Blurred Lines presented by Girl Be Heard and directed by Tiff Roma, was performed at HERE in February. The ensemble cleverly named their show with the same title as the controversial music video banned from universities in the U.K. for its misogyny and promotion of date rape.
The stellar production written and acted by the company is an exposé of rape culture, which snakes through the mores of our society like an insidious monster. It strikes every two minutes, when someone is sexually assaulted; then disappears in the twinkling of an eye as if nothing important has happened. The brilliance of Blurred Lines is that it nets this slippery monster and pins it down with irony, satire and ridicule, all the while examining how it parades itself publicly, cloaked in the righteousness of normalcy.
The production is a compilation of humorous, sardonic vignettes, centered around themes pinpointed in an accompanying fact sheet about rape culture. The sheet included well-documented data (7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim) as well as some facts not so well known (during the Civil War, it was not a crime in most states to rape enslaved women). The audience familiarized itself with this woeful information as the lights came up on the first vignette, “Campus Girl.” Threads of this piece and its companion “Dear University of America Somewhere” continued throughout Blurred Lines.
In “Campus Girl,” a young girl writes how her life is supposed to be better in college, a place where she learns to become actualized, experiences her first romance, and more. Of course this notion is laden with irony given that, as the fact sheet states, one in 5 women, 1 in 16 men, and 1 in 5 transgender individuals are sexually assaulted in colleges throughout the U.S. The likelihood that this hopeful young women will be one of those assaulted is the grim backdrop that she isn’t aware of when she anticipates how “freeing” college will be.
College is where rape culture is most virulently prevalent. “Dear University of America Somewhere” reminds us of the extent to which younger individuals have been propagandized toward gender stereotypes. Those first two pieces raise vital questions about whether men, women, and transgender individuals are able to create and maintain individual identities apart from the destructive images they see around them, especially when the political climate and political role models uphold nullifying stereotypes. Such images can create soul sickness caused by gender imprinting when they are young. Can one ever deprogram from such images when the culture is bathed in them and people determine their lives based on them?
In subsequent scenes, the cast manifests how these questions pertain – and smite down the insidious answers that politicize acceptance and vacate change. With a humorous approach (a game show format, pop quizzes in a classroom) they reveal the trenchant gender images even as lip-service attempts are made to correct “normed” sexual assumptions about what constitutes consent (“Consent 101”) and how to say “no.”
Dramatic incidents are revealed concerning transgenders and individuals molested by family members. If we are all victims of rape culture in its incipient forms, the ones most injured are those who are preyed upon physically. But those subjected to emotional abuse related to gender also feel the blows. In one form or another men, women, and transgenders are often scarred for life, even though they may learn to heal. The show raises these questions: since when are sexually predatory behaviors ever legitimate? Since when do abusers have the right to “catcall” a woman walking down the street or lightly touch someone else’s body uninvited? How is sexual exploitation ever acceptable or “cool”? Why is it a transgression to identify a predatory behavior, condemn it, and seek justice for physical violation and sexual violence?
The production highlights that those who set the standards and promote gender folkways have power. The irony then becomes: Why is that power so invisible that a majority of women and men have become inured to it and rarely question, confront or overthrow gender-related nihilistic behaviors? Why is it that to speak out against sexual predation or sexual-emotional abuse is “weird?” Why has that become part of the backlash against “politically correct” speech? These noxious, delimiting attitudes have been manipulated and shaped largely by historic paternalism that is so culturally entrenched, most women and men are oblivious to its subtleties; thus they unwittingly reinforce them again and again socially and politically.
Blurred Lines solidifies how oppressive, paternalistic propaganda is spewed by the media (film, TV, music, print, internet), and in advertisements for industries from fashion to food in characterizations of women: as sex kittens desiring to be preyed upon; as gold-digging wives of wealthy men, who tolerate mistreatment in a velvet prison; as mistresses and girlfriends of married men who settle for 1/4 of “the love dream”; as wives inured to emotional abuse; as sex objects in dance videos, demeaned sex toys in music, and demeaned Amazon-type women in popular comics and adventure films.
These portrayals are normalized. They configure stereotypic male roles of dominance, machismo, superficial notions of “strength,” and undercurrents or overtones of sexual and emotional violence. There is a celebration of demeaned women, demeaned men, demeaned LGBT individuals, sexual violence and sexual objectification of gender as entertainment. Not only do the lines between realistic, feeling men, women and transgenders merge with rigid iconic images which are false, what is right and wrong behavior also becomes opaque because the portrayals appear harmless. When men and women do not transgress these stereotypic characterizations, when they “fit in,” “political” criticism is conveniently buried. With this lack of dissent, with this “fitting in,” comes oppressed silence. The perpetrators may continue in peace; the “rape culture” continues unabated. Anyone daring to fall “outside the box” is vilified and subject to sexual and verbal violence and abuse.
Sadly, the culture at large – and parents, teachers, family members, friends – unwittingly influence one another and pick up where the media leaves off in a snaring reinforcement of how all must behave to be “acceptable,” regardless of the truth of one’s own inner identity. The rigid gender roles create confusion and dull one’s acceptance of oneself and one’s person-hood. How do young people decide for themselves whether to defy machismo norms (if one is a man) or “sexy, thin and clueless” ones (if one is a woman)? What about the images of LGBT individuals? Aren’t these objectifications the way to “attract” and “sustain” love? What happens when you don’t fit the image?
Blurred Lines underscores these themes and creates a platform for discussion about challenging and reforming our gender values and behaviors. The first level toward transformation is awareness. The production takes us through this level and activates it by showing ways to reshape behavior in a culture whose current President has normalized grotesque sexual objectification of women as mere “locker room talk” and religious politicos have sought to defame and reject LGBT individuals.
The show’s vignettes about sexual consent, human beings as property, outer appearance versus inner being, the destructive concept of having to “be” machismo or sexy and feminine to be loved, and the agonies that transgender individuals experience speak to the heart of what lies beneath a culture of rape defined by this statistic:
“Out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free: 310 are reported to police, 57 reports lead to arrest, 11 cases get referred to prosecutors, 7 cases will lead to a felony conviction, and 6 rapists will be incarcerated.”
Blurred Lines is a terrific, maverick production. With powerful revelation it wipes away the scales from one’s eyes to show how paternalism still encourages rape culture by normalizing an objectification of bodies and appearances for sexual purposes only. Rape culture discounts the human soul inside the sexual object whether it be male, female or transgender.
This sold-out hit show has closed, for now. However, it should be seen by everyone; it is that good. Blurred Lines is available for bookings in schools and elsewhere. I would hope that Girl Be Heard will continue to seek out venues in which to perform this amazing, thrilling work. What it says we need to hear and see again and again.