M.I.A. And The Real ‘Bad Girls’

By Guest Contributor Thanu Yakupitiyage, cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine

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.

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.

Courtesy of Newsone.com

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.

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.

  • Sama Farah

    Its no shock with all the events in the Arab world that MIA’s video for the song ‘Bad Girls’
    has reached over 17 million views. The video, shot by Romain Gavras in
    the Moroccan desert, features women clad in flashy aluminum Burqas
    racing dusty BMW’s while the men wearing plain white look on from the
    sidelines. Initially I loved the video, I saw it as challenge to the
    Saudi ban on women driving. But just like MIA’s Superbowl performance,
    upon further inspection it left me with some lingering questions.
    Firstly, if it was a commentary on the ludicrous nature of Saudi law
    with regards to women, then why aren’t the women driving the sideways
    cars? This would have made the video more of a satire on the Saudi law,
    as if a Saudi leader might say to himself “Ahh let women drive?
    Impossible, a woman would drive a car sideways!”.

    After this analyses, I realized that I was reading more into the
    video then was actually there. I can’t deny that MIA has not done
    anything revolutionary with this video, she still represented a limited
    view of Arab women & Arab culture. Yet I was so used to seeing Arab
    culture depicted without any sense of hope, fun, pride, that this video
    was overly appreciated. We all know that Romain Gavras and MIA were
    trying to stir up something with this video, and the way in which they
    did it was by taking bits and pieces of Arab culture and stitching it
    with MIA’s grunge chic in order to produce a hipper version of Arab
    stereotypes. So why did most of my other  Middle Eastern friends and I
    love it? Because we are not used to seeing pop culture depicting Arabs
    as hipster chic. Usually its the dirty Arab, or the Angry Arab, or the
    bland Burqa Arab. At least MIA’s characters had some flavor, but they
    definitely lack dimension.

    All in all, this video does not represent much that I have come to
    see as the Saudi woman. But it does have some pleasing aesthetics, and
    some Abayas I would consider buying. So I give this video a B-

    http://islaminthemodernera.wordpress.com/

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  • Jinxiejade

    I’ve always wondered how much our expectations of minorities play into things like this? Would people be as disappointed if MIA weren’t a lady of color? Would people be angrier or less angry? MIA has always struck me as someone using 3rd World chic to sell her self, but at the same time seemed reasonably trying to show people another view of life. 

  • Jinxiejade

    I’ve always wondered how much our expectations of minorities play into things like this? Would people be as disappointed if MIA weren’t a lady of color? Would people be angrier or less angry? MIA has always struck me as someone using 3rd World chic to sell her self, but at the same time seemed reasonably trying to show people another view of life. 

  • Suzanne Lindgren

    Beautifully researched, well-thought and argued. Thank you!

  • Suzanne Lindgren

    Beautifully researched, well-thought and argued. Thank you!

  • dersk

    I think you meant Lawrence of Arabia, not Casablanca.

  • dersk

    I think you meant Lawrence of Arabia, not Casablanca.

  • Anonymous

     M.I.A has always toed the line between Hipster and Radical, whether it be in courting controversy regarding Sri Lanka’s persecution of the Tamils, or when she flips off the camera during the Super-Bowl (which, by the way, I thought was perfectly justified since popular male rappers do it all the time).

    That said, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt over others, such as Amy Sedaris. Why? Because M.I.A has actually lived globalization, structural racism and sexism, even though she now enjoys a fair measure of financial privilege.

    More importantly, she actually cares about these issues, bringing focus and attention where others wouldn’t.

    But this isn’t to condone exoticizing Middle-Eastern peoples, or to dismiss legitimate concerns of objectification of non-Western cultures, although certainly it feels that way. It’s rather my opinion that as an entertainer, particularly an entertainer of her background in an industry sorely lacking actual diversity, there is no inherent responsibility for her to always come correct. She shouldn’t have to be the voice for these issues just because she can.

