What causes racist violence? Judith Butler (2020) and Elsa Dorlin (2019) offer an interesting perspective on this, namely that it is linked to perception. Both authors give poignant examples of racist violence from the recent past to clarify this. Consider, for example, the famous Rodney King incident in 1991. It seems evident from the video footage that an unarmed black man is the victim of an outburst of excessive violence by a gang of white cops. Nevertheless, the officers pleaded that they had acted correctly, as King would have posed a great danger. The (largely white) jury went along with this: the officers were acquitted. Did the police and the jury knowingly distort the facts so clearly revealed in the footage? No, argues Dorlin. Indeed, she thinks King really was perceived as an aggressor, wherefore this amount of force was actually felt to be legitimate and necessary (Dorlin 2019, 5-6). This is an excellent illustration of what Butler would call a ‘phantasmagoric inversion’ (Butler 2020, 114). These phantasmagoria are capable of imaginatively inverting fleeing black persons, depicting them as a threat instead. Thus, this twisted perception causes and provides the justification for one’s own aggression, or, seen from this fantastical perspective, self-defence (Butler 2020, 112).
Butler and Dorlin are mindful that this twisted perception is not a homogeneous phenomenon. For instance, black men and black women are twisted differently (Butler 2020, 112-113). This diverse manifestation raises the question whether twisted perceptions also play a role in other forms of systematic violence against oppressed groups. The top hit ‘Blurred Lines’ provides an indication that this may indeed be the case with sexual violence towards women (Thicke 2013).
In their catchy song from 2013, artists Robin Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell take the first-person perspective of a man with sexual interest in a woman, presumably at the club. In the lyrics, the man articulates the discrepancy between what the woman expresses what she wants and what she actually wants. For example, the chorus consists of the repeated phrase ‘I know you want it’. In other words, the woman doesn’t show it directly, but the man knows what she desires, namely, him. She is urged to stop hiding these sexual intentions: Thicke calls for ‘no more pretending’ and sings that he hates her ambiguous ‘blurred lines’. The capability of the male gaze to see through the facade of unwillingness to uncover the craving essence of the woman is reaffirmed with the following line: ‘But you’re an animal. Baby, it’s in your nature.’
It’s insightful to consider the accompanying video as well. Whereas in the real world, the singer finds himself in a club with a woman who doesn’t respond to his advances, the video shows what the situation actually is like, according to the man. In the uncensored version, the three performers are paired with three models. The performers wear suits and sunglasses, the women just panties. These almost naked women dance sensually around the centrally positioned men, who move in a more modest way. Thus, in this twisted perspective, the roles are completely reversed: the cool man is now seduced into sex by desirous female “animals”.
The racist and the sexist perceptions seem to be similar to the extent that they both twist reality to the disadvantage of the considered group. Nevertheless, these twists manifest themselves in different ways. For instance, the racist perception as proposed by Dorlin and Butler seems to have a more fundamental character. Whereas the fleeing black man is turned around by the fantasy to become an approaching attacker, the sexist perception of Thicke and his colleagues does show an unwilling woman, but places an underlying reality behind this. Hopefully, this makes progression relatively more feasible, as men “only” need to be convinced not to fill in sexual intentions for women. In other words, to dismiss the underlying layer they perceive.
However, until that point is reached, it seems reasonable to assume that both kinds of twisted perceptions at least share their most problematic element, namely, their capability to lead to violence. Instead of shootings and beatings, this sexist perception is likely to stimulate sexual violence. This presumption is made more plausible by the (not so) remarkable fact that Thicke himself was accused of sexual assault by one of the models in the clip (Mulligan 2021).
Butler, Judith. 2020. The Force of Nonviolence. London-New York: Verso Books.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2019. “What a body can do,” translated by Kieran Aarons. Radical Philosophy 205: 3–9.
Mulligan, Euan O’Byrne. 2021, October 4. “Emily Ratajkowski accuses Robin Thicke of groping her during filming of Blurred Lines.” The Guardian.
Thicke, Robin, featuring Pharrell Williams and T.I. 2013. “Blurred Lines.” Star Trak-Interscope.