This week, musician M.I.A erupted in the headlines for an unexpected display of her middle finger in front of more than 110 million viewers of the Super Bowl halftime show. She has also just released the video for her latest single, “Bad Girls," and it too has begun to stir controversy, generating a range of speculations on its true meaning.
Whatever one’s individual interpretation might be, the video clearly depicts hackneyed stereotypes of the Arab world, and perpetuating these can have a real impact on the way our society views others.
M.I.A is of course no stranger to controversy. The half-time incident pales in comparison to some of her much more overtly political commentary, which has included both bold statements and subtler overtones in support of contentious issues, like the armed liberation struggle of the Tamil Tigers in her native Sri Lanka. And most notably, she faced an onslaught of controversy for her politically-charged and highly graphic video for “Born Free,” which depicted a disturbing massacre of redheaded males (seen as a broader commentary on genocide) that caused YouTube to place a ban on it in the U.S. when it was first released in 2010.
Not unlike many of her earlier songs, the new video for "Bad Girls," which portrays lawless street racing set to the backdrop of a Moroccan desert, has also begun to generate lively debate.
Some argue that the message is a fundamentally empowering one, particularly for women, and that it is even an unequivocal and unabashed critique of Saudi Arabia's well-known ban against women driving (after all, the video does quite literally put women, or at least one woman, in the driver's seat). Yet others claim that the overarching impact of this video is a perpetuation of orientalized depictions of Arab culture.
Still others might see both these interpretations as reading too deeply, and instead argue that the video is simply an anthem of hedonism and rebellion (after all, M.I.A continually instructs us throughout the song to "live fast, die young"), and one which relies on the same type of vivid and sensational imagery that is so pervasive in the world of mainstream music videos today.
Some of the most distinctive elements of the video itself include depictions of veiled, cloaked, and occasionally armed Arabs who make up the background of the scenes, along with some burning oil fields in the distance, several car racing stunts, a few galloping desert horses, and M.I.A's hips gyrating throughout.
Even if the video is some attempt to reclaim these stereotypical images in some way, aren't we inundated enough with these kinds of caricatures of the Arab world, in both mainstream media and popular culture?
Despite her track record of weaving sharp social and political criticisms into her music, I can't help but feel that one of the primary impacts of M.I.A's latest video is indeed to perpetuate already pervasive images of Arab exoticism to at least some degree.
M.I.A may be known for representing marginalized and silenced populations, and perhaps even symbolizing (as she puts it in the song "Paper Planes") the movement for "third world democracy," but doesn't this video's heavy reliance on worn-out stereotypes and exploiting images of silent and mysterious-looking Arabs to serve as the backdrop for her performance undermine that in some way?
And isn't it somewhat ironic that M.I.A is an artist whose career has been fundamentally based on breaking from convention and shattering stereotypes, yet this latest video utilizes certain pervasive stereotypes of Arab culture?
In my opinion, the reason we should pay attention to the promotion of these kinds of stereotypes, regardless of the intentions behind this or any other work of pop culture, is because these images aren't simply innocuous; instead, they can have a real impact on justifying prejudice attitudes and even shaping foreign policy (as Jack Shaheen argues in his seminal work, Reel Bad Arabs).
Ultimately, viewers will continue to differ in their interpretations of this video (and this is a testament to M.I.A.’s continued ability to generate controversy), but the stereotypes in it give us good reason to pause and reflect on how such seemingly harmless depictions can, in fact, truly shape the way our society perceives and deals with others.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons