‘Get Her Back’, ‘Cutoff culture’ and men who won’t let go

Content note: abusive relationships, harassment, rape, stalking

‘Oh shit, another Robin Thicke song.’

That was my reaction last week when I saw the launch of Robin Thicke’s new music video pop up in my Facebook news feed. Thicke, as you probably already know, is the singer of ‘Blurred Lines’, which became the best-selling single of 2013 despite being condemned by the charity Rape Crisis and banned at twenty universities for lyrics which glorify the idea that it’s OK for a man to harass a woman for sex, because her ‘no’ secretly means ‘yes’. Thicke has become tediously inescapable in the past year, braying “I know you want it”, “You’re a good girl”, “You’re an animal”, “Must wanna get nasty” and other lines resembling those used by rapists to blame their victims from the speakers at every club and party. sinkingly nasty and misogynistic: ‘Get Her Back.’ I was compelled to do some Googling, and what I learned about the context of ‘Get Her Back’ made the song downright disturbing. The album it’s taken from is called Paula and dedicated exclusively and in the most nakedly public way to Thicke’s separation from his wife, the actor Paula Patton, from February of this year.

One of the things that made this news story creepy to me was the number of parallels with another story from earlier this year. Last year Jeff Reifman published an online article, ‘Shining Light on Cutoff Culture’, about the distress he experienced when a former partner of his stopped communicating with him after they broke up:

Because Emma’s withdrawal and eventual cutoff surprised me so much, I had a lot of intense emotions and questions about what she’d experienced and the choices she’d made. Rather than face my need for explanation and desire for resolution, she chose to withdraw.

I found Reifman’s piece via the ever-brilliant Captain Awkward. She and her commenters thoroughly discuss here what’s wrong with the article, which essentially suggests that Emma should have put her own discomfort and fear aside to give him the continued contact after the break-up he felt he deserved.

In both Thicke’s song and Reifman’s article, the speaker perpetuates the idea that his former partner is being the unreasonable one by trying to separate from him or set boundaries on their communication. Reifman repeatedly blames Emma for the “bewilderment and sadness” the separation caused him and for making him feel “utterly powerless”, and speculates that she suffered traumatic past experiences – despite her apparently never telling him that she did so – which caused her to behaved in this way.

After nearly a year of silence, I reached out to her and we began a series of conversations toward repairing our friendship. She said she had recently begun dating someone new and I think it was difficult for her to talk to me about our relationship. Her response was to withdraw again. There were misunderstandings and miscommunication.

She stopped responding to my email and when I called to inquire she blocked my number and emailed me to stop contacting her. Over a space of nine months, I wrote her two kind emails in the spirit of healing. Finally, she replied, “I do not want to see or hear from you ever again” and threatened to file an anti-harassment order against me. The open, thoughtful, communicative Emma I knew had vanished.

No one except Reifman and his ex can know the truth of what happened between them, of course, but his account of events seems oddly evasive. He uses the passive ‘There were misunderstandings and miscommunication’ rather than admitting any responsibility for those ‘misunderstandings’. Filing a restraining order is a very serious action, and the fact that Emma was considering it suggests that she felt actually frightened by Reifman’s communications – which included sending her two e-mails after she requested that he stop contacting her – and that the sensitive way to make amends would be to respect that fear, even if he doesn’t understand it or think it’s justified, and back off all dealings with her. However, Reifman has now rehashed their entire relationship with a public online article making all Emma’s actions out to be callous and unreasonable. ‘Emma’ is a pseudonym, but he includes enough specific detail about her that mutual friends will know who he’s talking about. Thus, the entire article becomes a public, and highly personal, vehicle for criticising Emma in ways that could potentially humiliate her or invade her privacy.

Similarly, Thicke has presented the release of Paula as a public romantic gesture to win his wife back. At Monday night’s 2014 BET Awards, he dedicated a song to her and projected a private photograph of the two of them onto the stage. He again dedicated a song to her at a concert in Fairfax, Virginia, telling the audience “For y’all that don’t know, me and my wife separated but I’m trying to get my girl back.” His language here mimics his defence of ‘Blurred Lines’, which he said he wrote about his and Patton’s relationship: “She’s my good girl. And I know she wants it.”

