Racism, Feminism, Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen & Lorde: We need to talk about this. Properly.

22 Dec

Edit (27.4.2015): Yoh, this post is problematic. I now feel quite differently about a lot of the things I said nearly a year and a half ago, and I want to take this post down because a lot of the sentiments I expressed give off the embarrassing musk of white privilege, but I won’t, because I want to own my mistakes, be transparent about where my beliefs came from, and remember that I’m not perfect.

~

On October 3rd, Feministing blogger Verónica Bayetti Flores published an article calling sixteen-year-old chart-topper-out-of-nowhere Lorde “deeply racist” for her lyrics in “Royals”: a blunt critique of the discrepancy in pop music* between the rags artists boast and the riches they reap off them.

A month or so later, Lily Allen’s satirical, feminist manifesto “Hard Out Here” was similarly gunned down by numerous bloggers alleging racism and even, ironically, antifeminism.

And, of course, there was the brouhaha in August surrounding the racial and sexual messages within Miley Cyrus’ VMAs performance and her “We Can’t Stop” video.


Whilst all of the above allegations can be supported with very strong arguments (except perhaps Bayetti Flores’) and I am a great promoter of critical thinking about popular media, I feel that the way such criticism has manifested is incongruously destructive. Not only do many of these critiques contain their own sinister racial undertones, but they are often rather childishly defeatist: as though the artist in question must be branded a racist and denied any further support: as though any offensive messages the artist has put across have been engineered by them personally – not on a societal level and not with contributions from negligent managers or editors along the way – and, furthermore, as though the blogger criticizing them has never played host to any hair-tearing problematic statement of their own – however, luckily for them, less publicized.

Bayetti Flores’ argument against Lorde flaunts what is quite plainly a simple-minded  and poor understanding of racism: the view that any criticism of a predominantly black culture is fundamentally racist in and of itself. In fact, I feel this stance is reminiscent of what anthropologists call the noble savage mentality: the imperative to idealize black culture, and in so doing, denying this culture the humanity of being taken seriously enough to be critiqued.

Whilst accusations made against Lily Allen are more sound, I find it facetious at best to watch a video which is quite blatantly an acidic rage against popular culture’s continued objectification of women, complete with satirically exaggerated representations of (an ethnographic mix of) twerking backup dancers – who face a particular degree of abuse under this system – and place it under the banner of “anti-black feminism”. I was further angered when the same blogger accused Allen of contributing to her backup dancers’ subordination by not wearing a bikini due to her insecurities about her body. It is tragically ironic when one feminist accuses another of supporting patriarchy for having fallen victim to it.

The way Miley Cyrus used her black backup dancers as props at the VMAs in August was not okay, but the numerous online rants about her appropriation of (predominantly) black culture don’t sit well with me either. The Huffington Post’s Anne Theriault lamented that Cyrus “can imagine that she is being “ghetto” without having any concept of what living in a ghetto would really mean”, because she’s white. By extension, Theriault implies that a black artist would know what it’s like to live in a ghetto – a tacit display of racial profiling if ever there was one.

I feel that a vast majority of the articles critiquing the artists I have mentioned sport the very kind of shallow-thinking, dualistic mentality we have come to despise about racism and misogyny.

I am not in any way trying to wave aside the damaging representations of race and gender we are constantly engulfed in. I am trying, in a roundabout way, to say that what we need to do with media like this is to engage in constant, considerate conversation about it; thinking critically about the messages that are coming across whilst pondering what in the artist’s life has contributed to this expression, and what the intent behind their outputs may be.

Lily Allen has not abstained from wearing a bikini in an effort to place herself on some sort of high ground above her backup dancers, but because of the insecurities she faces about her body, as she herself is a victim of the cruel patriarchy she is attacking, and perhaps her lack of consideration of her backup dancers’ race had more to do with feeling that sexism affects all women than it did to do with ignorance.

And nobody seems to read Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” music video as a celebration of the winning of her sexual and creative expression from the iron grip of the Disney corporation – an event to be celebrated indeed.

The internet, I suppose, is a blessing and a curse. It provides a shiny new platform for the media analysis we so desperately need, yet acts as a state-of-the-art playground for a generation of activists all too eager to start a game of I’m-a-better-feminist-than-you and armed with giant foam fingers printed “RACIST” and “MISOGYNIST”, which they are itching to point at the first respected individual they see. Over the course of the extensive educations they are so self-righteous about, it seems they have yet to come across an explanation of the perilous gap between author text and reader text, and so they continue to persecute those who do not interpret the world using their personal collection of semiotic codes; lynching them for failing to share their viewpoint, as though this in itself were not profoundly prejudiced.

*when I say “pop music”, I’m referring to the music that grosses most in the industry, rather than to a specific genre.

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