I keep a shortlist of words that are used only in church: grace, atonement, sanctification, mercy. My conviction is that they won’t make any sense, theologically, to the average Christian until these words find a place in the day-to-day of our secular lives.
Shawn Mendes’ “Mercy” caught my hopeful attention, his soulful repetition of the word becoming almost prayerful. Which would be great, if Mendes was actually having a conversation with God about the girl in question, a la Beyonce on “Sorry“: “I pray to the Lord you reveal what his truth is.” Beyonce (along with Warsan Shire’s poetry) uses the divine, like a close friend, as a dialogue partner to orient her to her next move in her relationship.
Mendes uses distorted-divine language to deify his love and assign her total power over his body, relinquishing his claim to autonomy and responsibility for his own moral compass. We’ve never seen that one before, have we, Hozier?
In about three listens, I moved from hopeful about “Mercy” to skin-crawlingly creeped out. Of course this song comes from the same imagination who sings, “I know I can treat you better than he can/and any girl like you deserves a gentleman.” I think what I deserve is a little less patronizing tone and a little more trust in my own decision-making capacity. The theological importance of mercy comes from its relationship to power. Mercy can only be bestowed by the powerful. Mercy means receiving a moment of breathing room from someone who has the power to crush you entirely. Mercy means benevolence.
“You’ve got a hold on me/Don’t even know your power,” the song begins. Mendes is caught up by a sultry temptress, perhaps even a self-confident feminist, and is completely helpless to control his emotions. In the music video, he literally drowns inside his car, begging the mysterious woman to come open the doors for him. Apparently no one mentioned that the driver’s side door doesn’t have a child safety lock.
“Mercy” is an extension of the senstive-misogyny conversation. The men who are so in touch with their feelings that they call on empowered women to adapt to their needs. Samhita Mukhopadhyay categorizes them as man-boys: “They are ‘nice guys’ who have been wronged by life and women [who lock them in cars and turn on a hose?]. But upon closer examination we see that these don’t give alternative models of masculinity per se. They do not display nicer, more compassionate, or less sexist behavior toward women; all women are cast as moms or babes, obstacles to overcome or objects of sexual desire.”
Sexuality–intimate relationships–is full of power dynamics. That’s not a bad thing, unless you fail to recognize the power dynamics. The problem with Mercy is Mendes’ assertion that this mysterious woman is responsible for his emotional state and in fact, has power over his ability to feel love (not to mention, basic functioning). Only the woman, it seems, can unlock him from his own emotions.
Emotions are scary and big, yes. Emotions are uncontrollable. I remind myself, sometimes eight times a day, that I can’t control how I feel about a situation. But I can control how I feel about my feelings. Only you are responsible for how you feel about your feelings.
Only Shawn Mendes is responsible for how Shawn Mendes feels about this woman. Although he places the power at her feet, it is in reality a power play, as if to say “If you care about me at all, you will love me because if you feel anywhere close to neutral I will die.” The only compassionate response, Mendes implies, is to date him. Mercy means you stoop to my emotionally stunted needs. It’s the emotional blackmail of a half-formed adolescent mind.
Fortunately, we can take solace that Shawn Mendes is a half-formed adolescent mind, a 17-year-old international pop star. Less fortunately, “Mercy” peaked at 21 on the Billboard charts (to date) and this message is diving deep into the psyche of teenage girls.
I’ve dated, once or twice, men who play the mercy card. It’s exhilarating, for about five days, to have your body’s power so deeply affirmed. To know that a smile, a word, even a simple action like taking a bite of ice cream, can change someone else’s behavior. And then it is exhausting, to be constantly blamed for someone else’s arousal and activity. To be held responsible for their behavior. To bear in each of your choices the weight of two consciences because this man loves (or wants?) you so desperately that he is unable to wield any control over his own decisions. That’s not cute. That’s emotionally abusive.
It’s a skill to recognize this distorted power pattern in intimate relationships. And it’s not limited to boys; girls can certainly play this game with their male love interests, and it can play out in same-sex or gender-fluid relationships. But girls are especially vulnerable. They are socialized to be in touch with their own emotions and to put others’ emotional needs before their own. Girls are acutely aware of when they’ve made someone else feel bad. Many adolescent girls get stuck in relationships because they are afraid leaving their boyfriend will make him feel bad.
It will. And it is a difficult lesson to learn that you are not responsible to control or mitigate your partner’s bad feeling, especially if you are not in a covenant commitment to that person, especially if their bad feeling is only relieved when you take on the burned of feeling bad.
Shawn Mendes is a boy who has learned to name his emotions, but hasn’t learned that he is responsible for them. If we teach our boys emotional intelligence, they will learn that asking for mercy is only a shallow way to avoid self-reflection. If we teach our boys, they will learn that they are resilient enough to overcome any crush, no matter how much it feels like drowning. That it is far more important to learn how to sit with your own emotions than to rely on girls to do perform emotional labor for you.
And that is a lesson that will benefit boys and girls alike.