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M.I.A. and the Real 'Bad Girls'

M.I.A. at the Super Bowl, photo courtesy of thegrio.com.

By now pretty much everyone knows M.I.A. as the bad girl who flipped off the Super Bowl halftime camera. But her fans are more preoccupied with her new music video, “Bad Girls”, in which BMWs and Mercedes Benzes race in a desert we presume to be in the Middle East, tires burn in nameless oil states, Bedouin-styled men ride stallions à la Casablanca, brown rebel-types tote guns, and backup dancers appear in not-quite-accurate hipsterized niqab and hijab.

I’ve watched the video dozens of times. I love the scenes of Oakland-style “ghost ridin’ the whip,” and I keep rewinding to the highway stuntmen skidding while gripping the doors of the speeding car at 2’55”. Yet I’m still left wondering how to make sense of “Bad Girls.”

I’ve always been drawn to the art of M.I.A. -- a Sri Lankan Tamil raised in England. When I first saw her “Galang” video back in 2005, I was awestruck: to have a visible Sri Lankan in Western popular culture seemed implausible. What struck me about M.I.A. early on is that she often positioned herself in relation to the Global South -- in videos emphasizing dance (i.e., “Bird Flu,” filmed in South India near Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camps; “Bucky Done Gun” in Brazil; and “Boyz” in Jamaica) or highlighting immigrant enclaves in the West (think “Paper Planes” in Brooklyn). The new video is much less clear in intent.

On Facebook and Twitter, there’s hot debate over “Bad Girls.” Many absolutely love the video, proclaiming it to be M.I.A’s big comeback, while others remain unsure. Some see it as embodying resistance to the norm, while others don’t think it resists enough.

For my part, I’m taken in but left feeling uneasy. What’s missing is the present context of North Africa and the Middle East; it’s been a year since the revolution that toppled Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s #Jan25 call that led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, the Libyan uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, and ongoing struggles for political justice in Syria and Yemen. Images, videos, and news reports of the region have shown inspiring scenes of resistance.

  Egyptian women protest military rule. Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera.

But in “Bad Girls”’ depictions of the Arab world, I see a false, hyped-up misrepresentation of the region we now know for the Arab Spring. I’m bothered by M.I.A.’s reproduction of Orientalist tropes -- “Orientalist” in Edward Said’s sense, of a distorted lens through which Arabs are viewed and “experienced” by the West. “Bad Girls” is just a hipper, high-definition stereotype of Arabs as desert-dwelling, sword-wielding, horse-riding, and dangerous.

M.I.A. and the video’s director, Romain Gavrais, perform controversy for the sake of controversy and cash in on the Arab Spring. They aestheticize the recent uprisings while avoiding a precise political statement.

I get that it’s just a music video. I also get that there’s only so much a music video can do. At the same time, compared to a reality in which Arab peoples are demanding control of their own representation, not as terrorists or blank faces with guns but as people fighting for political voice, “Bad Girls” seems lacking in creativity and vision. While undeniably hip, M.I.A.’s video is politically vacant in comparison to lesser-known artists with far fewer resources -- like DAM and Shadia Mansoor from Palestine and the Iraqi-Canadian rapper The Narcicyst.

Some have suggested that “Bad Girls” is a commentary on Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers. But this connection seems forced, borne of a desire to make sense of the video and give it a political meaning it does not in fact have. If such commentary were the point, it’d be women who drive the sideways-careening car upon which M.I.A. casually files her nails. And perhaps there’d be more women in the video altogether -- and I mean representative Arab women, not dancers dressed in hipster hijabi get-ups.

 Manal Al-Sharif drives. Photo courtesy of Newsone.com. 

M.I.A. has nothing on the real bad girls: Saudi women who have defied the ban on women driving -- like Wajeha al-Hawedar or Manal Al Sherif, who just filed suit over the ban last week -- or the Egyptian women who played a critical role in the marches and demonstrations against Mubarak.

In fact, M.I.A.’s Orientalism-meets-resistance is nothing new. Last year, on a world tour, her contract and casting call specified that the onstage extras would wear full burkas. And for what purpose -- to bring attention to the stereotypical submission of women who wear the veil or to objectify them ironically? Just because M.I.A. is “brown” doesn’t mean she gets to objectify non-Western cultures. Against the reality of North Africa and the Middle East today, the thrill of high-speed desert racing only gets her so far.

Thanu Yakupitiyage was born in Sri Lanka, raised in Thailand, and came to the U.S. to attend college. She now lives in New York City, where she is an immigrant rights activist and media expert by trade. She also organizes in communities of color through OWS and dabbles in music and pop culture. You can follow her on twitter at @ty_ushka.

