Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" has enjoyed almost universal acclaim, but there's one person who is not a fan: Melinda Tankard Reist. With the help of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and other groups, she started a petition, which began circulating Monday, to stop the release of Kanye's music video for "Monster." (Just another reminder that the music video is back, by the way. What was the last music video anyone bothered to protest?) A preview leaked online last month revealed scenes of what look like female corpses in lingerie. "Men enjoy dead women as sex and entertainment," writes Tankard Reist. "The female body is to be devoured, reduced to the same status as meat. Female bodies should be displayed before men as a great feast for their consumption." Putting aside the question of whether or not the full video is disturbing and misogynistic -- I'd venture yes, on both counts -- it also offers a fascinating Rorschach test of our current sexual culture.
The 40-second clip (embedded below) shows Kanye lying amid blue satin sheets, petting his own face with a woman's pale, lifeless fingers and later placing her hand on the crotch of the other unanimated woman sharing the bed. Although I wasn't able to spot it, the Wall Street Journal reports that there is also "the disturbing image of West holding what appears to be the decapitated head of a woman." Kanye's guest MCs get in on the necrophiliac fun, too: Rick Ross smokes a cigar while reclining in an ornate chair covered in protective plastic; and lingerie-clad women dangle lifelessly from the ceiling, their necks wrapped with industrial chain. In a behind-the-scenes video, we see Ross sitting at a table sipping red wine and feasting on a plate of bright-red raw meat that is placed right between the legs of a lifeless woman in thigh-highs and heels. The backdrop is straight out of "Dexter": There's a large plastic sheet splattered with blood and what looks like a tray of surgical tools. Jay-Z is shown spitting a verse in front of a naked woman lying on her stomach -- body limp, mouth agape and the purple "postmortem stain" setting in.
Subtle this video is not, and neither are the song's lyrics, which include refrains like "I smell a massacre" and "I kill a block I murder avenues / Rape and pillage a village, women and children." Its horror-vamp aesthetic is "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" meets "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Now, it's possible that despite all the over-the-top signaling, the women aren't actually meant to be dead. Maybe they're robots! Or zombies! (In fact, if you pay close attention, one of the women curiously blinks at one point, and it's unclear whether it's a blooper.) But, barring a wacky plot twist in the final edit, it's apparent that sexy dead chicks are the basic premise of this music video. It's rather fitting, considering that the album is called, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," and that this sweet little ditty is titled "Monster." In the song, Kanye keeps telling us over and over that he's a monster, and now in this video we see that he is indeed a "motherf***ing monster." He seems to be screaming, "Look at what I'm capable of!" This is exactly the bizarre -- and, yes, brilliant -- brand of egomaniacal self-demonization on display in his latest album. Not since Jesus has someone made self-flagellation and martyrdom look so good.
This isn't just about the dim caverns of Kanye's sexual subconscious, though. This is a commercial music video with a purpose: shock and titillation. It's just the latest example in a long cultural history of eroticized images of dead women. As I wrote several years back, "America's Next Top Model" staged a murder-themed photo shoot in which judges evaluated the contestants' ability to look beautifully dead. It was appropriate training, considering that dead-looking women are a favorite motif in high-fashion ads. We aren't talking about small-time designers, either: A Jimmy Choo ad featured a dead girl in the trunk of a car in the middle of the desert with Quincy freaking Jones standing nearby, shovel in hand. Images of naked women in danger or pain are also popular. Helmut Newton controversially explored this terrain early on. It's no surprise that Kanye would follow in this tradition given his extreme reverence for the fashion world; I mean, this is a guy who came up with the couplet, "Praises due to the most high, Allah / Praises due to the most fly, Prada." These advertisements, as well as Kanye's video, play with the blurry line between the typical high-fashion editorial pose -- dramatically hunched shoulders, limbs at awkward angles -- and the look of pain, violence and death. (As Tyra Banks actually told contestants on "ANTM," the trick to a good pose is pretending you have "menstrual pain." She said, "Think pain but beauty.")
The little glimpse that we've seen of Kanye's video seems to me yet more evidence of how profoundly detached sexual arousal has become from actual sex. Forget subtle enticements; today it's all about being shocked into a hard-on. We've become profoundly inured to images of naked women -- it takes something more to make it edgy and exciting. That is what we look for from pop culture as well as pornography -- which, let's be honest, is just another part of popular culture. We rely on things being pushed to the next level, to have one taboo exhausted after another. It takes more, more, more to get our hearts racing. It isn't just porn-porn that does this, either -- just consider the recent rise in "torture porn," horror movies along the lines of the gruesome "Saw" franchise. Unsurprisingly enough, for physiological reasons fear is easily confused with sexual excitement; psychologists call that phenomenon "misattribution of arousal."
That's not to mention that sex and death are inextricably linked. Death -- if you want to get biological about it -- wasn't inevitable until there was sex. (If you want to jump down this brainy rabbit hole, read this.) These are the two main motivators in our world; they represent the extremes of life, which is begun through sex and ended through death. As Kanye might say, that's some powerful shit, yo. This video is disturbing because it's designed to be; the whole setup is meant to arouse us with discomfort. It goes straight for the jugular -- both figuratively and literally -- and this is just the preview, folks. Banning the video would be akin to throwing out the results of an ink blot test when they prove to be unpalatable. Instead of censoring it, we should be taking notes. We might learn a little something -- not just about Kanye's "beautiful dark twisted fantasies," but also about our own.
Update: As it turns out, a full version of the video (embedded below, after the preview) is available online, although it could be yanked at any time. It seems the women are zombie-like creatures before they meet their gruesome end. It still stands that these are eroticized images of naked or next-to-naked women. But what's most interesting about the full version of the video is that women aren't the only ones meeting a violent death, which raises some questions about the driving claim of inequitable violence behind the petition.