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