Bad Girls Do It Well: MMW Responds to M.I.A.’s Latest Video

The new “Bad Girls” music video by M.I.A. has been circulating over the past week or so.  For those who haven’t seen it, it’s posted below, and here’s one description from a  LA Times blog post:

Set to M.I.A.’s Punjabi-laced chill-banger, “Bad Girls” is a lady gangsta fantasy but one that plays off very real ingredients from life in the Middle East. There’s crumbled architecture, sustained over years of attack; smouldering oil tankards; young men in kaffiyeh, standing around dangerously bored; mysterious women covered from head to toe, with only their kohl-lined eyes flashing out…

“Bad Girls” is M.I.A.’s Middle East — and in her own way, she makes it everyone’s Middle East. She’s deadpanning about having sex in cars while vamping in front of those tankard fires. Women are gyrating with AK-47s, while swathed in cheetah patterns, polka dots and gold. And like Ice Cube would (or any young dude feeling futile and angry), there are old family sedans to grab and turn into drifting, racing stunt rides, whether on Crenshaw, Eight Mile or a bullet-scarred road running parallel with an oil pipe line.

So much to talk about! Here’s our collective attempt to make sense of it.

Anneke: Did anyone see the new clip of M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls”?

Azra: Thanks for sharing this! I like M.I.A.’s beats and crazy style, but am not sure what to make of this yet (if I’m able to make any sense of it at all) – the clothes, people, pipes, cars, lyrics. I wonder why she set it in the Middle East?

Sara: The harem revisited.

With more spandex….

While I love M.I.A., anytime she does ANYTHING with Muslim women – i.e. hijab, niqab or any other imagery, I always feel like she’s just trying to position herself as the eggzotic carazyyyyyy without doing anything about it. People see it as disrupting stereotypes but she wasn’t a part of the stereotype in the first place. What does she have to do with Muslim ladies?

Sana: The video seriously pissed me off. Arab Muslim women aren’t video decor. Especially for songs that are ultimately fluff.

Azra: I don’t know ladies…I liked it. Vapid lyrics? Absolutely. But I didn’t see the women as video decor. Everyone’s having fun in the desert–women+men+kids+cars. And for once, here is a music video that isn’t a skin show. I watched it with my dad. He liked the Alfa Romeo: “I always thought it was a nice car, even though people didn’t like it.”

Eggzotic crazy is kinda harsh, Sara. I doubt MIA’s path to celebrity was easy as a woman of color, with her political commentary in her music, and her crazy sense of style. As for people seeing her as disrupting stereotypes, I think she’s always been subversive in how she presents herself musically/politically. Remember the video (and production value) of one of her first singles, Galang?

Also reread Joe’s comments on MIA’s niqab, from MMW.

What does everyone else think?

Nicole: I’m torn. On the one hand, M.I.A. has always done crazy shit, and I just feel like she is this crazy artist doing her random stuff. Like when she wore the niqab, I don’t think it meant anything other than her doing her Lady Gaga schtick.  On the other hand, I’m really tired of the Arab-Muslim women as Sideshow Bob thing, people have been doing this Orientalist crap since Napoleon. At the same time, it offends me less coming from M.I.A because she is cray cray anyway, but if it was Taylor Swift or something trying to go out on the exotic tip, kind of like when she put on glasses and called herself a nerd, it would bother me more.

Diana: Just going off what Nicole said, I feel torn as well.

Although, the question of where we draw the line is looming. Sure, I understand the sentiment that maybe it is less annoying when coming from her, but why?

Is it because she is “crazy crazy,” or brown, or “eggzotic” herself?

This shouldn’t fly if these are the reasons. I mean, remember Zehra Fazal’s “headscarf and the angry bitch“? Just because she herself is a brown Muslim woman and a quirky comedian, it doesn’t make her appropriation of hijab okay.