    Rather, let the activists deal with political vacancy, and let the musicians deal with playing music, even/especially when the two overlap. I don’t want to take art too seriously, lest I make the mistake of confusing the art for the artist.

  • Austin

    I get what your article is trying to say, and empathize with it to a degree even, but let’s not make it the burden of the brown artist to educate the West about the struggles of brown folk /all the time/. This video wasn’t really political. It was representative of youth car culture in Dubai, and it was dope as FUCK. It’s a great hip hop video, and i think that, in and of itself, is important. It connects the (arguably) most vibrant youth culture of the West (hip hop) with a lesser known culture in the Arab World. I actually read the video as positing the Middle East and North Africa in a different light than we usually the region. In the video she showcased the idea of “cool,” she showcased empowered women (they killed the choreo, and I see how this could be read as problematic, but I LOVED the visual of Arab women with guns. It suggested power that the West usually doesn’t ascribe to Arab women), and a really dope youth culture. I love the discussion that the article brings up, but I think the author kind of missed the point.

  • Austin

    I get what your article is trying to say, and empathize with it to a degree even, but let’s not make it the burden of the brown artist to educate the West about the struggles of brown folk /all the time/. This video wasn’t really political. It was representative of youth car culture in Dubai, and it was dope as FUCK. It’s a great hip hop video, and i think that, in and of itself, is important. It connects the (arguably) most vibrant youth culture of the West (hip hop) with a lesser known culture in the Arab World. I actually read the video as positing the Middle East and North Africa in a different light than we usually the region. In the video she showcased the idea of “cool,” she showcased empowered women (they killed the choreo, and I see how this could be read as problematic, but I LOVED the visual of Arab women with guns. It suggested power that the West usually doesn’t ascribe to Arab women), and a really dope youth culture. I love the discussion that the article brings up, but I think the author kind of missed the point.

  • Alecat10

    I too am a fan of MIA despite her somewhat problematic representation of Third World struggles, and of the conflict in Sri Lanka.  I like her sound, her beauty, and the fact that even though I disagree with some things she says, she is incredibly unique.  

    One thing that strikes me: in her rush to essentialize the Middle East and North Africa despite being an outsider to that region, as you rightly show in this post, she missed an opportunity to engage in some very real social critique that could have gone beyond orientalist tropes – namely, the horrific working conditions and abuses against the thousands of Sri Lankan women (both Tamil and Sinhalese) who work in wealthy Gulf States.  

  • caleb

    This is a great article!  It’s very nice to read criticisms of M.I.A. coming from someone “taken in but left feeling uneasy,” as opposed to the taste-making hipster criticisms that wish it was “Galang” all over again, and basically judge her for not being an easy celebrity.  As if her celebrity could ever be easy?

    In that context, part of my read on this video has been always been as a response to the joy-riding Kanye and Jay-Z video for “Otis.”  When I think about the differences there (and between this and the super problematic Madonna video in which M.I.A. features, yikes!), I am somewhat more inspired by what she is offering as an artist, knowing that she is sharing actual cultural space with these voices.  Is her critique fraught with hipster privilege?  Yes, certainly.  But it puts some (not all) of these issues on the table and that’s worth lots to me.  

    And thanks for the Shadia Mansour tip!

  • kaej

    I read somewhere that director Romain Gavras was inspired to film that after seeing online videos of youths doing car stunts, motorbike stunts and skateboard stunts in Dubai. Themselves were inspired by drifting and racing films. Maybe Gavras and perhaps M.I.A. wanted to show there’s more to the middle east than wars, oil, politics and serious current affairs. Like acknowledging the existence of those youths.  

    I’m all for it if my guess is right. Exploitation? Maybe, but I think it’s needed in order to increase an awareness, even if a representation or issue is trivial. 

    “ “Bad Girls” is just a hipper, high-definition stereotype of Arabs as desert-dwelling, sword-wielding, horse-riding, and dangerous.”

