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Strategic Sexism and ‘Salmonella’: Who Gets What out of the Controversy?

January 13, 2020
A piece of fan art by Alaa Elesely.
A shot from the video of Tameem Youness’ ‘Salmonella’.

A merry beat, humorous themes, and an eye-catching music video may have contributed significantly to the 10 million views Tameem Youness’ song Salmonella reached on YouTube since its release on New Year’s Day. But while its catchy chorus may lead to it gracing upcoming wedding playlists, it is not the only reason for the song’s outstanding notoriety.

Salmonella’s lyrics tell of a man in pursuit of a romantic relationship with a woman, listing the many perks being with him would entail for her. But with a stark shift in tone, it goes on to describe the chaos that would ensue should she dare to reject him.

Voices rose in indignation as well as in defense. Some expressed the view that this song perpetuates a lack of respect for women’s say in relationships with men and a disregard for the sanctity of consent, other responded claiming that the lyrics were clearly satirical.

Youness himself released a video on Facebook in response to the backlash, asserting that the song was meant to ridicule men too fragile to handle rejection. “I was joking and I will continue to joke,” he said in the video.

In spite of his assertion, the backlash persisted, with the National Council for Women (a governmental organisation) releasing a statement condemning the song and describing it as demeaning to women. The statement also asked Google to block access to the song on its platforms.

In a sea of contradicting views, only one thing is certain: we are all talking about it.

Strategic sexism?

This widespread attention begs the question of whether the use of controversial themes such as sexism has the potential of being used — or is in fact already being used — as a marketing strategy in Egyptian popular culture.

In a Facebook post commenting on Salmonella, cartoonist and writer Mohamed Andeel opined that Youness’ professional background in advertising suggests that that he is familiar with the concept “no publicity is bad publicity”. The controversy around the song would give it traction regardless of the negative social impact it may have.

Andeel’s comentary was one among dozens of posts, tweets, and articles about the song. This varied commentary address the ambiguity of the song’s message, its potential impact, and Youness’ own credibility as a public figure and satirist.

The insistence of Youness and those defending him that the song’s intent was decidedly satirical stands in contrast with the magnitude of the outcry against it. Yet the tweets and posts that formed this outcry often included links to the song or motivated audiences to seek it out, ironically widening its reach.

The ambiguity — the unconfirmed possibility of intentional misogyny — undoubtedly contributed to the song’s high level of viewership.

Not unheard of: misogyny in Egyptian pop culture

This is not the first time high profile Egyptian pop music has contained problematic themes, and while some of them may be inconspicuously woven into humour or lyrics that talk of love or heartbreak, others are more overt.

Among the most glaring recent examples of this is Tamer Hosny’s 2013 song Si El Sayed (A phrase which translates roughly to ‘master’) featuring American rapper Snoop Dogg. Hosny and Snoop Dogg sing of the difference between men and women, and how to respect this difference, the woman must meekly defer to the man.

But male artists are not the only purveyors of misogynistic pop songs. In the same year as Si El Sayed, actress and singer Donia Samir Ghanem released a song titled Wahda Tania Khales (A Totally Different Girl). She fondly describes her love interest’s total control over every aspect of her life from determining what she wears to choosing her friends. One may go as far as describing the character presented in the song as a person suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

These songs, as well as many others containing overtly sexist themes, have enjoyed tremendous success and millions upon millions of views. So if sexism does not widen a song’s reach, at least it does not hinder it.

When satire falls on deaf ears

Misogyny often takes the shape of seemingly harmless jokes, and depictions of relationships in popular culture have always played an important role in shaping relationships in reality.

Andeel argues that this song is targeting young men of the lower middle class, who view Youness as an example member of the elite class they strive to belong to. And in the apparent ambiguity of this song’s intent, it can be argued that they may see a role model in the character depicted in the song, missing the sarcasm in the delivery.

British-Egyptian actress Rose Elbay was also among the public figures who spoke out in response to Youness’ song. In her Facebook post, Elbay argues that the mere risk of encouraging or even normalising violence against women should be enough of a reason to steer clear of ambiguity.

On Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms young people have posted fan art, lip-syncing videos, and used the song’s chorus line as a caption to photographs of themselves. But less than two weeks after the song’s release, it is impossible to gauge its impact on young men and their respect for women’s right to consent. Lively debate is often constructive, and Youness’ assertion that the song is a satirical skit may reach many ears. However, given the attention the song has gained due to the controversy around it, the jury is still out on whom the lively debate around this song serves, and at what societal cost.

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