Shake Your Booty

The MTV VMAs are tonight. (Actually, for all I know, the online streaming red carpet/pre-show thing is probably happening even as I type.)

I won’t be watching them live (True Blood finale!), but in some perverse attempt to pretend I’m still in touch with current entertainment trends, I will be DVRing it to watch in bits and pieces over the next few nights.

From one perspective, I’m not quite sure why I even continue this yearly VMA ritual. As I age further and further out of the MTV/culturally  relevant demographic, there’s more people I don’t recognize at all, more songs and bits I fast forward through, and more jokes and references that I just don’t get (and some, as I sometimes say, that I may get, but I don’t want — if you catch my drift).

But I keep watching, I guess for those moments when I do find a new artist or song to appreciate, and also because I’m naturally interested in seeing cultural trends unfold “live” before me on the TV screen. Assuming a high likelihood of at least one water cooler moment emerging from the brouhaha, I like being able to form my own opinion of that moment from having seen it and reflected upon it — rather than just basing my opinion on someone else’s condemnation.

Though it’s worth admitting that sometimes my view of that “water cooler” moment is based both on my own personal viewing and also on input from other cultural commentary. For example, during last year’s Mileygate, I was able to come up with plenty of opinions about the sexual politics of the performance, but it took a lunchtime conversation with some fresh-out-of-college co-workers to raise my awareness about the troubling elements of cultural appropriation that were embedded in the performance.

I’d never heard of twerking before, you see. And after that conversation, I did some research. Hadley Freeman in The Guardian helped me more clearly see the minstrel show undertone of the production:

a young wealthy woman from the south doing a garish imitation of black music and reducing black dancers to background fodder and black women to exaggerated sex objects.

Meanwhile, Anne Theriault (writing in HuffPo Canada, but who I also follow avidly on her own blog, The Belle Jar) expressed her outrage at white feminists silence over things I should have seen when watching the performance — the crass objectification of women of color in the stage show’s choreography and in Cyrus’ performance.

Even worse, in her performance last night Miley used black women as props — like,literal props — and barely anyone said anything. I saw very few people displaying any outrage over the fact that Miley was, at one point, slapping a faceless black woman on the ass as if she was nothing more than a thing for Miley to dominate and humiliate. I saw barely anyone discussing the fact that Miley’s sexual empowerment, or whatever you want to call it, should not come at the cost of degrading black women.

All in all, it’s a small object lesson in the value I hold in seeing something with my own eyes before condemning or opining upon it, but also in the ways I need to keep listening and learning. I mean, seriously, looking back one year later at my level of blindness around the racist undertones (overtones, through-tones) there… I mean, it’s like, Hello, white privilege! There you are again!

gotham_twerk_by_arzeno-d6l2vl1And why am I rehashing all this one year later? Because we now have two twerking videos freshly released, sitting at the flashpoint of controversy, and with both performers scheduled to sing at tonight’s awards show.

In one corner, Taylor Swift, whose new video Shake It Off is earning critique for its own cultural appropriation of hip-hop culture and the sexualization/objectification of twerking and women of color — most especially the moment where, to quote Hillary Crosley in Jezebel, “she celebrates her true self by crawling through a bridge of brown and black women’s butts.”

In the other, there’s Nicki Minaj, whose Anaconda video is a hyper-sexualized invocation (celebration?) of tweaking and black women’s booties.

So how does one rate which is most troubling? Does Swift get a pass because her video is tamer in its sexual content, or because she now asserts that she’s coming at her work and life from a feminist perspective? Or is Minaj’s video the less offensive one because Minaj is speaking from within her own culture and cultural experience, and because the video, as Lindsay Zoladz suggests in Vulture, is not about pandering to the male gaze:

One thing I find striking about the video is the complete lack of men in its surreal, bubblegum-Amazon world (except, of course, for Drake, who I’ll get to in a minute). The song itself describes — and, arguably, objectifies — a series of male characters, but we don’t see them in the video. Instead, it’s just Nicki and her dancers, going about their day — you know, just making some fruit salad, doing some cardio — in this hallucinatory all-female universe. At one point she eyes the camera seductively like she’s about to eat a banana, but instead chops it in half and chucks the peel away away with a diabolical smirk. . . . The staying power of “Anaconda” might not outlast its viral moment, but while it’s trending let’s at least acknowledge its slyly confrontational power.

