Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here”

Lily Allen’s music video “Hard Out Here” parodies and critiques the sexist representation of women in popular culture, particularly within the music industry. By adapting her title from Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” and applying it to “a Bitch” rather than “a Pimp,” Allen immediately establishes her song’s attack on the double standard within the music industry and our culture at large.

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Her lyrics:

I suppose I should tell you what this bitch is thinking
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
Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain

If I told you about my sex life, you’d call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss
There’s a glass ceiling to break, aha, there’s money to make
And now it’s time to speed this up ’cause I can’t move in this space

[Bridge]

Sometimes it’s hard to find the words to say
I’ll go ahead and say them anyway
Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits

[Chorus]

It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard out there for a bitch
It’s hard, for a bitch (for a bitch)
For a bitch, it’s hard
It’s hard out here for a bitch
It’s hard, for a bitch (for a bitch)
For a bitch, it’s hard
It’s hard out here

You’re not a size six, and you’re not good looking
Well you better be rich, or be real good at cooking
You should probably lose some weight
‘Cause we can’t see your bones
You should probably fix your face or you’ll end up on your own

Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?
Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?
We’ve never had it so good, aha, we’re out of the woods
And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you’re misunderstood

[Bridge]

[Chorus]

A bitch, a bitch, a bitch, bitch, bitch [x4]

Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trusty in justice ’cause it’s not going away
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trusty in justice ’cause it’s not going away

A team of surgeons performs liposuction on a conscious Allen as her manager (an old white male) tells her neither Kimmel or Letterman will have her on their shows. He assures her, “don’t worry, we’ll get you fighting fit,” drawing a clear correlation between her desirability as an artist and her figure; he’s really saying, “when you’re not fat anymore, everyone will love to have you on their shows.” We can think of her body as currency; her current body won’t sell songs. He then shames her, asking, “How does somebody let themselves get like this?” As Lily answers that she’s had “two children” (fact), we hear the surgeons offer their own opinions such as, “lack of self-discipline.” Here, Allen highlights the popular assumption that we can make personal judgments about a woman’s character based on the appearance of her body.
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Allen is clearly uncomfortable. And as I’m reminded that she isn’t under general anesthesia for this procedure, I read the scene in a more violent way. In this instance her body doesn’t feel like it belongs to her, which is exactly what happens within the media; negative commentary on female bodies assumes an ownership over these bodies. Such criticism is so widely practiced that this form of violence is accepted as a social norm, especially when it applies to celebrities. On the operating table, Allen is forced to experience the criticism and the “fixing” of her body consciously and without complaint. Additionally, the music video playing on the television in the operating room serves as reminder of what society expects her to be.

Before talking about the visuals of the video, I’d like to parse the lyrics a bit. Allen’s lyrics dig into the double standard immediately, “If I told you about my sex life, you’d call me a slut/When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss.” In the bridge, she attacks the popular phrase, “grow a pair,” which is used to reinforce the notion that toughness requires testicles aka being a male. Allen playfully offers, “Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits.” Being a woman is tough (“It’s hard out here for a bitch”). Why is it hard? Well, we live in a world with impossibly superficial expectations of femininity. Allen follows the chorus with a meditation on these expectations: if you’re not thin or pretty enough, then you’d better have money or cook; you’re not thin enough if you’re not emaciated; your face needs to be fixed or no one will love you. These messages are reproduced every day in popular culture, often through the tropes used in music videos.
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After getting off the operating table, Allen pulls off her hospital gown to reveal more appropriate pop star attire. The images in the video are immediately evocative of recent popular music videos, as Allen (a white female pop star) begins dancing centrally, surrounded by predominantly black backup dancers; one of the background dancers grabs her crutch and another begins shaking her butt (both a la Miley). When the manager joins the shot, we’re quickly reminded for whom Allen and these dancers perform; he awkwardly demonstrates the type of twerking he’d like to see and the dancers follow suit.
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In the video we see Allen washing rims in the kitchen; we can assume it’s a stand-in for a rim job, which Cyrus imitated recently onstage at the VMAs. Again, Allen’s manager advises her how to better wash them and she takes his advice. Interspersed throughout the video are images of gold bars and Allen and her dancers waving and stuffing cash in each other’s cleavage; this allusion highlights the role of wealth within hip-hop videos as a signifier of success and sex. Money is often shown in the context of strip clubs, equating sex with money, that money buys sex, whether literally or figuratively.
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Allen eats a banana, assisted again by her manager whose showing her how she should eat it. It comes across as funny in this context, but reminds us of trend of female artists licking phallic objects in music videos and performances. This highlights the absurdity of the popular music video motif (as seen recently in “Wrecking Ball”) that’s only relevance is serving as a conduit for fellatio. Allen not only attacks this act, but also smoking, which is featured in videos as a cool and sometimes sensuous act. The just too much screen time Allen gives to the cigarette carton and the quartet of dancers smoking highlights its irrelevance in music videos.

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Now we’re two thirds through the video and here, Allen gets in the most digs at hip-hop tropes: barely-clothed women dancing against and around a fancy car; women pouring champagne down their own and one another’s body (champagne shower); close-ups of butts shaking, twerking, and getting slapped; women on all fours, a woman licking another phallic object (champagne bottle) and Allen, in a fur coat, standing completely casually by the car. And did I mention most of the close-ups of licking bottles and shaking/slapping butts are in slow-motion?
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In Allen’s most obvious call-out, she references an image from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video. Allen dances in front of balloon signs that read: Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy. She mocks Thicke’s same shot, included in his video: Robin Thicke Has A Big Dick. Even though Allen doesn’t name names, she doesn’t need to—many of her shots are obvious allusions, such as her dancer licking a Beats speaker (as featured in “We Can’t Stop”).
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Honestly, I felt like I was suffering from sensory overload by the end of the video. Piling on the tropes certainly showed the sexist and superficial representation of female bodies within music videos. Allen particularly highlighted the growing trend of female artists’ objectification of other females in their performances. However, after watching the video a dozen times, I realize, despite her, perhaps, best intentions, Allen falls drastically short of her supposed message.

