Blurred Lines confirms that Newton's Third Law is as accurate in popular culture as it is in physics. Every time someone plays the song, an article or blog post or Tweet will automatically materialise denouncing its flagrant sexism. Between the soft-porn masquerading as artistry, the frankly disturbing promise of "something big enough to tear your ass in two", and the denial of women's ability to give informed consent ("I know you want it"), it would take the most brazen of misogynists to not concede that this song might be somewhat offensive.
The decision by several Student Unions to ban the song from being played in their premises is entirely understandable. This has displeased a good deal of liberals who consider it an infringement of free speech- whilst I consider free speech an inviolable right, I do not believe that Blurred Lines can be defended on these grounds. If the government were to ban Blurred Lines from being broadcast in this country, I would be the first to attack it as an outrageous violation of personal liberties. Yet it would be ridiculously flattering to most student unions to suggest they have anything like that amount of influence. Rather, the reason that a student union can legitimately prevent Blurred Lines from being played is because it is a private body that has a different function to that of the government's (which should be defending the liberties of its citizens).
The remit of a student union is to provide a welcoming environment for students. This is theoretically futile as everything is potentially offensive, and if we ban Blurred Lines we might as well ban everything else from a student union building, including the students themselves. However, practically speaking the potential harm that Blurred Lines causes is so great that the song can be excluded by the criteria defining a safe space. This is not to say that popularity is or should be the sole criteria upon which to grant rights of freedom of expression; rather, freedom of expression does not qualify as a defence in this instance and therefore the song should be examined solely on the grounds of whether it is compatible with student wellbeing.
It would be no different if a student union run shop were to refuse to stock the Daily Mail. Nothing is preventing you from reading it; rather, the SU as a whole has chosen not to endorse the values that the Daily Mail represents. If the SU was proposing to forbid the entire student body from ever listening to Blurred Lines, then that would constitute a violation of liberty. However, simply refusing to endorse the song does not cause a problem. Nobody has a right to their SU providing them with a steady stream of misogyny.
That said, I never used to understand the furore that surrounded one song. Blurred Lines is appalling, certainly, but no more so than a good deal of other choice songs; Jay Z's 99 Problems and The Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up to name just two. Equally, no student union has ever moved to ban Chris Brown's songs from campus; remember, this is a man with a track record of violence against women. It wasn't until a fortnight after I first heard of the Blurred Lines controversy that I realised that it was at the top of the charts and had in fact been so for several weeks.
Living in an academic cultural bubble, this came as a massive shock. Nobody I know seriously questions the general aims of the feminist movement, and most adhere to feminist ideas that would be seen as alarmingly progressive by the outside world. I know not one person who would defend Blurred Lines on its own merits; most either despise the song, or will only defend it as a part of some general commitment to freedom of expression. In the atmosphere that I am accustomed to, the success of Blurred Lines should be unthinkable.
I believe that the success of Blurred Lines is partially due to feminism becoming increasingly insular. Content with a few legal milestones, too many feminists have withdrawn from actively promoting their ideas and instead become drawn into debates of ideological purity. There is no sense in having good ideas if you do not also persuade people to accept them. Talking about how appalling Blurred Lines is does not make it any less popular. Banning Blurred Lines makes the problem worse; it allows us to waffle about how progressive we're being, without actually doing anything to solve the problem. In order to combat the success of Blurred Lines, we have to engage with the cultural attitudes that allow horribly misogynistic songs to become popular at all..
Wadham College has taken the lead on this matter. Thanks to Fresher's President Joe Reason, previously optional sexual consent workshops are now mandatory for all incoming first years. This is a tangible step towards encouraging people to respect personal boundaries and the agency of their partners; surely steps that any feminist should find laudable. I suggest that feminist groups across Oxford should push for similar steps to be taken in their colleges, with a long term view to encouraging consent workshops as an integral part of what is currently woefully inadequate provision of sexual education in high schools across the country.
Whilst debates as to what feminism should be are necessary, these debates themselves should not define what feminism is. We should always challenge our own thoughts and prejudices- but never at the expense of positive action. When feminist activists are castigated for taking political action; they should take this as a badge of honour. Initiatives such as the attempt to encourage all JCRs to have a Women's or Equal Opportunities Officer should be encouraged, and should be publicised- feminist should be proud to have a public image of insisting on doing things. I might not agree with everything they do, but I will always admire them for doing it.