The Top 10 Phony Outrages of 2013

It’s that time of year when every pop culture publication puts out their Top 10 best movies/albums/songs/books/chinchillas of the year lists.

Scanning the music lists, I’ve noticed that some of the most common songs getting praised just so happen to also be the most controversial. Now, every year, countless happenings stir up unrest or anger in some contingent of the population, and pretty much invariably, the outrage is stupendously out of proportion to the actual offense. That’s human nature. Nothing makes us feel more alive than being offended.

This year, though, there has been an abundance of offense that seems, well, phoney. Nothing generates page hits quite like being at the forefront of an outrage parade, but even with the best of intentions, many of the most controversial, offense-spurring news items of the year have been inauthentic. Some of these controversies genuinely touch on topics that we as a culture should be discussing, but they do it in a way that ignores the real issue in favor of headline generating scandal.

So I thought, “Why not jump on the Top 10 bandwagon?” (Hey, I want page views, too).

Thus, without further ado:

The Top 10 Phony Outrages of 2013

10. Justin Timberlake’s “Take Back the Night

I’ve not been shy in proclaiming my fanhood for JT, so I’ll admit that maybe I’m a little biased here, but I truly suspect this is a case of an organization piggybacking on a huge cultural phenomenon to gain attention. Unlike most of the offended parties in this list, the anti-rape, pro-women group Take Back The Night is doing good work and I support them. But I still don’t believe the lawsuit the group filed against the entertainer was anything more than a baldfaced stab for publicity.

JT’s song clearly isn’t downplaying rape or glorifying anything but a memorable night out (even at his most lecherous, JT has always been pretty vanilla in the sex department), and how could anyone think it would hurt public awareness of the group by having its name repeated frequently in a massive pop song? Was someone in the Timberlake camp consciously courting controversy? Conceivably, but that only makes TBTN‘s reaction complicit in a mutually beneficial “controversy.”

Justin Timberlake "Take Back the Night" (Screengrab)

9. Orson Scott Card’s (author of Ender’s Game) anti-gay sentiments

I don’t think I have to assert my LGBT-ally bona fides. I’ve been an adamant supporter and long-time fighter for gay rights and have written countless pieces on same-sex marriage, so when I call this outrage over Orson Scott Card phony, you can trust that I don’t do so lightly. I read Ender’s Game and many of the sequels years ago, and loved many of them. Eventually, his books dropped plot in exchange for philosophical musings that started to sound very Christian. I lost interest. No surprise, then, that years later I learned Card is a Mormon who thinks gays are icky and shouldn’t marry.

Look, I’m all for shining a light on people’s bigotry or despicable political views, but when someone asks me to boycott someone because of it, I start to get that gross, ‘I’m in a religion’ feeling again. I’ll make my own damn decisions, thank you very much. There’s something hypocritical about using group coercion to try to change a person’s behavior, especially when group coercion is what you’re trying to eliminate. I didn’t see the Ender’s movie, and I probably never will, but let me be clear: I stopped reading Card because I didn’t like his art, not because of his political stances (how many of these boycotters will still watch a Roman Polanski film?).

8. Everything that mentioned ‘The Millenials’

Every few years (if not months) another article is published discussing how terrible the current young generation is, and then a plethora of response pieces are written, with the outraged rhetoric eventually turning up to 11. This year, Time published an article called “Millenials: The Me Me Me Generation” that managed to cram two impressively hyperbolic reductionist ideas in one sub-headline: This young generation is both the laziest, most narcissitic in history and they will save us all! Oh, thank heavens!

Still, as irritating as these kinds of articles are (publishers could save a lot of ink and time by just republishing, “Kids these days,” in 150-point bold font across 2 pages), the responses they generate are even more annoying. Now, I don’t think all the passionate responses are disingenuous, but I do know the publishers who agree to run these articles and their counterpoints are intentionally stirring the pot over an issue which simply isn’t an issue. Everyone’s generation was at one time considered the worst/best generation ever. And the world keeps spinning. If we ignore these stupid ‘think’-pieces, maybe they’ll go away.

Though I won’t hold my breath.


7. Phil Robertson’s (of Duck Dynasty) anti-gay sentiments

I could pretty much just repeat what I wrote about Orson Scott Card above, except that Phil Robertson has never created or been a part of anything as artistically valid as Ender’s Game. He’s a reality television star, which is a rung above necrophiliacs in terms of cultural value. Anyone getting upset over what this moron said is wasting too much energy. Even more so if you’re offended by his statements about gay marriage but didn’t bother to read his truly reprehensible thoughts on blacks in the south before Civil Rights and his belief that all non-Christian cultures are depraved.

Getting upset about what some publicity-sucking backwoods idiot thinks about gays is like bemoaning the moon’s orbit. For 2014, let our resolution be to ignore these ignorant relics the same way we ignore the KKK and Neo-Nazis.

6. The Reaction to the reaction to Phil Robertson’s anti-gay sentiments

As pointless as it is to get upset about Robertson’s hateful comments (and make no mistake, they are bred of hate), the fans and bandwagon jumpers who threatened to boycott A&E in order to support his right to free speech are even dumber. I summed it up here. It isn’t a matter of free speech or the 1st Amendment, just a simple case of a company distancing themselves from controversial statements. Money will always trump beliefs. Always.

Know how I know this whole thing is a steaming pile of phony outrage: Not a single one of these people stood up for Martin Bashir. A principled stance is a whole lot less impressive when you selectively practice those principles.