I’m sure calling a partner (in this case, an ex-partner) ‘my’ woman/girl/man/boy is romantic and affectionate for many people, but in this particular context, it’s hard not to see Thicke’s remarks as denoting infantilisation and ownership: Patton is a ‘girl’ and she is his property, not a 38-year-old woman and a person in her own right. And how dare property develop a mind of its own and try to wonder away? The other song titles on Paula include ‘You’re My Fantasy’, ‘Still Madly Crazy’, ‘Lock the Door’ and ‘Whatever I Want’, also perpetuating the idea that not only is she ‘his’, but that if she doesn’t accept that, he’ll go ‘crazy’ and do ‘whatever he wants’, possibly including locking her up, to keep her.

It’s impossible to know the real circumstances of Thicke and Patton’s marriage and unhelpful to speculate. Patton herself has not commented much publicly on the separation, but did tell Vanity Fair “All I can tell you is there’s a deep love there – always was, and always will be”. But Thicke’s lyrics and public statements clearly perpetuate the idea that women are to be viewed as objects or as men’s possessions, not people in their own right, and this ideology drives real-world misogyny and abuse. Either he genuinely believes it, or he is irresponsibly happy to promote it in both his music and his public persona, because hey, the misogynist market is pretty big and represents plenty of song downloads.

Although one is a serious think piece and one is a pop video, Thicke and Reifman both present the idea that their exes trying to end the relationship on their own terms is unacceptable. They are even similar in small things, such as reproducing private communications – Reifman quotes from personal e-mails Emma sent him, Thicke includes what appear to be genuine text messages from Patton in the ‘Get Her Back’ video. In both cases, sharing messages about personal affairs that the sender must have reasonably expected to be private doesn’t seem like a great way to show care or respect for either woman.

More seriously, both ‘Cutoff Culture’ and ‘Get Her Back’ include implied threats of violence. Reifman states:

I believe that most domestic violence is the result of men with trauma histories reacting to powerlessness in response to experiences with their ex, friends, or family. Certainly men are responsible for finding nonviolent ways to respond to feeling powerless, but culturally we need to understand the dynamics driving these kinds of situations if we’re to reduce them.

Captain Awkward responds to this:

Domestic violence springs from a sense of contempt and entitlement towards women. Men who abuse women don’t think that women are entitled to their own needs, feelings, opinions, and personal space. They think women exist to be emotional caretakers and nannies for men, and that when they fail to put men first, it somehow constitutes “violence” that must be contained and retaliated against. Sound like anyone we know? This is a chilling, MRA-style argument that makes violence against women the fault of women.

Including a reference to domestic violence and excusing it as something men are driven to by mistreatment from others makes the tone of Reifman’s piece much more serious and potentially threatening. Similarly, the music video for ‘Get Her Back’ features images of Thicke with his face bloodied and, at the end, pointing his fingers in the shape of a gun at his head, as well as shots of what appears to be a woman drowning. The whole video is low-lit and feels weirdly ominous for something supposed to accompany a romantic song. As the blog Fiending for Hope argues:

Am I calling Robin Thicke an abuser? No. I do not know what goes on behind closed doors in his relationship. But what I am saying is that he is exhibiting behavior that is characteristic of an abuser. I work as a domestic violence advocate. I am a survivor of domestic violence myself. And if one of my clients told me that her partner was doing and saying this kind of shit, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it manipulative, controlling, and abusive.

The video displays many of the common behaviours abusers use to manipulate their victims into getting back into a relationship with them when they try to escape, including threats of suicide (implied in the gun hand gesture), of violence (the drowning woman) and trying to make themselves seem like the victim in the eyes of mutual friends – in this case, the whole music-buying public, who are being encouraged to see Thicke as a sad panda who deserves a second chance, and his persistent chasing after Patton as a romantic grand gesture that she’s mean and heartless to refuse. Thicke is playing into familiar romantic narratives of pursuit in the name of repairing a relationship here, but ask yourself: would you want this? If you decided you didn’t want to be in a relationship anymore, how would you like your ex-partner to respond? With an ‘Obviously that hurts, but OK’? Or with repeated e-mails, texts and face-to-face confrontations, appeals to mutual friends and blame and criticism towards you, all designed to get you to change your mind?