And doesn’t the fact that she is “crazy” or all over the place send the message to her audience that in appropriating “Middle-Eastern” culture they need not be cognizant of the significance of these cultural forms. Sure, maybe we are paying attention, but is her general audience bypassing the significance of the images, taking it merely as a lady-gaga-type stunt.  And if so, isn’t that worse?

So, wait…I guess I don’t like it.  But, I like the beat  :-)

Azra: Indeed, Diana: Where do we draw the line between cultural appropriation and showing solidarity with others? For artists and ordinary people?

These cultural questions of identity and appropriation, or solidarity and appreciation, are tricky. As far as I know, she hasn’t offered any of her own perspectives or try to speak on behalf of others (the way some of our own Muslim commentators have).

I’m concerned with what the general audience may take away from it as well, but I feel her general audience is a bit more culturally astute to begin with, for appreciating her artistry as a member of the diaspora and someone who has experienced political struggle.

Would this have been offensive (to those who feel offended) if she had been Muslim?

Diana: Perhaps her “followers” are more culturally astute, but the listeners are now mainstream. I just heard it on the radio the other day being enjoyed as just another hip-hop song. People who hear it on the radio probably haven’t even see the video.

I think the questions are also, would this be offensive (to those who are offended) if she were Arab? Or if she were North African (it was filmed in Morocco)? Or if she were Khaleeji (because of the burning oil tanks and typical Saudi red checkered keffiyehs worn by the men in the video)?

That’s another problem unto its own. If it’s cultural appropriation, what’s being recreated here is a conglomerate of cultures that is undefinable, or perhaps worse, definable by reduction–and that’s the trouble.

And then it raises the question, aren’t Arab, North African, Khaleeji, or Muslim non-essentialist entities in of themselves, making any kind of strategic essentalism of them a sort of political statement/message/strategy that should, at best, be reserved for actual members?

I mean, we grapple with this all the time as Muslim women, questioning whether feminism is an essentialist or non-essentialist term.  At the same time, as Muslim women and as those who identify fully or partially as feminists, we need to have a meaningful existence to observers.

So while, as you mentioned, she hasn’t tried to speak (I am assuming you mean literally speak) on behalf of others, I am not sure that her theatrical or artistic display, when inserted into prevailing discourses, will be received as not trying to speak on behalf of others.

As an artist, is she responsible for the images/messages she is not choosing to convey? Is she choosing?

Anneke: Ladies, ladies,

Dear M.I.A. has, according to the Daily Mail (the most trusted news source), an important message that lies behind the good beat and fast cars and men dressed up as Gulf Arabs: In the video for track Bad Girls she takes aim at Saudi Arabia’s laws against women driving.

Which makes her now a legit activist and feminist. And that middle finger at the Super Bowl, that was for the male Saudi law makers, as they are Super Bowl fanatics, obviously.

How simple it all is. And how subtle the message…. (darn…. really?)

Nobel Peace Prize for M.I.A.!

More on M.I.A.’s political statement/video here.

Krista: Okay, and speaking of the Super Bowl, WHAT is up with her costume???

Fatemeh: This song is bad-ass and I’m going to be listening to it non-stop for the next week.

BUT YEAH. It’s cool that M.I.A. is showcasing a prominent and prevalent Khaleej pastime (this is all over YouTube in Arabic), but is obviously exploiting it while using dancers in niqabs and the “locals” as props. Plus, I think the shots of burning detritus and huge-ass pipes just shore up the idea that the desert is nothing but and these places have nothing better going for them. I’d react more favorably to see this set in a Dubai roadway with lit-up palm trees and the Burj in the background.

And this couldn’t have LESS to do with women driving. PLEASE. All drivers are male, all spectators are male, and M.I.A. and her niqabi dancers were shipped in. They’re just part of the show.

Nicole: This.  I cosign. Badass.

Another thing that bothers me about the vid now that i have seen it is the amalgamation.  Let’s ask the stupid question:  it a Khaleeji thing or a Moroccan thing?  And taking that to its logical conclusion, I saw a comment by someone saying, “well it is ok if it is ‘honoring the culture’ in a tasteful way”… and I am like yeah, but which culture and how is this tasteful?

