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WITHOUT CONSENT

Kanye West’s “Famous” video is basically revenge porn—and should qualify as sexual harassment

TIDAL
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Kanye West is the unsympathetic narrator of his own life. I admire him for it. In an era overrun by pop stars groomed, polished, and focused-grouped within an inch of their lives, West is resolutely and publicly flawed. He’ll call a sitting US president a racist or jump onstage during an awards show to interrupt America’s sweetheart. These provocations are a big part of his appeal. On a good day, he can seem like the bruised, beating heart of the whole world.

On a bad day, you get the video for “Famous.”

The “Famous” video, which premiered on June 25 and is running exclusively on the streaming service TIDAL for one week, should qualify as sexual harassment. I don’t relish pointing that out. But the punitive sexism of the “Famous” video is inexcusable. It plays as the work of a man who wanted to objectify and violate the women in his life who had made him angry. And it is inextricable from the larger cultural phenomenon in which men seek to gain power by stripping away women’s control over their own bodies and images.

The video, an homage to the artist Vincent Desiderio’s painting “Sleep,” depicts 12 celebrities, naked, asleep, and strewn across a bed. West has remained coy about which—if any—of the celebrities in the bed are real. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, is there, as is his mother-in-law Caitlyn Jenner. Rihanna, who guest-performs on the song, is in the bed. So are George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Also asleep in the bed are the likenesses of Anna Wintour, Taylor Swift, and West’s ex-girlfriend Amber Rose.

It’s unclear whether West asked the celebrities depicted in the video for their permission. But the question of consent defines the experience of watching it.

It’s unclear whether West asked any of the celebrities depicted in the video for their permission. But the question of consent defines the experience of watching it.

The viewer may presume some level of consent from Kardashian, who has appeared in her husband’s videos before. She, along with Wintour—whose approval the fashion-obsessed West presumably wants to court—is given one of the more modest poses here, turned face-down and only slightly exposed.

Given the existence of family and working relationships, the viewer might also extend the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Jenner or Rihanna. (West’s choice to pose Rihanna next to her abusive ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, however, puts that theory into question.)

But most culture-savvy viewers would assume that Taylor Swift and Amber Rose, each of whom West has battled publicly, did not give their consent to appear in the video. Swift has been outspoken about her problems with West. Her friend Lena Dunham has already spoken out about how much it “hurt” to watch a video that plays into rape culture by depicting “unconscious, waxy bodies of famous women, twisted like they’ve been drugged and chucked aside at a rager.”

We live in a culture where forcible exposure is a common—and destructive—means of punishing women.

Amber Rose, meanwhile, broke up with West six years ago, and he has been lashing out at her ever since. Even in the unlikely event that West did wrangle permission from Rose and Swift in real life, any viewer aware of his history with both women will likely interpret their inclusion in the video as malicious.

It’s true that there are naked men in the bed, including West himself. But his choice to expose women’s bodies is a very different thing, because we live in a culture where forcible exposure is a common—and destructive—means of punishing women.

Consider the video in the context of “revenge porn”–the practice of jilted ex-boyfriends posting sex tapes or naked photos of their girlfriends online in an attempt to shame and humiliate them. The inclusion of Amber Rose reads as a textbook case of this phenomenon. She doesn’t want me; well, here’s what she looks like naked. It’s the same thing abusive men do to the women in their lives every day. But in this case, the video executed its revenge for the benefit of a global audience of fans at the offender’s command.

There are myriad other ways in which men in our culture consistently use sexualized images of women without their permission. Entire Reddit forums have been created to post “up skirts”—pictures of women’s crotches, taken without those women’s consent. One spectacular creep created a robot simulacrum of Scarlett Johansson that “responds to verbal commands”—because, hey, why bother just having a crush on a woman when you can own her? And celebrities ranging from Jennifer Lawrence to Kate Upton have had men steal and publicly share naked photos that were meant to be private.

Swift’s persona is famously controlled and famously desexualized.

Indeed, the specter of leaked nudes looms over the video portrait of Swift. In real life, Swift’s persona is famously controlled and famously desexualized. She has specifically told reporters that she never sends sexts, so that no one will be able to steal those images. When a woman has spent the past eight years of her life holding true to the goal of never letting strangers see her naked, showing her naked body to strangers appears incredibly cruel–calculated precisely to humiliate and disempower.

Women live in a world where their bodies and sexualities are consistently used against them, wielded as weapons with the goal of keeping them in line. A dirty joke at work, a “nice tits” comment on the street, and of course the act of sexual assault are all designed to deprive women of their autonomy and self-respect. Reproducing images of naked women without their consent, in particular, has a long and disturbing history. No matter how confident or successful a woman becomes, revenge porn and leaked nudes aim to remind women that a part of them can be sullied and possessed.

Kanye West is a brilliant man. I love his music. I respect his role as a performance artist and provocateur. But this video isn’t edgy or subversive. Instead, it reiterates ancient and mainstream attitudes about a man’s right to control and manipulate women’s bodies.

If past history is any indication, the controversy over the “Famous” video will be forgotten. But the cavalier ways in which men hurt women isn’t something we should forget any time soon.

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