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Anonymous wrote 3 years 25 weeks ago

the statement is...

maybe "the statement" of this video is just a tribute to DMX, since this is basically an imitation of his video for ruff ryders anthem from 1998, just with different vehicles in a different setting. seriously. watch it:
other possible statements related to this imitation:
the arab world is the new hood since USA is now "post-racial"? the American hood is just played out as a background accessory to make an artist look raw and tough? or, "I have to make myself look badass. what's even more threatening and sinister than black guys on motorcycles -I know - Arabs!" ...or just another predictably derivative product from MIA.

Sonic wrote 3 years 27 weeks ago

iawt post

I really like the song and the video as well because it's very kinetic and eye-catching, but I also agree with your points -
like, what was the message in the video??? I have no idea - like you, I also disagree that it has to do with women shirking their cultural shackles because except for the few in the beginning, I didn't see the women as active as the men were.

also, how ignorant to show everybody wearing burkas or long robes - as if there are no moroccans who dress in any other fashion.

being brown gives her no rights to caricaturize a culture/ethnicity any more than my being asian gives me the right to be racist against other ethnicities.

Anonymous wrote 3 years 28 weeks ago

Out of touch review

This post is so grossly out of touch with the reality of pop culture and the language of pop music video, it's embarassing. This video is clever, challenging and effective for the medium and channel it is intended for.

K wrote 3 years 28 weeks ago

Great Analysis

Great analysis! I've never seen MIA labeled an Orientalist before, but it makes sense. Especially in the context of your comment on her 'aestheticizing' the Arab Spring uprising without producing a concrete political statement. Her music does the same for the Global South in general. It's good to dance to, but politically it only works by providing rootless and decontextualized cultural signifiers that people then interpret as they wish. It's almost like a Third World Rorschach blot.

Rocat wrote 3 years 28 weeks ago

Whatever the ethereal debate is...

M.I.A certainly create controversy by surrounding Arab images and stereotypes by placing those images in the Western Mainstream. Surely the images in this video just highlight the lack of permeation of such images in Western Culture. When videos are made, I don't think it's 'cashing in' on the Arab Spring (unless its mainstream cool to don clothes primarily made for tough North African climates and over throw governments (if only (#99percent)), they end up with resonances, like the driving ban in Saudi. Thats the ambiguity of Art - we're all right.

Kirti Kamboj wrote 3 years 28 weeks ago

great analysis

Thanu, great post. I'm a huge fan of M.I.A. as well. I love her music, think she's done amazing things, and I really like this song, too. Yet I remain disturbed by how thoughtless and objectifying the video is. And you're completely right, just because M.I.A.'s brown doesn't mean she gets a pass on this. Thanks for the analysis, for breaking this all down.
Mara wrote 3 years 28 weeks ago

Love the car stunts!

And that's about all I like in this video. Totally agree with the orientalist representation issues and that brown folks shouldn't be objectifying other non-western folks. Just because I'm so desperate [seriously... how much longer do I need to wait] for diasporic south asian female pop stars, doesn't I'm ready to hold M.I.A. to a lower standard of critique. Thanks for doing this blog post so I can repost.

Anonymous wrote 3 years 29 weeks ago

M.I.A. is a feminist and

M.I.A. is a feminist and activist and I think this video exemplifies that.  She is making a statement about women's roles in the Arab spring and nodding to Arab/Muslim feminists, like the the Saudi women who bravely defied the law by driving in protest. Why? Because historically women still face sexism during and following civil rights movements. If we look at the U.S. civil rights movement, we see that many African American women fought and protested right along side African American men and yet, they were not allowed to have leadership roles during the "fight" and were still discriminated against (sexism) after. Furthermore, women's contributions were not valued or discussed despite the celebration of "Black history." So here we have Arab women, armed, driving like badasses while being cheered by men. I don't think M.I.A. is "objectifying non-Western cultures."  I think its actually the opposite. I would say what makes this video brilliant is that it is hip, memorizing and sure to be popular with the masses (including uneducated idiots, like this girl: http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=endscreen&v=1H-MpDbjnCw). So now millions of viewers will see (not the political meaning, but) images of Arabs who aren't terrorists (and Arab women who are empowered). Furthermore, I think one could argue that the video includes "desert-dwelling, sword-wielding, horse-riding" Arabs, not to fetishize the culture, but to show that a push for democracy doesn't mean people should or will become "Westernized." The Arab spring is/was about an uprising of people for change on their own terms. More about women's roles in the Arab spring: http://www.msmagazine.com/spring2011/womenofthearabspring.asp  

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