Brown Masking: What Critics Missed in MIA’s “Bad Girls”

The music video above, MIA’s “Bad Girls,” was made in solidarity with the movement for better equality for women in Saudi Arabia, specifically around the issue of allowing women to drive cars. That issue has recently seen a return to the headlines, and as such, now is a good time to re-examine some of the problems the video poses.

The video depicts women in camo-style abayas and hijabs and men in standard thawbs, performing dangerous stunts on cars in a desert setting. Most critics loved the video for its depiction of women in clothing that was neither Orientalising nor near nude, yet few critics have voiced concern of MIA’s appropriation and silencing of Arab and Muslim women. The question I wish to raise is whether viewers believe that MIA, of Sri Lankan descent, is within this culture — whether “brown issues” are universal from Turkey and the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent. In raising the question, we must consider MIA’s outsider status that is hidden from most criticism because of her apparent move toward racial and gender solidarity through the song.

MIA, as an artist, has spoken openly about her politics, especially around oppression for fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka. Her megahit “Paper Planes” made explicit references to illegal border crossing, refugee status, and the perceptions of existing in a new culture. The song lifts from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” a song similarly concerned with refugee culture, as well as Amerasians in Vietnam and the changing working conditions in England. Even the questionable song “Come Around,” exploring the cultural mélange of diaspora in a refugee camp, positions the issue of displacement in the fore. The questionable nature of “Come Around” arises with Timbaland’s feature in the song, in which he either purposely or accidentally confusing MIA’s identity as “Indian” with that of a Native American.

The New York Times, cleverly, has covered the fact that MIA has used her voice to speak for people who couldn’t speak for themselves while using her own wealth to live a rather lux lifestyle. The writer of the article drew a line of comparison between her apparent concern for the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka and her ability to order truffle oil fries. The problem: how can one fight for political and radical change yet be such a conspicuous consumer in the world of capitalism?

So. The “Bad Girls” video. It has some of the same problems. MIA’s skin perhaps keeps critics from seeing the video as silencing toward Middle Eastern woman. They might think browness in one culture can be transmitted and used elsewhere. This video should, however, be considered in the same way we might consider a white American artist covering culture in the Balkans. Certainly the American artist and the people of the Balkans may look similar, but the culture is different, the oppressive forces that surround them are different, and forms of solidarity must be careful to show the difference and appreciation for the culture one wishes to help and speak for.

This is important because in the MIA video, no one else speaks. While maybe they’re not bikini-clad, the existence of women of color is still reserved to the background, and it remains appalling. Check out this commentary video:

As the video shows, MIA is speaking to men first and foremost, and it appears that the dancers aren’t even from Saudi Arabia; they are just dressed to reflect the “native” culture MIA is attempting to reach. The posturing of the figures as tough, and the video’s setting (which is actually Morocco), reveal, yes, a mix of concern for women around the world, but also the limitations of the music video format. The director has stated that the iconography and the fantasized image of the Arab world was an important aspect of the video. And the films primary stunts are performed by a white French couple. Meanwhile the video, despite its attempt to make them visible, continues to silence them by choosing Arab street car culture over any overt political message. The Arab iconography by the end of the video meets the more common hip-hop b-boy iconography that dominates American airwaves.

We can then see how this video reminds us that escaping bodily exploitation in the pop world may be nearly impossible. Further evidence: Consider the new music video for Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here,” a video that is certainly critical of Miley Cyrus’ use of bodies, must never the less use the same bodies to get to the message: that the music industry has a stake in seeing certain images and ideas sell.

Without a doubt, music videos are an art form, a mix of cultural practices — from American advertising to comic book references — yet they remain one of the most troubling practices within the music industry. More than simply saying that “sex sells,” it seems as accurate to say that bodies sell just as well. That’s why it’s important to be especially critical of not only artists but of formats — a point that I made last month. Authenticity is hard to come by, and the willingness for an artist to address the boundaries of one’s experience with the experience of the world is, too, hard to delineate. A final thought: consider Gwen Stefani’s use not only of Tokyo’s Harajuku culture but also her previous use of the bindi. Alone this may be troubling but consider the people who may have dressed up as Stefani for Halloween. All of a sudden, the question arises of what exactly is being appropriated: is it the image of Indian culture or is it Gwen Stefani’s?