Y’all, it is a bull market out there for appropriating Black culture. Sell, sell, sell, ’cause folks are buying. You got twerkers on hand? Set them around a white lady and open the auction. Miley was just the beginning. It’s a bonanza out there.
For a few months now people have been asking me when I’m gonna blog about Miley Cyrus–her VMAs performance, her recent music videos, her appropriation of ratchet cultural signifiers–it all seemed so in my cultural wheelhouse. There was only one thing standing in my way: I don’t like Miley Cyrus, and I don’t like her music. No special offense, really, to Miley. It’s just, I’m a busy lady, so when I blog about something it’s because, even if I find it problematic, I am attracted to the music or the star enough to spend my free time researching, listening, and writing around them.
But now that Miley’s appropriation of and denigration of black women’s bodies has reached a cultural fever pitch, I’m interested enough to dive in. I’m not going to comment too much on what’s happening: as with my Beyonce Bibliography, I prefer to sit back and watch the discourse unfold. Suffice it to say that this is happening. Against the silenced backdrop of budget cuts that disproportionately affect women of color, a rape epidemic in the armed services, and a drone war that I read kills 3 children for every 1 military target, black women’s bodies and black culture are being publicly and visibly shamed and demeaned in our popular culture. I’m talking about Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, SNL, The Arcade Fire, Lorde, Richard Cohen, Nelly, Marissa Alexander, Rachel Jeantel, and Renisha McBride.
To those who say pop culture doesn’t matter, I vehemently disagree. Pop culture represents the popular, widely consumed discourses that make the real violence possible. Pop culture facilitates and reinforces our devaluing of some bodies over others. With that said, let the discourse unfold:
In July I argued that and bibliographed how the rachetification of Miley Cyrus was unfolding against the media stoning of Rachel Jeantel (so see that post for Rachel links). But of course there’s more. BattyMamzell channels #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen in “Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of Her VMA Performance,” wherein she takes down white media for not noticing that Miley was performing minstrelsy. Of course then Jezebel picked up on that idea.
From Penn State, Moya Bailey challenges Nelly for reviving his insults toward Spelman in the interest of promoting a new album.
Alison Davis at NYMag seems to find nothing wrong with designer Peggy Noland’s depiction of a naked Oprah on a dress, a move Noland herself describes as “exploitative,” commenting, “Surely Oprah personally would not be excited about having our version of her nude body splashed on a dress for other people to wear, but I think it’s an interesting conversation to have.”
BlackinAsia breaks down Lily Allen’s racist new video for “Hard Out Here,” which manages to critique the violence of the media spotlight while recreating that objectification on her black backup dancers. You can also read related takedowns by Blackfeminist, BattyMamzelle and Amber Jones at University of Minnesota’s Women’s Center blog, a more poetic response from PrisonCulture, and responses to Lily Allen’s denial of there being a problem from Colorlines and Entertainment Weekly–which, given the latter’s audience, declaims that ” claims against Allen seem a little dubious.” Ok. But Suzanne Moore at The Guardian gets it right.
In The Progressive, Sarah Moglia asks Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus to “Stop Using Black Women as Accessories”
Even Hayden Higgins of The Atlantic has called out Arcade Fire for exploiting Haitian stereotypes in the media campaign for their new album Reflektor.
See also Crunk Feminist Collective’s “On Black Men Standing Up for Black Women at the Scene of the Crime.”
Of course you’ve gotta watch the SNL cold open with Kerry Washington in which, after hiring 6 new white castmembers, 5 of whom are men, SNL has the gall to write a sketch with a rollover text–and a voiceover in a white male voice–that reads, “The producers at ‘Saturday Night Live’ would like to apologize for Kerry Washington for the amount of black women she will be asked to play tonight….We agree this is not an ideal situation and we look forward to rectifying it in the near future…Unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.” Ummmm…#notfunny?
Despite Kerry Washington’s good nature and big smiles in this skit, we can see and here in the frustration she acts out–which is, of course, part of the joke, as she runs on and off set to costume change between stints as Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Beyonce–the genuine frustration and exhaustion women of color must feel to see this skit, and these cultural politics, played out. Then the joke continues, with six Matthew McConegheys (all the new white guy cast members, plus Bobby Moynihan) and the real Al Sharpton, granting his progressive imprimatur to the proceedings.
Don’t get me started on the global politics of the Miss Universe pageant skit, which traffics on first world ethnocentrism and impressively international stereotypes and is saved only by Aidy Bryant’s turn as Miss Greenland, which is so meaningless it’s funny. Also see “Career Week Speaker.” Also see the classism in the Ice Cream parlor sketch. Popular media framed the episode as SNL responding to the race controversy surroundings its new hires: Rolling Stone called the episode funny and awkward, while Grantland called the episode a temporary fix; Slate said it’s “not enough,” and Entertainment Weekly published a letter from media advocacy group Color of Change. Even Kerry Godet at The Atlantic took SNL to task.
I have been a huge SNL fan my whole life, but this season all I can think is…Lorne Michaels, you have no idea what the fuck is going on.
Sooo…lest you think none of this matters, this has been unfolding against the backdrop of real violence against real women of color, and these types of media images are what allow us as a nation to not care, to think these bodies don’t matter. When Kerry Washington plays a dozen black women in a single show–when none of those characters will appear for the rest of the season–those bodies become interchangeable, not more visible. So let’s review the real real:
Renisha McBride was shot in the head by a homeowner she asked for help after her car broke down in a white neighborhood outside Detroit. It took 13 days of protests for her killer to be charged with murder. See coverage from Rania Khalek, dream hampton, and Democracy Now!
Finally, while the sequester, budget cuts, and SNAP cuts have been treated like a simple political reality that we as a nation will just have to get over, numerous progressive news outlets have pointed out that these cuts disproportinately affect women and people of color. See articles from this fall by the National Women’s Law Center, Colorlines, Feminspire, TheGrio, National Journal (on SNAP), and more from Colorlines and the International Business Times (on the sequester) and The Progressive on Walker’s policies for Wisconsin. As Cognoscenti asked, “What if the sequester happened and no one blinked?” Well, some folks are blinking. We just ain’t looking at them.
In the context of an arguable crisis of white popular feminism, and given I’ve been accused of being a bad ally before, what I’m trying to do here is not just be serious about these issues but more importantly direct you to the black writers, bloggers, and media who are talking about this stuff better than I ever could. If white feminists are going to take up these issues, the most important thing we can do to resist reappropriating as we do so is to continually direct our readers to the feminists of color who were doing this work before we jumped on board.