    I don’t see them in the video that way. I was surprised when I saw those stunts and that was when I realised they were just like us. 

    • Anonymous


      Maybe Gavras and perhaps M.I.A. wanted to show there’s more to the middle east than wars, oil, politics and serious current affairs. Like acknowledging the existence of those youths. ”

      That’s how I see it, although it is also a fantasy that intentionally goes beyond the reality. I think it’s a depiction of an Arab “street” that is doing a typical hip-hop crowd scene video. So it’s playing with expectations about what that crowd would look like and be doing. The Western expectation about Arabs, especially Arabs from the Gulf oil states, is that they wouldn’t be doing any of these things, in fact wouldn’t be *allowed* to do any of these things, in particular the women. 

      On the other hand, it’s expressly not a typical hip-hop video in the Western context. The “bad girl” backup dancers are wearing niqab (interesting that the video switches to black backup dancers with uncovered hair about halfway through), there’s no alcohol or flesh, the men wear traditional clothing, etc. My reaction to this video was, how cool would it be if this were happening somewhere? So the video does activate a fantasy, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a strictly “Orientalist” fantasy. It’s more like a dream of cultural possibility, albeit from the outside.

    • http://derica.tumblr.com SpeakCollaborateListen

      kaej, what really frustrates me about your argument is that you’re so willing to argue that ‘Exploitation’ is okay, even ‘needed in order to increase an awareness’. In other words, a poor and one-dimensional representation of people who are not you is fine as long as you can gain ‘awareness’ of their existence and then be comforted by the knowledge that they are ‘just like us’. 

      So, your right to consume one-dimensional images of people far away is being placed over and above the need to represent people with nuance, and without simply replicating the stereotypes that already shape popular Western conceptions of them.  This is dangerous (and arrogant) thinking, because if we learn anything from Edward Said (invoked in Ms. Yakupitiyage’s article, bigup!) it’s that representations matter. The point is that these images are seductive in the same way that those romantic sword-wielding images of old were, but just because they don’t seem outrightly insulting or derogatory it doesn’t mean they are harmless. While MIA’s intentions may be great, ultimately, they really don’t matter – these images will have afterlives that far exceed her good intentions.

      Finally, these ‘youths’ go on existing whether you acknowledge them or not, and if anything, their continued existence is actually jeopardised by the skewed and reductive representations the article analyses.

      p.s. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwCOSkXR_Cw

  • liebe

    Genuinely curious. How does the video compare when viewed through the lens of “culturefuck”, parallel to the concept of “genderfuck” in the LGBTQ community?

    • C W

      “culturefuck”, parallel to the concept of “genderfuck” in the LGBTQ community?”I’d say it does seem closer to co-opting and cultural appropriation than the glorious-bizarre mishmash and synthesis of genderfuck.

      • liebe

        I wasn’t implying that this concept didn’t include cultural appropriation. But I guess I also have issues with genderfuck. 

        • Dana

          Oh my gosh, not to derail but do you have references about the problematic elements of genderfuck? I have been craving that discussion.

  • Kat

    I think this is a really interesting article. I enjoyed reading it especially due to my own years in Sri Lanka. I interpreted the video not as containing any political message either, but also did not see this as relating or even evoking Egypt in any way. To me this is the Oman, Dubai style Arab World which is very unlike Egypt or Libya in the first place. I feel queasy about the video for some reason. I felt already queasy about her redhead killing one though.

  • Brandon

    I think that the world is waking up the fact that MIA doesn’t have much to say; her music is an inspired series of vague revolutionary slogans with great beats from around the world.

    I’m just not convinced that she has that much to say.

  • Noob456

    MIA has always been a fake revolutionary. her whole career is one as a rebellion-touring hipster, going to different locations and imitating the rebellion of the moment, so that she can attach her name to it in order to appear “edgy”.  and as the article stated, she feels she has the privilege to do this simply because her skin is brown. its nothing more than a marketing gimmick.