First, who is the manager and what does he represent? If the manager is, in fact, an archetype of every manager of a young female pop star, then his presence negates the agency of female artists. His presence represents an assumption that behind every pop star, there is an old white man telling her exactly what to do and how to do it. Not only does this suggest that female artists aren’t making their own decisions, but depicting a female artist as a puppet clears her of responsibility for her actions or ownership of what she produces, whether good or bad. If the manager represents the patriarchal structure inherent to the music industry, I have less of a problem, because then we can argue that the female artist works within and/or against these constraints.

I first believed Allen’s decision to surround or more accurately accessorize herself with black female dancers was an intentional attempt to satirize the recent trope (again, think Miley at the VMAs). However, Allen has denied such claims, arguing the dancers were selected without race in mind. She argues that, “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.” Obviously, unbeknownst to Allen, the objectification of women in modern pop culture has a lot to do with race. Neither her intent nor her ignorance absolve her of the effect of the trope she reproduced (even if it had been done ironically to undermine the trope, its reproduction reinforces its meaning and subsequent harm). She further claims that she is clothed in the video, because she is insecure about her body; I completely sympathize with this confession, but I find it irresponsible that she didn’t think about what it means when the imagery she puts forward is that of a fully clothed white woman, standing over or central to unclothed black women. Adding to the complexity of the image presented, we need to consider the reality of Allen’s agency compared to the dancers in the video; Allen is their employer and she stands to gain much more financially, and otherwise, from this video than they will. While Allen is allowed to make a decision like remaining fully dressed, because she doesn’t feel comfortable otherwise, the dancers do not have that same privilege; in the context of this video, the dancers have no say.

Her explanations also do not address that within the video, Allen only displays close-ups of her own face (excluding one shot where Allen’s torso is pressed against the butt of one of her dancers; Allen then playfully slaps said butt), whereas the close-ups of bodies throughout the entire video are exclusively of the black dancers’ bodies, most frequently their butts. Even if the twerking, spanking and grinding is an intentional commentary on the fetishization of female body parts in popular culture, particularly the butt, she validates the fetish in its reproduction. Allen uses her dancers’ bodies as props to make a point. Additionally, the accompanying lyrics are troublesome. When defending herself from the accusations of racism, Allen maintained the decision to stay clothed had “nothing to do with [her] wanting to disassociate [herself] from the girls.” However, this is just what Allen does when she focuses on bare shaking butts of her dancers, while she only exposes her face. When you pair, “Don’t need to shake my ass for you ‘cause I got a brain,” with the butt shaking in the video, Allen clearly separates herself from the featured dancers and any women shaking her ass. If Allen’s intelligence exempts her from the denigration of ass shaking, then we can only assume the dancers’ lack of intelligence leads them to shake their asses. I don’t think this is what Allen intended, but that doesn’t really matter. We are viewing the product, not the intention.

We know that Allen’s video is a sarcastic piece; she says so herself when she calls it “a lighthearted satirical video” and in her lyrics “And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you’re misunderstood.” But there is another video I can think of that was intended as satire as well, and that is Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” When defending his video in an interview with GQ, Thicke said:

We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, “We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.” People say, “Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?” I’m like, “Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.” So we just wanted to turn it over on its head and make people go, “Women and their bodies are beautiful. Men are always gonna want to follow them around.”

This is how Robin Thicke justifies the denigration of women in his video. He is exempt, because he’s a father and a husband. Isn’t any video that objectifies female bodies bad, even those that are done so playfully or ironically? Doesn’t Thicke’s logic apply to Allen as well? Or perhaps, because she is a woman, it’s different…Or maybe, because she is a women within the industry who has experienced objectification, it gives her a right to reproduce it so she can try to prove a point… Allen’s video clearly had a social message/intention, but at the end of the day, whom did it serve? And more importantly, whom did it cost? In her parody of a typical hip-hop/pop music video, Allen succeeded in drawing our attention to the objectification of female bodies, but only through the objectification of female bodies. I am not sure how it gets us anywhere.

At the end of the day, the music video is a medium for entertainment (Allen’s video is not exempt) and Allen reproduced sexist tropes in an effort to maybe educate, but more so, to entertain. With all of the video’s hype, Allen reinforces, rather than subverts, the value of female bodies in popular culture, especially in the music industry. Allen, however, has purely gained, ensuring a successful comeback and probably an invite to both Kimmel and Letterman.

Her video is a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trusty in justice ‘cause it’s not going away

3 thoughts on “Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here”

  1. I don’t really think both the video and the song really accomplished anything but blowing up the feminist blogosphere – I think I have read over ten articles about it now. My first reaction was to the incredibly (!) problematic depiction of women of color within the video, but after our conversations today in class that hinted towards the binarization of gender, I’m also wondering about Allen’s use of biology as destiny as exemplified through the refrain “forget your balls and grow a pair of tits”. This brings us back again to the idea that “Real Women Have Curves” and what it means to be a woman, or in this case, a bitch – mammary glands it seems.

  2. Pingback: “Lilly Allen Has A Baggy Pussy” | prolapsemattersuk

  3. Pingback: “Lily Allen’s Anti-Black Feminism” | Girlpower

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