By Jake Pitre
The great feminist and race culture writer bell hooks has written often about how the issues of feminism and racism are inextricably linked. In other words, how could someone push for the cause of feminism and stand as a representation of that movement without also engaging with the issue of ethnicity and racism? This intersectional perspective has defined her career and has acted as a powerful strategy to critically consider both cultural issues.
“The struggle to end sexist oppression that focuses on destroying the cultural basis for such domination strengthens other liberation struggles,” she wrote in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. “Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression.”
Our current roster of pop stars apparently need to brush up on their racial studies. One would be hard pressed to find a star that has not been involved with some form of accusations of racism – Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, Avril Lavigne, Kesha, Lorde, Lily Allen, Sky Ferreira, and so on (Beyonce is absent, but has her own problematic dealings with feminism). Many of these women are feminists, some loudly so, but seem to be blind when it comes to race.
There are a few aspects of this worth critically exploring. First, and most simply, how does it keep happening – especially with repeat offenders? For example, Katy Perry was heavily criticized online for her Japanese geisha performance of “Unconditionally” in November at the American Music Awards. You would think that this would make her, or at the very least her team, aware of future potential offenses and stop them before they occur. Perry’s music video for “Dark Horse” hit in February and sparked outrage from Muslims because Perry plays a Cleopatra-like Egyptian who zaps an Allah-encrusted necklace. Then in her latest video, for “Birthday”, she dresses up as a variety of characters, including a very stereotypical Jewish bar mitzvah entertainer named Yosef Shulem. How has she not learned to stop dressing up in such a way?
But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps these stars (and probably more importantly, their teams) are believing too fully in that old adage: “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. This is a cynical theory – these stars keep going back to this well (Stefani’s harajuku phase, Avril’s kawaii-dubstep trainwreck, Miley and Sky’s blacks-as-ornaments, Gaga’s burqa takedown, etc.) because it gets them publicity every time, they receive little punishment beyond internet outrage and thinkpieces, and their cultural domination continues. They revel and engage in racist acts and cultural appropriation in order to heighten their publicity and their image suffers little, comparably.
I think that the fact that it is almost always women is not a coincidence. In what bell hooks would call our white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, men typically do not have to engage in controversial acts (particularly racially controversial) in order to raise their publicity or exoticize their images. Put a man like Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke in a nice suit surrounded by nameless attractive women and call it a day. For female pop stars, the cultural situation and the constant, nagging worry about remaining in the spotlight creates a vacuum that men in the industry do not usually experience, at least to the same degree.
Relatedly, that bit about exoticizing their image. Whether the intention is to make them appear dangerous or to simply exoticize through appropriation (Selena’s Indian-indebted “Come & Get It”, Avril & Gwen, etc.), these attempts to tie in these stars’ images with other cultures and ethnicities is a fetishizing of the exotic, something that show business has always done. The difference is that we should really know better by now. We shouldn’t have to force our female pop stars to resort to this in order to capture our attention. These things become spectacles, the same as the Duck Dynasty guy or Donald Sterling. It squanders their actual talent (and most of these performers are truly talented people), and leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you still like their music or their personalities. We are complicit, and we shouldn’t be, but these performers should not be so complicit either. It’s a sad situation when the best I can do is defend Gaga’s burqa takedown as some sort of well-intentioned attempt to fight for female freedom. Too bad she, along with the others, have forgotten to fight against racism and racial oppression, too.