I’m far from the only one making this triangle of comparison between Cyrus, Swift and Minaj. It all comes up in this Washington Post point-counterpoint that’s ostensibly focused just on the Taylor Swift single/video.Instead, the conversation weaves among all three singers and their twerking, as well as name-checking a bunch of other current artists whose cultural appropriation is, shall we say, a bit suspect.

But rather than playing the competition game — choosing to raise one singer in my estimation at the cost of the other — and rather than giving either woman a pass for the troubling elements of their discourse, I’m instead going to use this moment to bring in something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: how to both enjoy and critique artistic and cultural expression.

Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups. (Social Justice League)

And then, on the flip side of my own flip side is my desire not to blame either woman too harshly for the problematic pieces of their discourse. Because we all live in this kyriarchic, misogynist miasma. It infects our lives, our thought patterns — how could it not infect our artistic and creative expressions, too?

So ultimately — at least in these last pre-show minutes — I’m with Michelle Lhooq in The Guardian, seeing these various performances as more a symptom of our diseased culture than a root cause:

Slapping a parental advisory warning on Nicki Minaj’s bum will not change the way black women are exoticised. Banning videos by Robin Thicke, DJ Snake, and Calvin Harris, who use female bodies as trophies hard won of their overpowering masculinity, will not deflect the male gaze. Calling out Miley Cyrus’ career-advancing performance of racial drag, or Lily Allen’s casual racism is important, but what we really need is a broader spectrum of depictions of female sexuality – especially when it comes to women of colour – in mainstream culture. . . . Because the real problem is not that women of colour are over-sexualised in music videos, but rather how absent they usually are in the dominant culture as well as in discussions of cultural issues. Music videos shouldn’t be the only ways that mainstream society gets a glimpse of “otherness” but all too often, they are.

We’ll see if I’ve changed my mind after watching the DVR recording from tonight. Because if one or the other performance turns out to spectacularly offensive, culturally tone-deaf, or otherwise problematic, well then that’s new data. And new data sometimes changes the equation.


Image credit: “Gotham Twerk” by Arzeno, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from )

On Modulations and Tone

(Quick hit: another proposal due tomorrow, and also much in the way of packing/preparing for the house-sitter. Still, since these grounds will be semi-fallow for a stretch of time, I am compelled to put something up, even if it’s more quotes from others’ writing than words of my own.)

tone_police_sheriffAs I’ve been expressing my outrage over various current issues during the last several weeks, I’ve been aware of a delicate push-pull within my system around the issue of tone: how to speak strongly without “going overboard.” In short, being just a little tiny bit invested in tone policing myself.

Obviously, that investment has only been a few pences’ worth — I know what bullshit tone policing is:

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issue at hand. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

And, therefore, I don’t do a whole lot of policing myself. But I do a little.

For example, I know I’ve said the phrase “morally repugnant” a few times in the last week as I’ve been responding to SCOTUS’ shenanigans. Plenty strong of a description, I suppose. But a step or two shy of the word I hear in my head to label these decisions and the misogynist world-view they embody: evil. (Yeah, I went there.)

I’ve been lucky thus far not to have anyone outside of myself pull the tone policing card on my writing. If that had occurred, I’d probably have responded with an explanation of the ways that anger is justifiable, appropriate, and even inevitable in situations that reveal the many injustices of the kyriarchy. To quote Do or Die:

Living in a world that reminds you daily of your lesser worth as a human being can make a person very tired and emotional. When someone says something oppressive . . . it feels like being slapped in the face, to the person on the receiving end. The automatic response is emotion and pain. It’s quite exhausting and difficult to restrain the resulting anger. And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression. Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences. 

[. . .] Now, I’m not saying it’s okay to be abusive, or oppressive in response to a person who fucks up. But anger is valid. Anger is valid, anger is important, anger brings social change, anger makes people listen, anger is threatening, and anger is passion. Anger is NOT counterproductive; being “nice” is counterproductive. Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.

And this is all true to my understanding of the world and of human psychology, and of activism and social justice work.

But a day or two ago, I happened across something that puts even another lens on the occasional necessity of outrage and outraged speech.

If you speak about injustice and privileged people get offended, people will condescendingly explain to you that things are easier to hear if you are nice, and that you are more likely to convince people if you speak to them respectfully.

This is true, and often important to keep in mind – but people who say that to you in a conversation about injustice are usually missing the point.

They’re ignoring something fundamentally important about addressing injustice: Sometimes, the goal is not to convince privileged people to treat others better. Sometimes, the goal is to convince marginalized people that the way they are being treated is unjust and that it’s possible to resist.