When you’ve been dumped, the best way to show you love and respect the dumper as much as you claim is, paradoxically, to separate as quickly as possible, then give them the break in communication they asked for. To quote the wise Captain Awkward again, “Once you make the decision to break up with your boyfriend, the relationship is over.” In real life, trying to get the relationship back isn’t kind or dignified behaviour. Cutting someone off hurts them, but not as much as pursuing them when they’ve made it clear they want to be let alone. The risks of behaving like that just aren’t worth it.

I’ve seen someone refuse to take ‘I’m breaking up with you’ for an answer first-hand – and he’s an abuser. A friend of mine has a boyfriend who has abused her emotionally, by ‘punishing’ her for talking to any other man in his presence with hostile and humiliating rage and cold silence, and physically: after they had an argument on a night out because of this, he left her, then later waited outside a club she was in and, when she left, jumped out and hit her. When she broke up with him because of this, he constantly texted and tried to talk to her in person, saying he was so, so sorry and wouldn’t she give him another chance? Despite all her friends advising her not to, he managed to convince her to get her back. Too many abusers, usually male, are allowed by our society to get away with this behaviour towards their victims, usually female, and work like Reifman’s article and Thicke’s song encourages and normalises it.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that in these cases, both men have more social power than their exes both because of their gender and other factors such as class and race. Reifman is an entrepreneur and former Microsoft millionaire; Emma, at the time of their relationship, was a student, and after the breakup he admits that “a date took me to a restaurant in which Emma happened to be waitressing”. It seems unfortunate that he didn’t leave the restaurant where the woman who’d made it clear any contact with him upset her deeply was once he realised she was there (he also notes that “She grimaced when she saw me”), especially since, as a lower-paid employee, she wouldn’t have had any choice but to tolerate his presence as a wealthy customer. Likewise, whilst Patton is a successful actress, she’s not the global superstar Thicke is; he is also white whilst she is a woman of colour.

Reifman and Thicke are both clearly in emotional pain, and of course personal pain has fuelled great writing and music for centuries. But hearbreak requires some distancing to process it into art – think, for instance, of how Charlotte Bronte refracted her unrequited love for a Belgian schoolteacher into the strange and wonderful narratives of Jane Eyre and Villette. Reifman and Thicke, in contrast, are not contributing anything to the fields of journalism and music whilst they’re using them to threaten their exes and violate their privacy, and they should step away from them until they’ve had time to heal and can think more clearly.

Finally, it’s worth noting that we’ve had two cases of powerful men using that power to potentially harass ex-partners within a year, but what made this possible was the passive support of a wider audience. People have read and agreed with ‘Shining Light on Cutoff Culture’; multiple people at Star Trak Entertainment must have been involved in making the ‘Get Her Back’ video, which is now being celebrated as harmless entertainment by people who see nothing wrong with man making a music video explicitly about his ex that features images of a dead woman. This is the consequence of living in a sexist, racist and classist society; rich white men are presumed to be the experts on everything , to the extent that their opinion on whether a woman was right to leave them is taken more seriously than the woman’s herself. And therefore their potentially harmful public statements are never questioned.

We need as a society to recognise this behaviour for what it is, and stop saying it’s OK. Luckily, attitudes towards cases like this are beginning to change – look at the direction VH1’s #AskRobinThicke hashtag was taken on Twitter, as it turned into an excuse for multiple people to criticise Thicke’s behaviour. If we challenge and question behaviour like this from cultural figures, we can change the cultural presumption that harassing an ex is normal and romantic, and help put an end to the abuse it stands for.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Feminism, Music, Personal, Social Justice

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