5. The War on Christmas

This is a perennial winner in the phony outrage competition. Christmas is the only holiday on the calendar that lasts over a month. Christmas is the only holiday that gets 24-hours of television programming completely devoted to it. Christmas is the only holiday that requires the same 50 annoying songs blaring out of every speaker in every store in America for weeks. Christmas is the only holiday that cannot be avoided.

Claiming there is a War on Christmas because people say “Happy Holidays” is like saying a pigeon taking a dump on your truck constitutes a War on Chevrolet. Hey Christians: You aren’t being persecuted. Move on.

Bill O'Reilly and the War on Christmas

4. Miley Cyrus

What exactly is so mindblowingly racy about Miley that all of America turned into aghast Victorian women at the very sight of her tongue? Have we forgotten all about the three-way kiss between Britney, Christina and Madonna a decade ago? Speaking of Madonna, in the 1980s she had a sexual tryst with a black saint in a video in which she stood in front of burning crosses, but Miley Cyrus gyrating on stage with an older man is the end of the world (I grant that Madonna was making a larger point with her imagery, but still: simmer down).

Miley Cyrus has embraced the bizarre, she was a former teen star that has now sexualized her image, and her music falls in the range from crap to catchy top-40 pop. All of that’s pretty boilerplate. None of it warrants the overzealous and ridiculous amount of hand-wringing she has garnered this year. It’s all intentionally manipulative, and anyone getting their panties in a bunch over it (or pretending to) is just playing into it.

Miley Cyrus VMAs

3. Barack Obama’s “Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me”

Heated debate erupted due to the Trayvon Martin murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and much of it had actual substance (but by no means, all of it). Racial profiling, Stand Your Ground laws, the media’s sensationalization or misrepresentation of the facts, these were all worthy points of discussion and even outrage to some degree. So, naturally, what became one of the biggest controversies in the whole affair was President Obama’s benign statement that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

Obama couldn’t have let the trial’s outcome go without any comment at all without igniting even more outrage (though, among a different group). In context, his sentiment clearly wasn’t an indictment of the court’s decision or Zimmerman, but rather it served as part of a larger point about the black experience in America and why this particular case resonated so deeply with the African American community. Of course, leaving things in context doesn’t allow for easy soundbites that can stir up phony outrage, so this one sentence out of his 20-minute remarks was plastered in headlines across the country and suddenly Obama is calling for race riots. Shake my head, indeed.

2. Lorde’s “Royals

This one is so aggravating that it rankles me to link to the original blog that made up the controversy, but I’m going to. Here. Blech. In short, a talented 16-year-old girl wrote an insanely catch pop song about rejecting consumerism, and because she referenced indicators of affluence that are normally associated with rap, she is clearly racist. At least, that’s the asinine point that the blog writer at Feministing (really?) makes. The author completely ignores that as a girl from New Zealand, Lorde’s cultural landmarks are different than ours in the U.S. (the author of this piece actually wonders why the song isn’t “critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East”; simply stunning).

Most bothersome isn’t that the author claims this song is racist (it isn’t), but that I honestly don’t think she was even trying that hard to convince anyone of her claim. It’s lazy analysis and seems to exist solely to bait people into commenting and sharing the page. Well, it worked, so gold star for Ms. Flores (based on her bashing of a girl from New Zealand, I assume she’s a Kiwi hater).


1. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines

This is the Grand Poobah of phony controversies and it will be nearly impossible for me to succinctly lay out all my thoughts on it, but I’ll try. Let me state upfront that I’m not denying that ‘rape culture’ exists and, yes, the portrayal of women in popular culture is all too frequently overtly sexual, often completely rejecting women’s value outside of their physical attributes. I applaud all the female and male artists/thinkers who are addressing this shortcoming in our culture.

However, elevating a catchy, sex-positive song to the level of Rape Normalizer doesn’t further the cause. Taking one line of the song out of context (“I know you want it”) and thus inferring – nay, proclaiming that this song is clearly about wanting to rape someone (or encouraging or excusing it) is preposterous. As someone who has considered himself a feminist for a long time (though I don’t want to have to be), I’m a little worried that 2013 is the year feminism jumped the shark (at least in America). There are so many worthy issues and huge barriers that still need to be addressed, yet so much energy and blogspace was wasted debating Miley Cyrus’ antics and whether or not Robin Thicke was pro-rape.

What really ruffled feathers was the mostly-nude women in the original video for the song (I’ve linked to the clean version above), but this baffles me. Nudity has always been a part of art, as has sex. It’s sexist for naked women to dance around fully clothed men, I’m told, but isn’t autonomy all about women choosing what they do with their bodies? Unquestionably, the exploitation and abuse of women for male gratification (and the male gaze) is a very real and very terrifying aspect of our reality, but there has to be room for free expression of sexuality (that’s a major tenet of feminism last I checked). Anyone who asserts that Thicke is sexist or misogynistic because of this video but also watches porn is a hypocrite.

Emily Ratajkowski and the other stars of the video aren’t sex slaves or third-world prostitutes, they’re models who make a living with their bodies. I absolutely understand that these issues are very complex and that it’s reductionist to say, “A woman chose to do it so it’s okay,” but it’s exactly that complexity that makes this particular controversy around “Blurred Lines” so infuriating. The issues at hand are real, but pinning them all to one top-40 song only oversimplifies them, creating straw man targets for misplaced fury. I’m sure good conversations have been had because of this controversy (and I hope they continue), but that doesn’t make the outrage any less phony. Because, ultimately, while those who initially raised concerns about this song were well-meaning, I think even they know that at best they’re addressing a symptom, not the disease.

It might make us feel strong and righteous to pick a fight we can win, but what does it really accomplish?

Here’s to hoping that in 2014 we get better at choosing our battles.

Robin Thicke Blurred Lines