Is Cilmi a chauvinist?
Sacha Molitorisz | November 22, 2008 Source: Brisbane Times
Gabriella Cilmi is a Melbourne teenager who came from nowhere - that is, Dandenong - to win six ARIA awards last month. That's one award for every man bound, gagged, trussed or tethered in the video clip for Cilmi's breakthrough song, Sweet About Me.
A catchy number in the style of Amy Winehouse, Sweet About Me is all innocent and playful, until it reaches the chorus. "Sweet about me," sings Cilmi, who turned 17 last month. "Nothin' sweet about me."
A cheeky lyric, and the video clip is cheekier. Performing with her band, Cilmi wears skinny jeans, cowboy boots and an air of confidence in a stylish, warehouse-shot clip shot that's just like hundreds of stylish, warehouse-shot clips. So far, so predictable.
But as the camera follows the singer, it reveals a man bound and gagged and hanging upside down, suspended from the rafters. The revelation is underplayed, as if the presence of a shackled, dangling man is no big deal. Then the camera reveals another victim, tied with rope and reaching frantically for what looks like a mobile phone. It turns out to be a harmonica, which he grasps just in time to play a solo. Next Cilmi arrives at a young man stuck in a box. Only the man's head and arms are showing, upon which Cilmi pours water (or is it vodka?). A fourth man is gaffer taped to the floor; a fifth is tied to a chair; a sixth is caught in a net.
In the war of the sexes, it seems, Cilmi will not be a victim. "When you're playing with desire," she sings, "Don't come running to my place when it burns like fire, boy." It's an empowerment anthem for modern gals.
What if a similar clip had the genders reversed? Say, with Damien Leith crooning, "I'm a nice guy - out in public," as he passes a succession of writhing mannequins strapped to his bedhead. Or Robbie Williams singing, "I'll respect you in the morning, but not tonight", as he bundles a handcuffed businesswoman into a crate beside half-a-dozen near-nude colleagues. Can you imagine?
"Of course not," says Helen Garner, author of The First Stone. "Because there's no history of women's violence towards men that it would be subverting
Fair point. And if Cilmi is subverting the history of men's violence towards women, she isn't alone. Rather, she's evidence of a growing trend towards what might be termed reverse sexism or female chauvinism. Especially in advertising, where women are increasingly ogling, objectifying and victimising blokes.
In the late 1990s a Voodoo hosiery billboard showing a near-naked woman sitting astride a naked man tied up with black stockings. In 2005 a Morning Fresh TV ad showed a woman striking a man over the head with a spanner.
Also generating controversy: a soup ad showing a policewoman felling a male crook with a kick to the groin; a Volkswagen Polo ad showing a female driver laughing upon seeing the crotch of a male courier in her side mirror beside the words, "Objects in mirror may appear bigger than actual size"; and another Voodoo billboard with two naked crouching men on a leash wearing only dog collars. In response, masculinists and men's libbers now argue they are the ones suffering. These days men are claiming the right to be victims too. Not that you will hear Kathy Lette crying. "It's a man's world," says Lette, author of 10 novels about the sex war. "One hundred years since Emmeline Pankhurst tied herself to the railings and women still don't have equal pay, and we're still getting concussion hitting our heads on the glass ceiling - plus we're expected to Windex it while we're up there. Until women are treated as equals instead of sequels, we have every right to comically kneecap you in ads or song clips. And you're pathetic whinge bags if you complain about it."
I'm not complaining. As a man - albeit a man with a woman's name - Cilmi's video is not offensive. It's harmless and clever, with a mood that's more teen dress-ups than Nazi-themed sex romp. Not one of her victims looks distressed. These young men may be deprived of their liberty, but every hair is in place. That, presumably, is the main thing. But is Cilmi's video is a step towards or away from gender equality? By tying up boys, is she countering stereotypes and redressing past injustices? Or is her reverse sexism dark and potentially damaging - a vengeful wrong in answer to an earlier wrong?
It's the former, a necessary step on the path to parity. For too long, men have held power at the expense of women; now, in a few corners of pop culture, this inequality has been overcorrected and replaced by an inverted inequality. In some music videos and ads, sex objects and sex subjects have traded places. As long as this inversion is both temporary and playful, I'm all for it
At the end of her clip, the diminutive Cilmi steps up onto a box and lets the man fall from the rafters. He lands out of shot, but I'm guessing he's bruised but intact, his little game of subjugation and submission finished for the day. And presumably Cilmi then liberates the rest of her prisoners, including the boy in the box.
I like the clip; but I'm also looking forward to the arrival of a more pervasive, profound gender equality. Only then, when we're finally all liberated from the metaphorical box of inequality, will men and women be free to put each other in literal boxes, regardless of gender. Playfully, of course.