And while I think M.I.A. does a good job at raising awareness about refugees, it is a fine line that she crosses daily between raising awareness and “refugee chic.”

Lara: I would massively dispute M.I.A’s fans being more “culturally astute;” her hipster fans are the same sorts who ponce around wearing Native American headdresses.

This is not the first or even the third time she’s appropriated niqab imagery (anyone remember her truly henious hoodie?) There are never any actual niqab-wearing women in her work, no indications that she’s actually listening to or incorporating the voices of Muslim women, let alone niqab-wearing Muslim women. She gets faaaar to much of a pass for her various politically illiterate posturings and it’s about time she was firmly called out on it.

Azra: I can see why M.I.A.’s imagery and cultural reduction is problematic and racist, as is her crossing the line between raising awareness and being “refugee chic.” As someone who’s admired her music/voice/style, it’s been disappointing.

Fatemeh: INTERESTING DEVELOPMENT. Willow sent this story to me.  Apparently, major themes in the video have been straight-up lifted from a video Sophia Al Maria’s without any attribution or prior agreement. Uncool.

Azra: That’s quite the spin and something I hadn’t even considered–what role did the director play in all this? While I don’t think we can let M.I.A. off the hook entirely here, clearly the director’s lifted off someone else’s work and brings his own baggage to the set.

I had no idea that the thriving girl drifter/street racer culture was popular in the Gulf before all this…

And Thanu Yakupitiyage nails the “problematic depictions of the Arab world” in a Hyphen post.

“But in “Bad Girls”’ depictions of the Arab world, I see a false, hyped-up misrepresentation of the region we now know for the Arab Spring. I’m bothered by M.I.A.’s reproduction of Orientalist tropes — “Orientalist” in Edward Said’s sense, of a distorted lens through which Arabs are viewed and “experienced” by the West.

That’s as far as we got in trying to parse this thing.  Readers, what are your thoughts?

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  • Kadijah Farria Aleema Islam

    Interesting post on the Bad Girls video. When I first saw the video, I thought it was visionary. I mean, compared to the other hip hop videos that show women with barely any clothes on and men blinged out drinking alcohol, this is a step up. But I have to think this is not MIA’s first brush with Islamic culture and rubbing Muslimahs the wrong way. She did stir some controversy last year when she wore full burqa and niqab to an awards show. Many muslimahs took offense because they felt as if she was “mocking” islam, for the purpose of burqa and niqab was to protect and honor modesty. I do agree with Sara on the fact that MIA does sometimes use Islamic imagery as a prop to promote her own view and agenda.

  • Lulu

    Speaking of vapid… I cant wrap my mind around this debate on MIA’s video. Really, ladies?!

    • Krista

      @ Lulu: Care to elaborate?

  • jaminazi

    Great conversation!

    I loved the video for its style, its art direction etc. I take NO offense at their representation. Girls are not ‘all up’ on the men. they are covered in a way signals not only the ‘niqab’ but a broader symbol of anonymity – which in my opinion – is one of the more radical political claims that can be taken these days (eg anonymous). the ultimate bad girls.

    I didn’t not hear of sophia al maria until I saw this video. Her video, the road, is an antidote to the bad girls video. I hope she get’s more exposure because of this. Of course, while there are stylistic ‘lifts’ i’m not mad at the director because that’s the nature of art and cinema. It’s not an academic paper where all ideas and forms must be cited.

    Lastly, there’s another narrative that is hidden. Let’s not forget the abuse that domestic workers from india, sri lanka, and the philippines face on a daily basis the gulf – from men and women! she turns that narrative onto its head – and creates the impossible scenario of a tamil woman leading the pack.

    • Moh

      you are getting confused between Islam and those particular Arab men who are racist to the Indian and Philippine workers. And the women not “all up” on the men and “anonymity” is not the purpose of the niqab. If you want to know the purpose of the niqab, go ask a muslim woman.

