MIA’s “Bad Girls” video: how empowering are stereotypes?

In the two weeks since it was released, M.I.A.‘s video for Bad Girls has garnered over 10 million views on YouTube and a ton of attention. The outlandish video created a frenzy that was only encouraged when she flipped the bird to 110 million viewers during the halftime show at the Super Bowl.

The video shows M.I.A. in a desert location, surrounded by women in leopard bodysuits covering their faces with only the eyes showing. Men in white dashadeesh (a long cotton shapeless garment worn in hot desert locations) stand on water pipes by the side of the road and watch two BMWs doing high-speed stunts known as “Arab Drifting”.  At some point. M.I.A. files her nails whilst leaning out the window of a car driving on its two side tires.

She apparently did some of the stunts herself. According to directlyrics.com, M.I.A. was afraid she’d have to “deliver the video with no legs.”

The video was shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, a popular location where films like Prince of Persia, Body of Lies, and Babel were shot.

According to The Complex Media and Design Blog, the video is “is one part stunts, one part sex, and two parts political commentary on the equal rights Arab women are currently fighting for — particularly the right to drive. M.I.A.‘s video fits perfectly within the Arab Spring for women as the movement is gaining momentum.”

As an Arab woman myself, I can’t say I found any images of strong women fighting for liberation and equal rights in the video.

It’s hard to see empowerment in seemingly pointless stunts and women promoting phallic symbols of power by as waving big guns.

Personally, I watched the video six times. The first time just to see it. The second time to see it with the lyrics. The third time to see if I could see what I was supposed to see. The fourth time to see if I was reading too much into it. The fifth time to see if others were reading too much into it.

By the sixth time, I’d decided that it was a predictable video that presented men and women in their globally predictable roles.

I know that women are treated as second rate citizens around the world, and Arab countries are no exception, but I still can’t help but wonder why an “empowering video” would insist on showing Arab women as nothing more than a pair of eyes?

We are not all Muslim and only a few of my Muslim friends cover themselves. Those who do have headscarves only, none of them have only their eyes showing. And Arab men dress in all different ways, they are not always in dashadeesh. So why do we only see Arabs in these images?

I can understand why mainstream media continues to present Arabs this way, but it is surprising to see M.I.A. doing it.

In collaboration with Vice magazine’s new Noisey music channel on Youtube, M.I.A. responded to a few of the 30,000 plus YouTube comments about the video. The only time the short conversation touches on any of these political themes is when a commenter asks “Why did you choose Morocco?”

M.I.A. replies, “Because…I didn’t want to go to jail,” perhaps alluding to religious prohibitions against women driving in Saudi Arabia – where the kind of drifting featured in the video originated – that would make shooting such a video illegal.

Arab women have been fighting for equality and empowerment for many years, as long as women in the United States and the rest of the world have been. And the struggle continues (Check out Killing Us Softly and read Scheherazade Goes West by Moroccan writer Fatima Marnissi for more).

If M.I.A. does fancy herself a progressive artist, she should use her videos to present women in the empowering positions we want to see them in, rather than the ones everyone already assumes they occupy.

8 Comments

  1. Niiiiiiiiice article. I tend to love her and everything that she does pretty blindly at this point. Mostly because I like that she is making commentary at all (whatever it may be) and I appreciate that and I don’t feel like a lot of musicians that have experienced her popularity care to talk about anything important at all. I had already fallen in love with the Bad Girls song before seeing the video and didn’t really put any of this context on it nor did I know what she was going for. Which is unusual for me since the last time she experienced controversy over a video it was for the incredibly violent video that goes with her song Born Free in which people with red hair are hunted down, removed from their homes, and then violently murdered by seemingly government empowered militant types. And I remember hearing that it was banned from YouTube, and then seeing it on her site, the same day that people were marching in Seattle in protest of the Arizona Immigration Laws that violate civil rights. And the connection between the video and the real life events were really effective for me. Looking at Bad Girls in this light it would certainly seem like she has missed the mark with this one but I do still appreciate the search for conversation (or maybe awareness?) coming from her. I am not sure if I would hope to see “women presented in empowering situations that we wish to see them in”, but at least the message might have been a little clearer. If she is so bold as to challenge authority I agree that this was a missed opportunity. I do like her a lot though. And I hope that you might think about giving her another chance in the future. :)

