It’s a scene from any Guy Ritchie film. Gritty, sour, filthy and remote. The sounds are turned up to exacerbate the violence: heels slamming against the tile floor, the sound of hard leather smacking against flesh, roars of effort on the part of Brooke Candy and the moans of agony from the man she’s beating the living shit out of. All fifteen pounds of the singer eventually manages to throw her offender to the ground, breaking his neck between a pair of stiletto heels. And then, while using dialogue about two notches about a ‘90s porn, she begins to fleece him, tearing money out of his pockets, counting it, and then stuffing it into his mouth. It is not the most violent thing I have ever seen—not even coming close to anything out of the original Oldboy—but the reaction it elicits is decidedly stomach turning. Though I’ll watch this video nearly 20 times to figure out how I feel about it, I’ll skip the first minute, unable to even listen to it play out from the other side of the room.
The rest of the video is grotesque in its own right, and done, of course, on purpose. The creators, famed fashion photographer Steven Klein serving as director and Nicola Formichetti responsible for the fashion direction, take the very idea of the song’s title and blow it out until there is no surface left uncovered with glitter and crystals, no movement unbrutalized. It’s too violent, too aimlessly sexualized, too, I don’t know, fucking obnoxious. The whole thing is like sticking your face in a bucket of refined sugar, eyes and mouth and everything pore open and forced to take it in with no hope for relief.
Putting aside my own personal discomfort, I see what they were going for. All music videos, even when they’re not trying to be, are opulent. They are hyped-up versions of reality, better lit and more expensive. “Opulence” is all about opulence taken to the extreme, so that it becomes unwatchably vulgar, something that will give you nightmares. See? Get too rich and too evil and this is what happens! Music videos as a delivery system for morals. Maybe.
But what I keep circling around to is that first scene, the violence of it, and why it brings up a reaction more intense than were it executed by, say, two men. This is the type of scene I should have been desensitized to over the last two decades watching movies. I’ve seen men practically rip each other in two, slicing appendages off with dull knives, spraying one another with bullets and then finishing them off with a ceremonious scalping. So what is it about watching a girl be so aggressive that turns me off? Why are men allowed to kick the shit out of each other and I can call it good old fashioned blood sport, but when a woman does it I run out of the room with my face in my hands?
The knee-jerk desire to keep women comparatively precious is a dangerous one, and one to be examined. It’s the type of thing that starts (excruciatingly sexist) debates over whether give a young girl a pink toy gun and teaching her about war games could be “sending the wrong message” — a message fully embraced as the territory for little boys — “and not promoting empowerment, but violence” — a violence boys are encouraged to emulate. Keeping girls out of the rough and tumble world is akin to creating ineffectual concubines, the type of girls who need men to kill their mice, smash spiders with paper towels. Women should be just as capable of unspeakable things. Give her a gun and make her horrible, if only in the name of fairness.
But still, I’m struggling with Brooke Candy.
For my own sake, I do a running checklist of “strong female leads” in my head, badass chicks that have taken and delivered their fair share of beatings—in literature, in cinema, in real life. Recalling the history books about Bonnie and Clyde I used to pour over as a kid—obsessed with all that blood in black and white, wanting nothing more in the world than to meet a boy to tour the country with so we could rob banks and kill people—I established that the discrimination was just for this video in particular, which isn’t really challenging gender norms as much as it is challenging my will to live.