      • jaminazi

        I am a muslim woman.

        Of course raping or abusing domestic workers is unIslamic. Who says that the men in the Gulf who do this are practicing true Islam? Non-arab workers are not even allowed into shopping malls. How ‘Islamic’ is that?

  • shin

    I’m japanese and it is pretty common to see western/american culture people and clothes in japanese films, tv and music video. also i guess it is common for most of you to see japanese or asian things in everyday life in your country and i am sure that most of people don’t find it provocative or offensive if it is done with respect. m.i.a just used arabian culture as a theme for her video as justin lin used japanese culture for his film tokyo drift or as sofia coppola used french culture for her film marie antoinette. i don’t think there is any difference between niqab and kimono or jeans and culotte.. i think m.i.a. is cool because she sees different cultures equally and uses them in her own way to create music!

  • David Scott

    Middle eastern music is a class act! I love MIA and I love listening to darbuka and other middle eastern instruments. I think this new group is going to be a hit cause it is hypnotizing.


    I’m not too familiar with MIA’s music (I’ve only watched and the Paper Planes video) but I have seen her past usage of the niqab/burka. I do think that she appropriates these aspects of Muslim women both for simple shock value (like Lady Gaga) and because she wants to be considered a political artist (like Rage Against The Machine). Unlike most artists she has made provocatively political statements earlier on (regarding terrorism for example) so I think her “fascination” with Islamic symbols has a certain political bent to it. If an artist like Lady Gaga were to don the burka, I would consider it as simply being for shock value, since Gaga doesn’t make public statements on international politics. As for this video, I can understand how it seemed to jumble up different MENA cultures, which should have been better researched upon. Other than that I didn’t think there was anything too provocative about the video since it didn’t involve any sex and violence.

  • Moh

    I think MIA is a respectable internationally known singer and entertainer and i will not stand in her way unless she insults myself, my family or my faith. She shows muslim women wearing hijabs dancing, shaking their behind, and muslim men wearing the khandora jumping to the music. Now, there is a difference between muslim and arab, if she showed Moroccan women or Egyptian women in their cultural outfit i would be ok with it, but it clearly shows something muslim women wear and it hurts me alot.

    To Christians, how would you feel, if the men were replaced by priests and the women with nuns, that is the same situation i am in at the moment.

  • Tahira B.

    Whew, there’s so much to analyze in this video so I’ll skip the location/cultural references and jump to her use of women in the video. The women dancers aren’t scantily clad or meaningless and they seem to serve a purpose–some sort of feministic purpose. The juxtaposition of traditional Islamic clothing and bedazzeledry seems to suggest the place of Muslim women in current society: being reserved, yet desirable. You know, “the pearl” analogy or what my instructor calls “the virginal vixen”. It’s a dichotomy that’s rarely explored and M.I.A does quite a good job at presenting these two conflicting identities. I mean, at least she recognizes it, however exaggerated her attempt may be.

  • Michelle

    Disclosure: I’m not a muslim, but I am a little bit of a film geek. What I see is taking elements of some well known american movies (Rebel Without a Cause, Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill; The Vanishing Point, and more recently Grindhouse & The Fast and The Furious) to explore an element of saudi youth culture to people who otherwise wouldn’t know about it.

    It’s the idea of bored, frustrated, adolescents getting reckless kicks and thumbing their noses at “the man”; it’s the idea of young women who feel stifled & powerless seizing the freedoms that their male counterparts take for granted to “go wild” and take risks. It’s a universal theme.

    This video, IMHO, humanizes and makes familiar the people who american & european media depict as scary, dangerous & alien. I could have done without the AK-47s, true. But to me it’s a good thing if the video causes even one person to reevaluate the idea that muslim women are trembling, vulnerable submissives who have no personal agency to choose the niquab & hijab; or that young muslim have no interests outside of scheming to destroy western civilization.