Considering how many women in the last couple years have gotten record deals for their child-like talk singing, it’s amazing to think Lily Allen’s Alright, Still debuted back in 2006. Now the end of Allen’s four-year hiatus is marked by a new single and matching video that meditates on Allen’s image issues only to project them onto men and women of color. Naturally it’s being hailed as a “scathing critique of misogyny.”
“Hard Out Here” opens with Allen lying on an operating table undergoing liposuction as a manager berates her nearby. It’s a deeply personal visual. Allen has faced years of a cruel tabloid press speculation about her body. In May 2007 she published a tearful post on her Myspace page:
"I used to pride myself on being strong-minded and not being some stupid girl obsessed with the way I look. I felt like it didn't matter if I was a bit chubby 'cos I'm not a model, I'm a singer. I'm afraid I am not strong and have fallen victim to the evil machine. I write to you in a sea of tears from my hotel bed in Seattle. I have spent the past hour researching gastric bypass surgery and laser liposuction."
Later that year she dropped from a size 12 to a size six. Headlines continued to chronicle her strained relationship to her body image, from 2011’s “I don’t care about weight gain” to “I have Body Dysmorphic Disorder” just months later.
Allen’s first solo single since 2009 manages to scapegoat not just rappers but black women for all the insecurities she’s been grappling with over her career. The song begins with her scoffing at what is meant to look like a rap video complete with women of color body rolling in shorts. She then begins, “You'll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen/I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains.” The elite prep school educated daughter of an actor and film producer finds such conspicuous consumption distasteful.
From Lorde to Macklemore, it’s a sentiment that’s galling for its popularity: white artists need to stop using the wealth signifiers of rap music to gesture at their self-important “anti-consumerism.” What Allen misses as she washes rims in a kitchen decorated only with bottles of champagne is that it’s not anti-consumerism when it only targets one type of consumer.
Rap owns a unique history soundtracking the triumph of financial success in a country that long barred black Americans from that success. It shouldn’t be an opportunity for white artists to wax superior. Beyond poor taste, it’s the myopia of latent racism that’s more anxious about gold chains on a rapper than an Armani tie on a hedge fund analyst.
Similarly, Lily Allen’s response to sexist industry demands for thinness becomes entirely ineffectual when it lashes out against women who succeed despite those demands. Allen is not savily critiquing the world of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and Miley Cyrus, she’s resentfully bemoaning not getting to enjoy the same success.
“Hard Out Here” is the opposite of Mileywave. Instead of using black women as props to further her career, Allen blames them for its stagnation. In full-sleeved dresses Allen mocks her inability to twerk amidst women of color in body suits who launch into exaggerated dance moves, licking their hands and then rubbing their crotch. Her older white male manager tries to get to her to mimic them. Meanwhile she sings, “Don’t need to shake my ass for you/‘Cause I’ve got a brain.” Cut to black women shaking their ass, so much for sisterly solidarity.
The spectacle feels like a corny send up of hip-hop dancers from someone who hasn’t seen many, reducing institutionalized misogyny to the success of a look Allen can’t master. The non-white women in Allen’s video act as dehumanized proxies of patriarchy—assumed to have neither brains nor agency—with Allen aiming all her contempt at them sideways.
While Rihanna releases strip club anthems that prioritize the female gaze, and Nicki Minaj regularly evisceratesthe double standards of sexism in the music industry, Allen’s petulant sermon is both anachronistic and racist.
In a twitlonger post Allen addressed the allegations of racism by ignoring their substance:
“The video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture. It has nothing to do with race, at all…If I was a little braver, I would have been wearing a bikini too…What I’m trying to say is that me being covered up has nothing to do with me wanting to disassociate myself from the girls, it has more to do with my own insecurities and I just wanted to feel as comfortable as possible on the shoot day.”
The world would certainly be a better place if intent determined impact. But it doesn’t, and Allen’s ability to ignore race doesn’t dissolve her song’s major racial connotations. The video uses black bodies as the aggressors of Allen’s insecurities, juxtaposing them as physicalities Allen can’t replicate and thus finds worthy of ridicule. The song claims to be a feminist jab and has been cosigned by Lena Dunham as such, who accurately interpreted it “as pure rap-game parody.” By making rap music and its most visible participants the lightening rod for America’s social ills Allen acquits institutional patriarchy.
This is why feminists of color stay rolling their eyes at white women. It is not feminist to mock talented dancers of color for exercising skills Allen doesn’t possess. It is not feminist to claim that women who cook and dance provocatively are as damaging as a manager barking at her to lose weight. It is not feminist to remain blissfully colorblind in a world that functions along race.
As long as white womens’ empowerment requires lowering everyone else their “feminism” is just rebranded white supremacy. Allen sings, “there’s a glass ceiling to break” her video indicates it’s only herself she wishes on the other side.
Ayesha A. Siddiqi is a writer and cultural critic. She tweets - @pushinghoops
For more on Lily Allen's new video, read Kathy Iandoli's piece here.
Here's an interview with the director of Lily Allen's "Hard Out Here" video.