Now, I’ll admit to the smallest bit of discomfort about the phraseology around “convincing marginalized people . . . that it’s possible to resist.” Something about it rings a bit too close to “white savior” territory for my liking.

Nonetheless, there’s a piece of this that’s really opening my perspective. What are the ways my writing is for the public (it is in a public forum after all), and what are the ways I am the primary beneficiary of my words? How does my writing help me overcome the habits of self-silencing?  Are there times I’m hoping to change minds and hearts, and other times where I have no expectation to “convert” disbelievers but simply need to sound a rallying cry for myself, my friends, my allies? Or sometimes a paradoxical mixture of both those strands?

What my purpose for writing isn’t an either/or but instead is a plurality, a yes/and?


Image credit:

Exposing the Vein of Hatred

(Trigger warning: rape, murder, talking about violent images though not using them.)

see no evil-PM-800x413One of the things so powerful to me about the #YesAllWomen conversation that has been taking place in the weeks since the Isla Vista killings, is the ways that there seems to be a wider acknowledgement growing about the layers and levels of misogyny that are operating in US culture, as well as around the world.

The international nature of the problem has been very much on my mind since I saw the shocking image of two Dalit girls, aged 14 and 16, hanging from nooses, after having been (allegedly) gang-raped and (definitively) murdered.

You won’t be seeing that image here, nor will I be knowingly linking to any articles that use it. Manasi Gopalakrishnan reports:

The girls’ family alleged that the two teenagers were raped and tortured before finally being hanged from a mango tree in a nearby orchard. Incensed by alleged police inaction, the families refused to take down the bodies from the tree for several hours. Finally the local police registered a case of rape only after several members of the girls’ community protested in front of the police station. [Emphasis added.]

In that sense, the parents’ initial gesture reminds me very much of Mamie Till’s choice to have an open-casket funeral for her son, Emmet, and her subsequent decision to allow funereal photos of her son to be published in Jet magazine. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” Mrs. Till is reported to have said. And yet in this day and age when images can travel the globe so quickly, I am not at all clear as to whether these parents in Uttar Pradesh would want their daughters’ postmortem image propagated in so widespread a fashion, and so I will not be aiding in that process. (Quite frankly, I even wonder if Mamie Till might have made a different choice in the Internet age. Or maybe her courage would have found identical expression. I simply don’t know.)

As with Eliot Rodger’s actions and their intersections with US issues such as (definitely) gun control and (allegedly) mental illness, there are multiple factors at stake in this horrifying crime. The caste system. Lack of toilets in poverty-affected regions. There’s even a new report that a state official investigating the case has stated one of the two murder victims may not have been raped.

(I don’t know enough yet to suss out if I think this last one is the first step of a government cover-up — at least two of the arrested suspects are policemen — or the first step at bringing careful investigative work to uncover the truth what the official has suggested might have been an honor killing or one motivated by a property dispute.)

Even with those other factors, it is undeniable that misogyny is a huge part of the cultural foundation for these crimes to occur. Mallika Dutt reports in Time that “In the context of past rapes, Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of Uttar Pradesh’s governing party, the Samajwadi Party, has said, ‘Boys will be boys. They make mistakes.’” A different Indian State Minister, Babulal Gaur, has recently said “Sometimes [rape] is right, sometimes it is wrong.”

All of which is to remind us that “#YesAllWoman isn’t just an American thing.”

As we continue to examine the negative effects of misogyny and cultures that impose toxic definitions of masculinity, it’s important not to be blind to privileges of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, classism, or cultural myopia. A lot of feminist discourse I see on the web is very stuck in these blinders, and in the same way that cultural evolution will require men to become aware to the privileges they carry in a misogynist society, it also requires those of us carrying privilege on other nexuses to wake up to that.

As Shannon Barber writes in luna luna,

Hear in your head every mansplaining nice guy or even every well intentioned usually great dude you know starting a statement with these words-
“but not all men…”
Now stop.
Okay White ladies let me explain you a thing. I’m gonna blow your mind.
That anger and frustration giving you bubble guts right now is how I feel when White women won’t listen to me.
Sit with that for a minute. Understand that how you feel when the response to your pain, your words, your experiences in regard to sexism and misogyny is not all men, but I’m a nice guy etc is the same feeling I have when White women run to interrupt, or otherwise stomp over my experiences, pain and words.
It’s an important reminder — and considering that the Facebook page where I first saw this essay then erupted into an argument about the “unnecessary hosility” of the essay saying something as cruel and abusive as “shut up for five minutes” (gasp!) — it’s a reminder we really need to be hearing.