I woke up this morning to a screaming toddler who did not want to put clothes on. Instead, she ran naked — face beet-red with fury and tears — incoherently ranting between body-heaving sobs. Finally, we caught her and put her in the shower, letting cool (not cold) water run over her body and gently calm her down. (This actually works, by the way.) Sometimes a kid’s motor just overheats. Time to reboot.
Later, when my (fully clothed) toddler was happily off to dayschool, I sat down and checked twitter. Then I immediately wished I could put a whole lotta folks on twitter in a cool shower to calm them down. It was actually hard for me to figure out what everyone was so upset about at first. All I could see was British singer Lily Allen’s name continuing to pop up and tweets like this:
It really is a script. White woman does something. Black women express opinion. Wagons circle telling us we’re hurting feminism. #eyeroll
— Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) November 13, 2013
The new Lily Allen video makes no sense to me. Is it parody? It doesn’t work. Don’t get it. All Aboard the #Nope Express!
— Martha Plimpton (@MarthaPlimpton) November 13, 2013
Meanwhile, I’m on West Coast time and have absolutely no idea what everybody is so upset about. Then I find Lily Allen’s new video for “Hard Out Here.” I’m going to warn you right now, this is NSFW and definitely … problematic … at the very least (but we’ll get to that):
Then I hop over to Facebook and my feed is positively schizophrenic:
So I’m reading and watching and — yowza — watch out for those comments! The tweets and posts and vlog rants, like this one from Black Girl Dangerous, are popping up everywhere and in every which (philosophical) direction.
Now in the afternoon (and after I’ve had some coffee), I am still not sure if I’ve digested the entirety of this meltdown. But here goes …
First of all, there is no question in my mind that Allen’s video reeks of white privilege, sexism, race appropriation, and, well, actual racism. I want to take Allen at her word that the song is supposed to be a parody and critique of shenanigans like Allen Thicke’s Blurred Lines video/song, Miley Cyrus-style antics, and aspects of rap culture in general but not only is the execution well off the mark, it actually becomes another example of that which it was meant to parody. You can’t tell me that there are not better ways to express your dismay at how women of color are objectified in videos than to do the exact same tropes. Are groin close-ups, ass-shots of twerking dancers, and pouring champagne on women’s bodies really the best way to comment on exactly that same imagery in non-satirical videos? You’re either not smart enough to see that there needs to be another layer to your spoof — for instance, all the women are fully clothed or perhaps the backup dancers are men or the dancers take back their power somehow — or you knew exactly what you were doing (ala Madonna, Gwen Stefani, et al) and thought you could get away with something by defending only your own privilege and not dismantling it. Either way: Wrong.
But I digress. Because, honestly, there are a lot of other folks, like #BlackinAsia, who has a still-by-still take-down, who have nailed it:
The video is meant to be a critique and satire of popular culture and manages some deserved jabs at Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” videos among others, but in the end it just reduces itself down to elevating Lily Allen’s white female body and objectifying and utterly denigrating those of the black female dancers she deliberately surrounds herself with from start to finish.
Just go read his post and look at the images. There’s little room for doubt after that. I’ll wait.
I also recommend BattyMamzelle’s critique, especially this:
I get that this is Lily’s attempt at satire, and I get that she’s trying to call out all the fervor over twerking in the last few months, and I get that this is supposed to be one big joke. But to me, it feels as though black women are the joke in this video. If she wanted to call out the use of WoC as props in music videos and in the larger pop culture, the way to do that was not to also use black women as props.
To me, this is the equivalent of putting an television character in blackface in order to “show that blackface is bad.” It’s great that that’s the message you want to send, but you don’t combat the racist act by participating in it. First of all, talk about mixed messages. And secondly, how can you presume to call out someone on their racist behaviour while engaging in the same behaviour? Satire must be done well in order to be of any consequence. It’s not okay to simply do something shitty and label it satire. That’s the equivalent of doing something offensive and them absolving yourself from responsibility by calling it “a joke.” It is possible to call out oppression without participating in that same oppression.
Yep. That’s about the size of it. Or as Audre Lorde told us back in the 1970s, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Perhaps the schism between the feminist folks who are loving it (see: Rock the Slut Vote, above) and those who are calling it out is just another one of those teachable moments. What I worry about is that things like this tend to divide us (like toddlers screaming incoherently), rather than bring together folks in thoughtful, yet passionate, discussion. Even Allen’s ineffectual apology is only serving to pile on the pain. Stop! You’re making it worse!
I’m not exactly sure how you can defend Allen’s video here. But what if we look at another example that is, perhaps, less obvious (to some)? While reading about Allen’s debacle, I stumbled upon a host of posts about Lorde’s hit song “Royals” and it’s racist implications. Really? Hmm… Take it away, Verónica Bayetti Flores of Feministing:
While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism. I don’t have to explain why wealth operates differently among folks who’ve grown up struggling because this shit has been explained already: If you grew up with holes in your zapatos you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.
She has an unassailable point here. But I couldn’t help thinking about how Lorde (né Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor) is actually a 16-year-old girl from New Zealand. Can we actually expect someone who is so young and removed from American society to know this stuff (yet)? And then I read Bayetti Flores’ follow-up piece:
As stated in my piece earlier, I reserve most of my scorn for the record companies and the U.S. media. I don’t expect a teen from New Zealand to have an understanding of U.S. race history and relations. That said, I don’t think that she’s free of responsibility: artists must consider the ways in which the art that they create will be received, the effect their art will have on the world. Furthermore, if she is seeking to critique hip hop in its entirety – a complex culture outside of her own, and one with a long history – it is her responsibility as an artist to know its history and background. I know nothing about her intent, nor her personal views on race, but the song and the narratives created by the U.S. media in response fit into a well-worn critique of hip hop consumerism. This familiar critique ignores the reality that the distribution of wealth (here and worldwide) is heavily tilted towards white people, and people of color are disproportionately hurt by the growing income gap. The fact is her intent matters little in the face of what is actually happening: the reinforcement of longstanding racist narratives that blame people of color for problems of which we are not the major perpetrators – and of which, often, we are actually victims.
Damn it! This is why we can’t have nice things!
Sometimes I just want to turn on the radio and here a great beat and jam out and NOT find out that a song I like is racist or sexist or homophobic or hating on homeless people or whatever other fresh hell keeps popping up on the dial. <deep breath>
Clearly, we’ve got a long way to go before we actually see a feminist anthem — or even a fun pop song — that can skewer and critique problems in our society without creating more of them. But I don’t think it’s impossible. And we can all hope that teachable moments like the firestorm around Lily Allen’s latest are causing light bulbs to go off in people’s heads all over. Ah, so that’s what white privilege means!
Baby steps, people. Baby steps. And also this:
@AngryBlackLady “Stop punching yourself, Feminism! Stop punching yourself, Feminism!”
— Robin Marty (@robinmarty) November 13, 2013
In the meantime, I look forward to the scores of parody videos of Allen’s “Hard Out Here.” Your move, internet.