  2. Niiiiiiiiice article. I tend to love her and everything that she does pretty blindly at this point. Mostly because I like that she is making commentary at all (whatever it may be) and I appreciate that and I don’t feel like a lot of musicians that have experienced her popularity care to talk about anything important at all. I had already fallen in love with the Bad Girls song before seeing the video and didn’t really put any of this context on it nor did I know what she was going for. Which is unusual for me since the last time she experienced controversy over a video it was for the incredibly violent video that goes with her song Born Free in which people with red hair are hunted down, removed from their homes, and then violently murdered by seemingly government empowered militant types. And I remember hearing that it was banned from YouTube, and then seeing it on her site, the same day that people were marching in Seattle in protest of the Arizona Immigration Laws that violate civil rights. And the connection between the video and the real life events were really effective for me. Looking at Bad Girls in this light it would certainly seem like she has missed the mark with this one but I do still appreciate the search for conversation (or maybe awareness?) coming from her. I am not sure if I would hope to see “women presented in empowering situations that we wish to see them in”, but at least the message might have been a little clearer. If she is so bold as to challenge authority I agree that this was a missed opportunity. I do like her a lot though. And I hope that you might think about giving her another chance in the future. :)

  3. ? I just replayed the video because I clearly remember seeing women showing their faces and not just their eyes, and within 5 seconds I seen at least 4 full faces. I disagree that this video is putting women or men into a particular role, as according to her response about “not going to jail” this is meant to be a commentary on women’s rights (particularly the ban on women driving) and this video shows Muslim women driving. Showing people within the realm of their culture is not something I would consider stereotyping; it’s like saying showing a Western woman wearing a dress is stereotyping. I understand the point you’re trying to make, that not all people dress in the traditional way, but many do and I think it adds a better setting for the message of the video.

  4. ? I just replayed the video because I clearly remember seeing women showing their faces and not just their eyes, and within 5 seconds I seen at least 4 full faces. I disagree that this video is putting women or men into a particular role, as according to her response about “not going to jail” this is meant to be a commentary on women’s rights (particularly the ban on women driving) and this video shows Muslim women driving. Showing people within the realm of their culture is not something I would consider stereotyping; it’s like saying showing a Western woman wearing a dress is stereotyping. I understand the point you’re trying to make, that not all people dress in the traditional way, but many do and I think it adds a better setting for the message of the video.

  5. Actually, I just had a few afterthoughts about this article, that these women are put anywhere but in generic stereotypes by performing “seemingly pointless stunts”. In Saudi Arabia where women are banned from driving, women are considered soft pillars of the family and are extremely protected (overprotected may be a better term). Showing women driving, doing car stunts, holding guns; these are completely outside the standard stereotypes. Showing them “waving phallic symbols” is empowering in the sense it portrays them outside of their standard roles and shows them in a realm equal to men in its own cultural way.

  6. Actually, I just had a few afterthoughts about this article, that these women are put anywhere but in generic stereotypes by performing “seemingly pointless stunts”. In Saudi Arabia where women are banned from driving, women are considered soft pillars of the family and are extremely protected (overprotected may be a better term). Showing women driving, doing car stunts, holding guns; these are completely outside the standard stereotypes. Showing them “waving phallic symbols” is empowering in the sense it portrays them outside of their standard roles and shows them in a realm equal to men in its own cultural way.

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  8. A journalist should see as much, and feel as much, if not more than I did. I’m conflicted with this bands lyric as the beats and chorus beats are exhilarating for a female for sure, but… At the same time defies the true women’s liberation/equality and the world-wide hope of diversity, stereotype dissolve, and unity between sexes, cultures and other driven groups.
    I still love and buy into the bad girl liberations their sound, videos, and lyrics promote within my one side but hate that I let it as… All I want to do is bang, bang, bang (gun shots/killing) and cha-ching (money from a register) is promoting criminal activity and saying I’m just like my thug/ghetto/criminal/terrorist male counter parts for gain… this Bad girl video draws me in even more. It causes me more identity struggle as it now represents same as above but including a country under siege and scrutiny. It’s not just a Muslim defacing. Many in the Middle East are Jewish or Christian as well but with a conservative cultural background as they may be less effected by our Western culture (bling bling). Really look at us, we are a mess.
    In this video they take the girl power movement further than any American rapper did by taking another countries culture and thugging it out. They look like their trying to prove their women’s power in a stereotypical circle of war, gain from war, like a war lord or organized crime syndicate. they look like Middle Eastern gorillas or terrorist group… Killing men women and children for gain and ego!….
    But yet I love it and hate it!
    I’m just as afflicted and effected by my culture and generation. That’s my excuse. I wouldn’t sell as a art if I was going to be bad I would be that bad not act it in a song and video.
    Okay this is old article and out of circulation so Ill stop. It was good practice

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