized objectification is not misogyny so much as it is money”

      But you obviously couldn’t make money if there wasn’t a demand for misogyny. If men wouldn’t find sexual objectification appealing it couldn’t be sold to them. It’s not “sex” that is sold but it seems like most people can’t see the difference between sex and objectification anymore.

  • Kathleen Barry

    Meghan, this “I appreciate women” therefore I cannot be a misogynist line has haunted us for decades. In addition to being wrong, men go overtime making themselves boring on this subject, but here you are showing how it is driven by powerful misogyny and not at all benign. I am always grateful for everything you write.

    • Meghan Murphy

      It’s exceedingly frustrating (and I actually find it quite creepy — this whole “Oh I just love women” thing) isn’t it. Thanks always for your support and analysis, Kathleen.

  • Duncan Robertson

    Thanks for this excellent post, Meghan. I’m finding your blog most helpful as a young man disassembling my internalised misogynistic ideals! The way I see it, I can only call myself a feminist if I regularly analyse my thoughts and behaviour, in order to seek out and eliminate sexist elements of them that previously went unnoticed. Feminism seems to me to be as much an introspective activity as it is an ideology.

  • bloomnpsycho

    He’s a great vocalist, and yeah, he’s trying. But that picture is just gross. A photo in which one person is fully clothed and the other is naked or nearly so definitely symbolizes power over the naked person, who is most often female.

  • jo

    Did you know that a quote from this article has almost 20,000 notes on Tumblr?
    Just thought it was cool :)

    • Meghan Murphy

      I did not know that! Crazy.

  • Leema

    Thank you for a wonderful article that articulates my feelings but with less swears and huffing and puffing. Amazing.

  • Nom Nom

    Great article! Everything is spot on!

  • Julie

    Just found this post after googling “Pharell is NOT a feminist” after seeing two performances of his on Ellen in the past year, and being really irked by him. He wants to “celebrate women” and “loves the company of women”. It just still reeks of objectification. It comes across as insincere, and derogatory. I don’t think we need you to sing about how we can be ‘strong, independent, and sassy’ Pharell. Just shut up about arses once in a while perhaps…