11/14/2013 10:50 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

The Problematic Racism of Lily Allen's 'Satire' of Sexism

Some of Allen's digs at misogyny in the music industry are spot on. But then there are those scantily clad black backup dancers twerking, p-popping and pouring bottles of champagne over their bodies that have led many to accuse Allen of using black women as props, perpetuating harmful stereotypes whilst exploiting them.

Let's begin with this: Lily Allen hasn't done anything particularly revolutionary with "Hard Out Here." She's sparked an interesting, possibly fruitful discussion about racism and feminism with the music video, but the song itself has added no new ideas to an ongoing conversation. With familiar, clichéd (and kinda problematic) lyrics like "Don't need to shake my ass for you, 'cause I've got a brain," Allen is continuing in the tradition of a mainstream feminism made palatable for pop audiences. This is a song that simplifies a complex idea into very black and white terms, a catchy, unthreatening Girl Power anthem designed to make us sorta think, but mostly nod our heads. And that's fine. No one is expecting Allen to condense all feminist theory into a four minute track.

But despite the general simplicity of the song's message, its video has further complicated whatever ideas Allen and director Chris Sweeney intended to expand on. If we wade through the myriad of think pieces and blog posts that have emerged following the release of the "Hard Out Here" video, the two main reactions are that one: the video is a great "scathing pop culture commentary"; or two: the video is super, super racist. Some of Allen's digs at misogyny in the music industry, like the record exec criticizing her body's apparent imperfections, are spot on. But then there are those scantily clad black backup dancers twerking, p-popping and pouring bottles of champagne over their bodies that have led many to accuse Allen of using black women as props, perpetuating harmful stereotypes whilst exploiting them.

Supporters of the video, leaving comments on online articles, on the video's YouTube page, on Twitter, seem frustrated by the notion that by pointing out the problematic racial elements of the video critics are thus ignoring a more important overlying message which is the objectification of women on the whole. They insist that the whole point of the video is that these dancers are being objectified and, besides, they are in on the joke, and if you're in on the joke, you can't really be exploited.

Allen herself has chosen to combat accusations of appropriation and racism by cloaking herself in the trusty "satire" blanket. If critics don't get the sarcasm, as she points out in her song, they're simply not understanding. In a response Allen posted on Twitter yesterday, she revealed her dancers were not chosen because of "the colour of their skin" (a phrase that really just needs to die), adding that the video was 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." There, there lies the problem with this video, or at the very least its concept. By approaching it with the same black and white simplicity that she does her song, Allen fails to realize that sometimes, especially when it comes to women of colour, it's impossible to separate race and gender -- they're too deeply entwined.

One of the dancers, Seliza Sebastian, took to her own Twitter account to declare: "I am a PROFESSIONAL ACTRESS/DANCER. In this video we are PLAYING CHARACTERS! This video does NOT define ME." But that's the problem with images as pervasive as the ones depicted in Allen's video. After a while, they begin to define not only individuals but whole groups of people. They become shorthand for things like "slutty," or "materialistic," or "stupid." But they aren't universal images. They're not emblematic for all women. They become racialized, specific to black women. And when that's juxtaposed with a demure English singer singing about how she doesn't have to shake her ass because she isn't stupid, it becomes a problem.

The biggest issue here isn't that Allen chose to satirize the twerking dancers in hip hop videos, but that she chose to satirize something that doesn't actually affect her, that she could stand apart from and present as a sort of oddity. Allen may say she's critiquing "pop culture," but the only images we see are those that echo hip-hop culture and, in effect, black culture. That's where the disconnect comes in. For satire to work, it has to be a little subversive. What makes the "Lily Allen Has a Baggy Pussy" set piece work is that it subverts something instantly recognizable to any connoisseur of pop culture. We see those balloon letters and we know it's a dig at Robin Thicke. Some have made the rather dubious argument that the black dancers are actually a critique of Miley Cyrus's appropriation and exploitation of black hip hop culture in her videos and performances. But the dancers are directed to play their roles so thoroughly that they're indistinguishable from what they're supposed to be parodying.

Hip hop is deserving in many ways of critique; there's no excusing the images that we see in some rap videos. But by focusing most of her attention on the hip hop video tropes of big booty dancers and spinning rims while delivering the message that "sexism is bad," Allen's essentially equating all sexism with that which is found in rap videos. But there's sexism outside of hip hop, that doesn't hinge on the objectification of black women's bodies, or any women's bodies, and a critique of that would have been far more engaging. That's ultimately the problem with Allen's brand of pop feminism, though. In order to empower women just like her, she's had to exclude and make a mockery of countless others.